Making Waves About Sushi: An Interview with Mark Hall

Nourishing the Planet’s Victoria Russo recently spoke with Mark Hall, an independent filmmaker based in Austin, Texas, who produced the 2012 documentary, Sushi: The Global Catch. Inspired by the prevalence of sushi in seemingly unlikely places, from Warsaw, Poland to football games in Texas, Hall created the film to track the global implications of the international raw fish industry and to better understand the consequences of sushi as a global phenomenon. 

“Sushi: The Global Catch” tracks the global implications of the international raw fish market. (Photo Credit: Francesca Forrestal)

How did your interest in the sushi industry begin? What inspired you?

I have always enjoyed eating sushi, and actually got my inspiration for the documentary while doing some non-film related work in Poland a few years ago. I was working with a group from the Ministry of Agriculture in Warsaw to assist a private organic cooperative with small farmers. When we broke for lunch, I was shocked by the fact that they proposed going for sushi. I later discovered that there were about 30 to 40 sushi restaurants in Warsaw at the time, and I was struck by how much of a global presence sushi had become in such a short amount of time. The original idea for the documentary focused largely on the lengthy global supply chains that support our growing desire for sushi, but as we delved deeper into the filming, we realized that there were significant economic, social, and environmental consequences of the growth of the sushi industry that needed to be addressed.

How did sushi grow from being a traditionally Japanese dish to a global favorite?

The Japanese pride themselves in inventing and maintaining a strong cultural tradition of making sushi. In fact, while I was in graduate school in Japan some of my Japanese friends would tease foreigners by daring them into eating sushi, because Americans at the time were not used to eating raw fish. By introducing sushi to the world, the Japanese opened something of a Pandora’s box. Now the rest of the world loves it, and it is making it more difficult for the Japanese to access the dish that they created and love. While filming “Sushi: The Global Catch,” I received a letter telling me that the first sushi restaurant in Rwanda had just opened, and I was amazed by how globalized eating sushi has become.

How has sushi changed since it has been exposed to the global market?

As sushi has grown in popularity, we have lost a sense of the cultural origins of the cuisine. In Japan, sushi started out as a meal intended for special occasions. Now, it is accessible in most parts of the world—even in gas stations. There has been cultural dilution, and non-Japanese chefs have created variations on the dish that the Japanese themselves would not even consider sushi. There are California rolls, Philadelphia rolls, and in my hometown of Austin, Texas, they even serve a Longhorn roll that has ribeye steak and candied jalapenos in it.

The film includes a segment about a school district in Texas that serves sushi at football games and various events. When you can get a good-sized sushi meal for around $10, sushi becomes more available to those working with a lower budget. The Sushi Popper, a portable package of sushi on a push-up stick, recently entered the global market and is redefining how sushi is understood. It makes it easier to buy, ship, and serve sushi in vending machines, airplanes, and schools. We need to consider the implications of sushi’s global supply chain.

In the film you mention numerous economic, environmental, and social implications of the global demand for sushi. In your opinion, what is the biggest consequence of practices in the sushi industry?

The market for sushi is growing at an incredibly fast pace, and in the next few years there are projected to be 30 million new sushi eaters in China alone. In the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo—which is known as the “Wall Street” of fish—fish are so valuable that a single tuna, which can be as big as a cow, may be sold for as much as $400,000. While the cultural and economic implications of the sushi market are significant, the environmental consequences are the most alarming. The ocean is not capable of supplying the quantity of fish that the market demands. If bluefin tuna and other fish populations are not protected, they will be lost.

What will happen if the bluefin tuna species disappears?

If the bluefin tuna becomes extinct, which is a definite possibility at this rate, the world has much more to lose than just one fish species. Tuna are large predatory fish, eating a lot of smaller fish within the food chain. When a species dies off, there becomes an imbalance in that food chain, a process known as trophic collapse. If bluefin tuna disappear, then numbers of their predators and prey will be offset, and eventually all of the fish that we commonly associate with the ocean would be gone except for nonvertebraic species, such as squid, octopus, and urchins. This is even more terrifying when we realize that 5 out of 7 tuna species are under pressure or endangered. In the film we focus on bluefin tuna, but the tuna is a symbol that represents the decline of many species of fish.

How do you convince the public that this is a species worth saving?

Tuna and other fish are really disappearing, and to me the idea of trophic collapse was terrifying. In the Mediterranean, where tuna have been caught for centuries, there are continually decreasing numbers, and within a few years it is estimated that these fish will be commercially extinct. As a result, there has been piracy and illegal fishing, which has become so violent that it mirrors drug trading and smuggling. The value of tuna has become so high that they will fish it to the point of extinction. This is a very scary reality.

The public needs to build awareness and understand that the bluefin tuna and other species are truly irreplaceable. Many people have no idea where the fish on their plates are coming from. I have asked chefs in Austin, a small landlocked city, about the origin of the fish they are serving and many have no idea. However, on the West Coast there is now a strong movement for sustainability. The Tataki sushi restaurant was the first sustainably sourced sushi restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area, and now the owner is opening his fourth location. If people are informed and given choices, many will choose to eat sustainably.

What are the greatest obstacles in protecting global fish populations?

One of the greatest obstacles is that every country has a different interest in the fish industry. Some countries are less dependent on fishing and do not want to get involved in regulation. Others depend on fishing for a large portion of their GDP, and thus do not want to see strict regulations imposed on their ability to fish. There is a great deal of lobbying done on all sides, and the concept of boundaries within international waters complicates the ability to enforce regulation. Therefore even when large meetings occur such as the World Trade Organization conference held in Doha, Qatar, very little progress is made.

What do you see as potential solutions for sustaining both fish populations and the ability to meet global demand for sushi?

We focus on four potential solutions within the film. Our first solution is technology. It is unrealistic to believe that the global demand for sushi will disappear overnight, so there needs to be a way of maintaining a fish supply without doing further damage to natural ecosystems. In Australia, they are raising fish in captivity in million-liter tanks of water where they can control the lights, temperature, and access to food within the water. These scientists are learning to cue fish into believing that they are migrating and they are thus reproducing. While this does not solve the issue, it at least takes some pressure off of wild-caught fish.

Secondly, there is governmental regulation, though as we demonstrate in the film this fight has, so far, failed dramatically. While some governments have strived to add the bluefin tuna to the endangered species list, they still cannot bar other nations from hunting them due to the somewhat ineffectual laws regulating fishing in international waters.

We have seen more progress from direct action, our third proposed solution, from organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. These organizations strive to bring these issues to the forefront and educate the general public, and have great potential to make change. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, has a program called Seafood Watch, which raises public awareness about how to eat seafood sustainably.

Overall, I feel that the fourth solution we identify in the film, consumer buying power, is the fastest way to create positive change and has the most direct influence on fish populations. Every individual can make the personal choice to not eat fish that are endangered or caught in a detrimental manner. Making choices like these are good for us, good for fish, and good for the future of sushi.

So far, “Sushi: The Global Catch” has been featured in 27 festivals around the world, and received awards at the Seattle International Film Festival, the Hawai’i International Film Festival, and the San Francisco Green Film Festival. To read more about the film and learn about upcoming events, visit www.facebook.com/sushitheglobalcatch.

Victoria Russo is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

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