Seafood sustainability a looming question for PNW sushi industry

  • A portion of bluefin tuna belly is weighed for a customer's order at Young Ocean's facility in Kent, Washington. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/TNS)

  • Norma Diaz, center, and Young Ocean employees process salmon at their facility in Kent, Washington. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/TNS) 224434

  • Batsukh Sevjid cuts a bluefin tuna from Spain, weighing more than 500 pounds, for costumers’ orders on July 18 at Young Ocean's facility in Kent, Washington. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/TNS)

SEATTLE — The fish carver slides his knife into a 550-pound bluefin tuna shortly after 6 a.m. on a mid-July morning. His blade makes a sound, click-click-click, as it rattles along the fish’s bones.

Batsukh Sevjid’s efficient cuts speak to plenty of experience preparing tuna for Kent-based seafood supplier Young Ocean, Inc. Standing in a chilled room, he slices the 5-foot-long bluefin from tail to neck and back, sectioning it into long quarters of deep red, highly prized flesh. A second employee cuts those loins into neat chunks. A third takes a spoon to detached racks of bones, scraping off bits of meat that will later be stuffed into tuna rolls.


In a matter of hours, they transform the fish, which arrived on a plane from Spain the night before, into tidy portions that will be served at sushi restaurants throughout the Pacific Northwest.

This is a typical morning at Young Ocean, which imports fresh and frozen fish from around the world to its warehouse in Kent. Drivers deliver the company’s products to about 150 to 200 establishments in the Pacific Northwest each weekday. Sushi chefs typically buy fish from a number of sources, ranging from local fishermen to national seafood supplier True World Foods, but Young Ocean is one of the largest regional suppliers specifically marketed toward sushi restaurants.

The result? If you’ve eaten sushi around Seattle, you’ve likely enjoyed Young Ocean’s fish.

The company’s work helps illustrate how dishes like salmon and tuna nigiri get to your plate. But some of Young Ocean’s most popular products, including bluefin tuna, are also at the core of a long-standing question within the sushi industry: Are these seafoods sustainable? Many advocates say they’re concerned about overfishing and other fallout from the global seafood industry. They also say the push to make sushi more sustainable isn’t progressing in cities like Seattle, while experts note that the U.S. lacks the infrastructure to regulate imported seafood sustainability.

Meanwhile, interest in sushi is swelling: IBISWorld found that the number of sushi restaurants in the country increased an average of 4% per year over the last five years. In Seattle, the data’s more nebulous — but regardless, the national trend means growing demand for a finite number of fish. And as long as that demand remains, environmental advocates and suppliers like Young Ocean agree: Fish like bluefin will keep being delivered.

What is sustainable sushi?

Washington might be known for its seafood, but Seattle sushi remains an international industry at heart.

Products like albacore tuna and spot prawn can come from Vancouver, B.C. Wild geoduck and San Juan uni can be sourced locally. But many many types of seafood can only be found far abroad.

Enter companies like Young Ocean, which bring in fish from farms, fisheries and other suppliers and prepare them for restaurants. The bluefin tuna Young Ocean offers comes from the East Coast, Spain and Mexico. Its fresh salmon comes from Canada, Norway and Scotland. Hundreds more species of frozen fish are shipped from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia.

“Our job is to provide what the chefs want, so they tell us what they want, and we do it,” said Sean Chae, Young Ocean’s director.

At the same time, Chae said he tries to source as ethically as possible, within customers’ constraints: “as fish industry veterans, we understand the importance of sustainably caught wild fisheries, and sustainably managed farmed fisheries. Both of those are good for long-term business, and we intend to stay in this business long term.”

However, the international nature of the game can make assessing sushi’s environmental impact tricky. Complicating matters further, Casson Trenor, the author of the book “Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time,” said the word “sustainable” doesn’t mean anything legally because it’s not federally regulated. Unlike “organic,” which is a term regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, anyone can label their seafood products “sustainable.”

“People can use it earnestly or people can use it more for marketing purposes,” Trenor said.

Generally speaking, conversations about seafood sustainability focus on environmental and social impacts of fishing or farming on particular marine species and its surrounding environment. Only recently are more experts considering the carbon footprint of flying seafood internationally.

In essence, “sustainable seafood comes from fisheries or aquaculture that minimize harmful environmental impacts, assures a good and fair working condition and supports livelihoods,” said Corbett Nash, the outreach manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

Seafood Watch rates seafood products by sustainability, producing guides that code seafoods green, yellow or red. Among the red-coded foods: bluefin tuna, eel and octopus — all popular throughout Seattle.

But not every sushi restaurant relies on these items. For instance, when sushi chef Hajime Sato learned he was using endangered species at Mashiko in West Seattle in 2009, he stopped.

Sato began looking for underused seafoods, buying bycatch, or animals unintentionally caught while fishing for a different species. For instance, he bought octopus from shrimp fisheries that may otherwise discard them.

Without items like bluefin or eel, sales went down about 20% almost immediately, Sato said. But the restaurant is now going strong, though Sato has departed for Michigan, where he runs sustainable sushi spot Sozai Restaurant.

Becoming sustainable is doable, he said, but doesn’t happen enough.