Q&A: Sustainability guru’s sushi passion


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
December 1, 2009

He has a degree from the prestigious Monterey Institute for International Studies. He once crewed a Sea Shepherd vessel battling Japanese whalers. He’s currently a senior markets campaigner for Greenpeace, with a focus on sustainable seafood. He wrote a book about sustainable sushi and speaks five languages, including Japanese. He helped put Tataki Sushi, a San Francisco restaurant, on the map by influencing its menu selections (all fish served at Tataki must be Seafood Watch-approved as a good choice or good alternative).

He’s Casson Trenor. One of the unique voices in the widening sustainable seafood movement, Trenor is just getting started (he’s only 30 years old). I spoke with Trenor in October, shortly after attending the Sustainable Seafood Multi-Stakeholder Summit in his adopted home of San Francisco, and came away impressed with his knowledge of seafood and the oceans as well as his confidence that concerned people like himself can indeed change an industry. Trenor, a native of Mukilteo, Wash., is the subject of the One on One interview in the December issue of SeaFood Business, and the following information is what simply did not fit on one page.

Wright: What is the baseline knowledge a consumer should have about sustainable seafood?
That’s a fair question and it’s a tough one. I would like it to be high. I want consumers to be aware of all the intricacies, but I recognize that’s impossible; it’s changing all the time. The wallet cards are fantastic but they’re relatively broad brushed and don’t necessarily work for those who are sourcing seafood. You’ve got a really difficult problem to get the information out there consistently. The important things the consumer should know are the principles and the basic educated-guess assumptions. There is such a thing as sustainable seafood; it’s important to ask questions; your decisions make a difference. That’s not really known by a lot of people. With educated guesses — there are certain species that are almost always a bad idea. Understand the food chain so you can make a good guess about what would probably be more sustainable.

In terms of sustainability, is the sushi industry behind the overall seafood category? 
It’s way behind. It operates on a parallel chain of custody from general seafood; not the same distributors. The fish you see in a sushi restaurant, you’ll never see that fish in a Kroger’s. There are cultural issues. The most difficult thing is traceability; the single best thing we could do to increase it is being more honest in translation. So often, when you go into a sushi bar, you see two columns of words, and as you look down the rows, you realize that it’s fraught with mistranslations. How can anyone make a sustainable choice?

For instance, the term “Edomae,” which we believe means authentic, doesn’t mean traditional at all. In Japanese, -mae means “in front.” Edo is the old name for Tokyo, so Edomae means in front of Tokyo, or Tokyo Bay. The cuisine was developed on local and seasonal availability, the fish from those waters. We could have a “Seattlemae,” or sushi using fish from that area. That’s what traditional sushi is.

Has sourcing or availability been an issue for Tataki Sushi?
There are always some issues. It’s not about a set list of what we sell; it’s about opening doors for opportunity. You need to look at what you can get, as opposed to what you can’t. So, instead of a guest coming in and saying, “I can’t get bluefin tuna here,” they need to say, “What’s special today?”

Why did you write your book, “Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans one Bite at a Time?” Can changing the habits of sushi eaters change the industry?
That’s the crowd I feel most tied to; that’s my personal favorite way to experience fish. Ever since I was young I’ve loved the experience, the taste, the relentless pursuit of perfection. I have a real reverence for the animals behind the fury and the concept behind the cuisine. Intrinsic to that cuisine there is a respect and honor I’m looking for in sustainability. When sushi was first developed, it was all about using the local and seasonal bounty and treating it in the best way possible. I think all seafood should be treated that way.

Is there a fish Tataki simply won’t put on the menu for the foreseeable future? Is there one that doesn’t have a sustainable alternative? 
Bluefin tuna. I would love it if bluefin tuna were so prolific in the oceans that we could manage and sell them in a sustainable manner. But we are nowhere near that now. Not having it on the menu — not a big sacrifice.

For more with Casson Trenor, please check out the December issue of SeaFood Business.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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