America Dreams of Sushi and Overfishing Nightmares

Wedged between a liquor store and a wig shop on Pennsylvania Avenue is one of Washington, D.C.’s not-so-hidden gems. Sushi Capitol has been featured on the Washington Post, the Washingtonian, food blogs online and hundreds of Yelp reviews, of course. Behind Sushi Capitol’s glass door, there are seven tables, enough to seat an average of twenty customers at a time. Only about three blocks away from the U.S. Capitol building, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, Sushi Capitol’s customers include a mix of tourists, locals, government employees, politicians, diplomats and self-proclaimed “foodies.”

Inside, Can Yurdagul, 25-year-old Sushi Capitol general manager, is making sure the restaurant is ready to reopen at 5 o’clock on a Saturday.

“Diversity,” he smiles, “that’s my favorite thing about sushi. It has such a simple premise: just rice and fish. The complexity that comes into play with every piece you enjoy, there are different taste notes and textures and flavors.” With nearly 5,000 customers visiting little Sushi Capitol every week (many of them regular visitors), there is no doubt that sushi is making a big splash in Washington, D.C. and throughout the United States.

Sushi has quickly grown into one of the most popular dishes introduced to America by another culture. With environmental organizations like Wild Oceans reporting the dangers of overfishing and documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi depicting the devotion a sushi chef has for his craft while he struggles to make traditional sushi as fish populations continue to decrease over time, it is difficult not to wonder how sustainable this “new” trendy food might be. Government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are working to study and assess fish populations, fishing methods, and environmental patterns to make sure regulations are effectively protecting fish and are obeyed by fisheries. Despite environmental groups expressing their concerns, NOAA is sure that things are alright for now. Sushi continues to grow as a misunderstood but highly popular cultural force in the country. Consumers now face a dilemma when they are told they must choose between the responsibility to protect and preserve wildlife and their desire to experience a novel and fascinating combination of food and art.

Why is sushi so big?

“Beats me,” laughs Ken Hinman, president of Wild Oceans since 1997, “I guess it becomes trendy. There is a certain amount of cultural status. People want to try new things or maybe they have money to burn. But you have to understand the impact of your decision; it’s irresponsible to not find out.”

Seeking new experiences seems to be the main motivation for most first-time sushi-eaters. Most are inspired by the artistic value and traditions behind the creation of sushi dishes. The relationship between food and art is best depicted in the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which follows an elderly Japanese man who has devoted more than thirty years of his life to perfecting the art of sushi in his humble three Michelin-star rated restaurant, located in a Japanese subway station.

Have you seen Jiro?

“Three times!” exclaims Yurdagul. “I don’t think it was ever meant to popularize sushi, but it certainly has, indirectly,” he says. “After watching something like that, people focus on the fish rather than the people leading the industry. I think the essence of the movie, which gets lost in the translation, is Jiro’s devotion to his work. I think in the documentary, the food critic who narrates the experience emphasized that Jiro is not concerned with reviews. He knows what his craft is, he knows what it takes to perform at an excellent level, and he is willing to commit himself for his entire lifetime to wake up, make sushi, go to sleep, and repeat the same thing every day.”

Much like Jiro, Sushi Capitol’s dedicated owners have close ties with fisheries in Japan that know exactly what the restaurant is looking for in terms of quality and freshness. Sushi Capitol makes sure not to cut any corners when it comes to their dishes.

“We pay the price for the higher-end fish to ensure we serve the best,” Yurdagul boasts, “But also, the relationships we have built in order to get buyers to work with us over the years is important. Once they know you, they know what your preferences are and they know your skill level. And because they know that, they aren’t going to send us anything that’s below our standards.”

Unlike Jiro, however, Yurdagul isn’t too worried about overfishing. “When there’s an issue, there’s always two sides to a story,” he explains. “I’m sure there are people who say the issue of overfishing is overblown and that it doesn’t exist. And then there are people who say stopping overfishing is the most important thing in the world right now and in ten years we won’t have any fish to enjoy. I’m sure there’s overfishing being done in different parts of the world, but at the same time, there’s also sustainable fishing that is being done as well.”

Government agencies like NOAA have created various regulations over the years to make sure that fishing done here in the U.S. and abroad are in fact sustainable. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act first passed in 1976 aims to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, increase long-term economic and social benefits, and ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood.

The Magnuson Act regulates domestic fisheries through eight regional councils made up of scientists, academic experts, fishermen, fisheries, and everyday citizens. Under the Act, NOAA conducts stock assessments to analyze fish populations. The data collected helps these councils plan to regulate how many fish and what types of fish can be caught by fisheries in the U.S.

Are fish populations in danger?

“I think we are moving towards being okay,” says Alan Risenhoover, the director of NOAA Fisheries Office of Sustainable Fisheries. “We have fishing efforts under control. We are always working to keep a sustainable population. In the US, we are doing very good.”

Environmental organizations like Wild Oceans work with NOAA to ensure that laws and regulations are created with the ecosystem, and not just the fishing market, in mind. Ken Hinman is most worried about the damage that can be done to the ocean if fishing methods are not monitored.

“We change the balance, and once that happens, fish may not find a spot in the ecosystem,” explains Hinman. “We have seen that in Chesapeake Bay with forage fish. Fish like striped bass have dwindled, people have had to switch to other types of fish. Then those numbers start falling, and they move to another fish. Most people do not understand, and even when we do, it’s not something we can reverse because it’s a complicated system that has developed over millennia.”

Hinman and Yurdagul do agree on one thing: it is the consumer’s responsibility to do some research about their food. Customers should know about the quality of their fish and, if possible, the means by which it was caught. With the Internet readily available to almost everyone, reviews, reports, and data are at customers’ fingertips. Customers can choose to frequent sushi restaurants that advocate responsible fishing practices and take pride in the quality they serve, like Sushi Capitol.

“If you choose to eat something new or different, like sushi, then you should do it right and learn about it,” says Yurdagul, “your understanding and enjoyment of that course will increase exponentially next time you eat sushi.”

Back at Sushi Capitol, Yurdagul and his team is ready for the next wave of hungry customers to walk in to the cozy restaurant to get their sushi fix. The experienced sushi chefs are ready to create Instagram-worthy dishes full of vibrant colors and textures. The phone rings—yes, Sushi Capitol does accept reservations. Soon, the restaurant will be packed with customers who have done their own research on where to get the best sushi in town and probably dreamt about the menu the same way Jiro does about his own creations in Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Whether or not sushi is the best thing to come to the U.S. since pizza and tacos is objective. What is for certain, however, is that the careful balance between preservation of the ocean’s fish and providing a hungry market with sushi cuisine must be constantly monitored by government agencies like NOAA and environmental groups like Wild Oceans.

“Here’s the whole big picture,” says Hinman, “the cost of the fish on your plate is more than you think.”