Fishy Business: A Review of the Books “The Sushi Economy” and “The End of The Line”

A.K Gupta Jan 13, 2008

The Sushi Economy
Sasha Issenberg
Gotham Books, 2007

The End of The Line
Charles Clover
The New Press, 2006

My introduction to sushi came via Molly Ringwald’s sushi-packing princess in The Breakfast Club.

“Eww!” I responded when told it was raw fish.

My attitude has changed course markedly. Like other aficionados of sushi (and sashimi), I can wax joyful about the difference between similar-sounding cuts of fish such as chu-toro and o-toro; hamachi and kanpachi; anago, unagi and uni.

The thought of prepackaged sushi still disgusts me, however. It violates every principle of seasonality and freshness essential to sushi. The cuts are inferior. The vibrancy and flavor of raw fish diminish quickly; after sitting around for hours, it’s garbage. Beyond epicurean considerations are economic ones. Prepackaged sushi is not the craft of a sushi shokunin. Like other artisanal jobs, it’s been de-skilled, performed by inferior hands, or in the unkindest cut, by a robot. The goal is to maximize profits by eliminating skilled labor and expensive ingredients. The result is a flood of limp, bland sushi filling deli cases and emptying oceans.

One writer’s solution is a “grand pact” whereby customers forge personal relationships with sushi chefs who guide them to what is freshest and best on a particular day. This traditional Japanese approach to sushi, argues Trevor Corson, author of “The Zen of Fish”, would rescue bluefin tuna from being eaten to extinction.

With sushi so ubiquitous, it’s useless to ask Americans to forgo grabbing a pack of sushi to slop in their pie hole for lunch. Anyone who treats sushi as fast food doesn’t care about its quality.

Moreover, it’s a myth that Japanese belly up to wooden sushi bars for cheery banter with and fresh delectables from their favorite chef. This is largely for the corporate class, argues Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Sushi Economy”. The middle class gets it fix at one of Japan’s 3,500 conveyor-belt joints known as kaiten-zushi (“turnover sushi”).

Issenberg describes how the conveyer belt introduced factory-floor practices to the sushi bar. It eliminates some labor, waiters, as customers serve themselves, while subjecting others, the chef, who formerly made each piece to order, to assembly-line speed-up. The chief innovator of kaiten-zushi modeled a chain after McDonald’s, encouraging customers not to linger — the ones being “turned over.” In Japan, this opened the door to takeout and convenience stores. Issenberg argues that these changes have returned sushi to its origin as a quick meal, but its popularity also means an enormous supply of fish must be endlessly drawn from ailing seas.

One fish, bluefin tuna, is at the heart of sushi and Issenberg’s book. He covers wellcharted waters, how the fatty bluefin went from a junk fish in Japan to the prized catch, while offering insight, such as how the Atlantic bluefin trade began in the 1970s in a quest to fill empty cargo holds of Japanese airlines returning from North America. The Sushi Economy travels from the famed and archaic Tsukiji Market in Tokyo where bluefin is auctioned off at exorbitant prices to the boom and bust of a Massachusetts fishing town reliant on bluefin to industrialized tuna “ranching” in Australia to the tuna pirates of the Mediterranean.

Issenberg adroitly describes the globalized bluefin economy, but he’s over his head discussing economics, saying deficit when he means surplus, arguing a strong Yen makes Japanese exports cheaper, when the exact opposite is the case, and misdating the NA SDAQ market crash of 2000. He also misses the latest development. With bluefin prices rising because of a growing Russian and Chinese appetite for sushi, the Japanese are turning to less expensive substitute sushi meats such as smoked deer and raw horse. Absurdly, Issenberg downplays the environmental impact, writing, “No one knows enough about tuna populations and behavior to squarely place blame for overfishing,” and speculating that the crash in tuna hauls may be because bluefin have “wisened up” to fishing methods.

There is little dispute that overfishing is wiping out the Atlantic bluefin. Charles Clover, in “The End of The Line”, cites an important study published in Nature in 2003 that concluded only 10 percent of all large fish are left because “industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean.”

The environment editor of the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), Clover is a seasoned hand at covering the industry. In 1997, he broke the story of how 50 percent of the cod being sold in Britain was “black fish,” caught illegally, despite an elaborate system of regulations, quotas and inspections. It caused a brief uproar, but little changed.

Clover uncovered all manners of cheating: overfilled boxes to skirt quotas, private sales away from inspectors’ eyes, mislabeled catches, boats misreporting locations, skippers turning off monitoring devices. “The End of The Line” is devastating reading. Clover keelhauls all hands for the role they play in strip-mining oceans: governments, regulators, consumers, celebrity chefs, scientists, even environmentalists. (Clover argues because tuna boats changed methods to avoid dolphin bycatches, “twenty different species are now in bad shape,” including whales, turtles, sharks, rays, and many fish species.)

Clover places most blame on “the tyranny of the fishermen’s point of view,” which has allowed them to dominate the science, information and regulation of fishing. He casts too wide a net, however, as what he is mostly complaining about is capital-intensive commercial boats.

There is also a surprising villain: the European Union. He quotes one observer as stating, “Most of the major pirate fleets are now owned by European capital.” With 25 countries jockeying for their slice of the seas, the E.U. is more concerned with keeping each country happy rather than ensuring sustainable harvests.

Clover has a keen eye, recognizing that the terms, such as “maximum sustainable yield” or wild fish being labeled “stock,” as if they lived in a warehouse, are biased toward commercialization.

As for solutions, Clover falls short. While calling for better enforcement, stricter regulation and an end to subsidies, he advocates market-based solutions, such as “property rights” on the seas, or tries to guilttrip the reader to stop buying endangered species from the fish monger. He’s unable to see that the market is the problem, and that the oceans need to be preserved for their own sake, rather than managed solely for human needs.

— A.K. Gupta

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