A Sushi Master’s Lament—and the One Fish You Should Always Avoid

Jiro Ono says his craft may be changed irrevocably by declining seafood stocks.

Sushi chef Jiro Ono. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/Getty Images)

Nov 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When a famous chef speaks out to warn the dining public about the dire straits of the world’s fisheries, that’s hardly news. “Sustainable seafood” probably ranks just behind “wild-caught” as the descriptor of choice on the menu of your average haute eatery these days. But when that chef is the most renowned sushi master on the planet, people listen.

“I can’t imagine at all that sushi in the future will be made of the same materials we use today,” Jiro Ono said in an appearance this week. “I told my young men three years ago, sushi materials will totally change in five years. And now, such a trend is becoming a reality little by little.”

The 89-year-old chef isn’t just a guy speed-wrapping raw salmon in seaweed at some corner joint and slapping down a dollop of Kermit-green faux wasabi on the side. The subject of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Ono, owner of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, is more like a sushi god. Those fortunate enough (with an emphasis on the “fortune”) to land a spot in the 10-seat restaurant are only too eager to plunk down the equivalent of $265 for 20 pieces of sushi bliss. When President Obama ate there last April, he reportedly said it was the best sushi he’d ever had.

There’s a poignant sadness to Ono’s declaration, the quiet melancholy of an old man who has spent his life perfecting his craft only to realize that the world as he knew it may be gone forever.

Indeed, that very poignancy may be more affecting than the steady drumbeat of desperate warnings that have been issuing from environmental groups for years about our oceans’ plummeting fish stocks. Let’s hope so, because in reality, for all his heartwarming octogenarian charm, Ono is pretty late to the game here.

As a recent press report on Ono’s comments relates, one of President Obama’s faves during his stop at Sukiyabashi Jiro was the chu-toro, or medium fatty tuna. According to Ono’s son, Obama “winked when he ate it.”

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Of all the species that the world’s love affair with sushi have pushed to the brink, it’s bluefin tuna, or toro, that appears most at risk.

Whether you think it was a sign of conspicuous consumption gone mad, a publicity stunt, or a depressing sign of the bluefin’s imminent demise, the record-shattering sale of a 489-pound bluefin for nearly $1.8 million in 2013 at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market seemed to suggest that something out of whack was going on.

The tuna are as impressive in the water as they are delicious on the plate. They can weigh as much as half a ton, yet their sleek, ergonomic design, coupled with their warm blood—odd for a fish—means they can swim up to 60 miles per hour. They have few natural predators—unless, of course, you count us.

Northern Pacific stocks of bluefin have been fished to near oblivion, a crisis compounded by the big fish’s status, from an ichthyologist’s perspective, as a late bloomer: It doesn’t reach sexual maturity for four to eight years. In 2013, the Pew Environmental Group released a report estimating that the population has declined by more than 96 percent.

Ironically, the succulent red belly meat that reigns supreme on menus isn’t even traditional sushi by Japanese standards. As The Atlantic reported earlier this year, it wasn’t until Westerners began to develop a hankering for sushi in the 1970s and started to gobble up toro that the Japanese gave it a try—and they got hooked too. Before that, bluefin was mostly used for cat food.

Fast-forward to today, and with Pacific bluefin well nigh disappeared, the Japanese market has begun importing Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin. Now those stocks are imperiled.

The good news (such as it is) is that Japan, a nation whose historic dependence on fishing has long led to weak, if not meaningless, catch quotas, finally seems to be recognizing that there are only so many fish in the sea.

Earlier this year, the country announced stricter quotas for several species. Notably, Japan’s Fisheries Agency slashed the limit for immature bluefin by 50 percent in hopes that allowing more fish to come to maturity will help stocks rebound.

Even this has been criticized by ocean experts as too little, too late. In the meantime, if you’re looking to satisfy your sushi craving while keeping a clear conscience, steer clear of toro, and check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s handy sustainable sushi guide.