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A global push to make seafood sustainable again

Consumers and businesses are driving change from the ground to sea

Mayanoki head sushi chef Mike Han prepares "New American" nigiri in the traditional Edomae style.

NEW YORK -- The New York oyster has faced its share of ups and downs.

In the 1800s, the oysters filled New York Harbor -- enjoyed on the half shell from street-corner food carts throughout the city. High demand and industrial pollution all but wiped out New York's once-plentiful wild oysters.

So, too, do seafood stocks today face a crisis. Humanity is literally loving some species to death, with a few teetering on the brink of extinction.

Around a third of fish stocks are overexploited, according to a 2016 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with the share of sustainable stocks down from 90% in 1974 to nearly 69% in 2013. Major contributors include environmental degradation; government-sanctioned fishing that disregards science-based recommendations for sustainable stock management; and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

But with the U.N.'s first-ever Ocean Conference wrapping up last week, diplomats and environmental advocates are optimistic that sustainable seafood is within reach and that consumers can play a big role in driving that push. "Retailers have huge influence on the fleets in that they're the ones who buy it," said Ronald Jumeau, Seychelles' ambassador to the U.N.

"And they only buy from the fleet according to what people are eating, obviously," Jumeau said. For proof that change is possible, just look at the oyster. The farm-raised variety is now one of the most sustainable options and is being reintroduced into New York Harbor today.

Making waves, sustainably

An oyster on the half shell with a garnish of local apple and ponzu serves as Mayanoki's first act, paired with a history lesson on sustainability.

At Mayanoki, a cozy eight-seater sushi shop nestled amongst the trendy boutiques and dive bars of New York's Alphabet City, most sushi fan favorites, such as eel and Pacific bluefin tuna, are conspicuously absent from the menu.

Branding itself as the first all-"sustainable" omakase sushi bar in New York, Mayanoki's $95, 15-course, chef-selected menu takes a bold risk, serving mostly local fish in a city where prestigious sushi restaurants boast of rare imports from Tokyo's Tsukiji market. It instead serves such local and sustainable catches as bluefish and black cod.

But despite "going against the grain" -- a coincidental homage to the name sprawled above the store, left over from the beer bar that preceded it -- Mayanoki's replacement of popular-but-unsustainable catches is not a grudging compromise but an embrace of local flavors. "Right now, taste is winning," head sushi chef Mike Han said.

"That's what we're trying to do here: create something that's delicious so that you don't miss any of the things that are typically being served," Han said.

"If we are delicious, then I think people are going to think twice, because now they have an option that tastes just as good as something that costs even more," he suggested of the sustainable alternatives at Mayanoki.

Celebrating and elevating local ingredients could also prove a refreshing change of pace for customers and can help raise awareness of the local environment, he said. Han, who calls his style "New American sushi," venerates Japanese cuisine and seeks to emulate the traditional Edomae style. But he also laments what he

One of Mayanoki's most popular dishes, lightly seared black cod is coated in an anise-infused soy glaze and served in the temaki handroll style.

sees as a shift away from the value of seasonality at the core of traditional Japanese cuisine.

"The Japanese have such a deep respect and reverence for nature, and to see such disregard at the same time for me is -- I don't understand it," said Han, who noted that special flavors once only available seasonably, like sakura cherry blossom, can now be enjoyed year-round.

When fishing and refrigeration technology was more primitive, which fish made it to the plate also depended on the season. Now, "you have all these sushi restaurants [in Japan] serving bluefin tuna for $1.50, $2 a piece -- but people are eating, like, 10 pieces of it," Han said, lamenting that "there's no way the fish can keep up."

Searching for sustainability

But for those who do not have the chance to eat at sustainable sushi restaurants, a project of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium tries to help along the shift to responsible eating.

Establishing criteria both for farmed and wild fish, Seafood Watch has extensively cataloged and color-coded thousands of species and products.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app rates the sustainability of different fish species, based on where they were sourced and how they were procured.

The most sustainable catches go into the green category. Those not quite up to par receive a yellow classification, and catches to avoid are flagged in red. Such information is posted on the Seafood Watch website. And for seafood aficionados who want their traffic-light-style ratings on the go, there's an app for that.

The project now has around 300 direct business partners -- many with an extended network of clients -- that utilize and commit to Seafood Watch's standards. Certified partners must do away with red items. The first step for both business and consumers is to know they are ordering, according to Seafood Watch head Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's director of global fisheries and aquaculture.

If people asked more questions about the origin of their seafood, it would make a big difference, Kemmerly said. "It sends a signal to the supply chain that people care and they care about where it comes from, and that they care that it's caught or farmed in a responsible way," she said.

Big businesses, especially, can leverage their purchasing power to influence suppliers to make more sustainable decisions, whether for more effective science-based management of fisheries or wanting to ensure more environmentally friendly fishing. "Try to see if you can get those fisheries or aquaculture operations into some sort of improvement project," Kemmerly said, suggesting that positive assurances could help incentivize those desired reforms.

And some businesses already have, Kemmerly pointed out. Leading tuna companies -- which stand to lose a hugely profitable industry that many depend on for their livelihoods if stocks collapse -- have already banded together and made voluntary conservation commitments.

"That's a strong signal that it's time for the governments to step up and meet that pace of interest and will to actually turn things around," Kemmerly said.

"The main obstacle right now is government implementation and enforcement of strong management, monitoring what's going on in the high seas, and just really using science-based management," she said.

Tightening the net

Despite slow progress in tackling sustainable fishing on a global scale, the Ocean Conference provided an opportunity for government and civil society to mobilize.

One issue that has drawn global concern is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which the U.N. blames for the loss of up to 26 million tons and up to $23 billion a year.

"We used to say there's no silver bullet" against illegal fishing, said Tony Long, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing project at Pew Charitable Trusts on the sidelines of the Ocean Conference. But recently, "what I've said is, actually, it's leadership that's the silver bullet." The largest fishing countries can show their commitment to cracking down by taking leadership in ratifying the Port State Measures Agreement, proponents argue.

The pact's 48 current parties include major fish consumers the U.S., the European Union and most recently Japan.

With the agreement, "being such a big market state, I would argue that Japan is now a proper player, although there's still questions about bluefin tuna quotas," Long said of its recent breach of a quota on endangered Pacific bluefin.

"When the EU, the U.S. and Japan -- as the large market states -- get together, they can drive better behavior ... globally," he said.

Technology is also pushing forward the momentum. Global Fishing Watch, a technology platform announced by Google, Oceana and SkyTruth, tracks positioning data for fishing vessels for journalists, governments and others to monitor suspicious activity. Fishing titan Indonesia became the first country to share its government data with Global Fishing Watch, filling in some of the gaps left in the publicly available data. Peru followed suit with a pledge to share its data as well.

Whether the pressure comes from the governments that stand the most to lose from a collapse of fish stocks, the consumers and businesses demanding green and ethical products, or improved technology that enables more effective fisheries management practices, the U.N. consensus is that healing the living oceans is a global issue requiring a global solution.

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