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Opinion: Can sushi change consumer seafood choices?

The explosion in popularity could give the industry the opening it needs to push a more diverse offering of fish.

a4ba19add6ca876d9060476a940c7a08 Sustainable Fisheries Partnership's Tom Pickerell Photo: Tom Pickerell

Nina Unlay’s article on sushi from July 19th struck a chord with me.

As a parent of two avid fans of sushi and sashimi, a regular treat for my children is to be taken to a sushi restaurant (ideally with a conveyor belt) for lunch. Due to a lack of independent restaurants nearby, we often as not end up in a chain restaurant.

Each time I go I am surprised by the limited choice of seafood on offer: salmon, tuna, shrimp, squid and crabstick.

While I’m not expecting the variety, or quality, offered by Jiro Ono, I do think we are missing an opportunity to build upon the increasing popularity of sushi in the UK, which could potentially act as a gateway to wider seafood consumption.

Data from Seafish shows that from 2008 to 2018, sushi performance at UK retail increased in volume by 136.9 percent and value by 95.5 percent, currently worth £68 million (€74.7 million/$82.7 million) a year.

However, we may be going in the opposite direction. On my last visit to a well-known sushi chain I was disappointed to see a large banner noting that “We’re not all about raw fish."

Now that’s of course true, as many seafood sushi toppings are seared, partially cooked, or fully cooked, but the banner instead announced all the non-seafood items on the menu such as chicken katsu curry and beef nigari.

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While I understand that sushi technically isn’t exclusively seafood, a hasty straw-poll of friends and family revealed that everyone associated sushi with fish.

I’m sure that view is replicated across the UK and if we accept this assumption, then surely if you are considering a sushi restaurant you are expecting to eat seafood and likely to be open to more unusual dishes.

This audience of adventurous eaters would seem to be an ideal one on which to try out novel species.

But which ones? Nina’s article quotes Caroline Bennett and I agree that we must consider pressure on stocks when contemplating seafood menus, particularly as global production from capture fisheries will likely be stable going forward.

But this is less of a problem for farmed species, with aquaculture projected to expand substantially. Ultimately, there are plenty of resources out there to assist with sushi sourcing such as Seafood Watch’s sushi guide.

We need continued innovation, to keep up with competing proteins, with dishes such as sushi burritos and poké bowls, as well as the types of seafood on offer. Just being very locally-minded, I’d like to see more UK species tried on sushi menus.

For example, scallops, lemon sole, langoustines, plaice and crab. Coincidentally, each of these species are in fishery improvement projects (FIPs) under Project UK and thus their sourcing would be supported by NGOs such as Sustainable Fishery Partnership (SFP), who champion credible fisheries improvement projects (FIPs).

A further reason to consider these species is that if the UK crashes of out the EU without a deal we may welcome new markets for these fisheries, but that’s another issue...

Will sushi vendors take the plunge and offer more diverse seafood, or play it safe with whatever is offered by their suppliers? Do we as consumers need to take on some responsibility and demand wider choice? Do we even know what is available? Someone needs to take the lead.

Sustainable & responsible seafood specialist Tom Pickerell is global tuna director at the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, and formerly technical director at UK industry authority Seafish.

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