FINDING SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD IN FISH DEPENDENT JAPAN

Living in the U.S., the availability of fresh, whole foods including fish can be found in a variety of places from grocers and farmer’s markets to fish mongers. If you’re mindful of what you eat and are prepared to go beyond the big box stores, then you can be choosey in your purchasing and commit to the suppliers that have sustainable products at a decent price. Plus, there is a growing awareness of what it means for food to be sustainable. While many places outside of the U.S. have cultures based around whole foods, some including Japan may still be catching up on what it means to be sustainable in a broader sense.

My family and I have lived in the Okinawan prefecture of Japan for about a year and a half now. Thousands of American service members and their families live here and get to experience life in this new culture. It’s quite different from the states, but an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself and your family in a different type of living. Before we moved here, we lived in the U.S. and the UK and gradually grew accustomed to shopping for whole foods that were labeled as sustainably caught or raised, farmed locally, or approved by a governing body as sustainable. We were so excited to move to Japan and get to enjoy fresh fish in what could arguably be considered the best place to buy fish on the planet. While this island is slightly less dependent on fish than the rest of Japan, it still dominates the markets and restaurant choices. Locally grown food and freshly caught fish are broadly available, just as we had imagined, but taking into account broader sustainability objectives such as preservation of ecosystems, reduction of overfishing, and even sustainable delivery systems are hard to determine when deciding which places offer the most sustainable choices.

Japan isn’t well known for its responsible fishing, so we’ve had to set priorities in what’s important for us in terms of sustainable seafood. We’ve found that it’s important to us to buy fresh fish caught in the island’s surrounding waters as much as possible. For us, that means frequenting the local fish market that’s usually packed with locals eating lunch straight from the fish case at the tables provided inside the market. The market is located right on the docks so the fish quickly goes straight from the water to the table. There are very minimal shipping concerns with the local catch, and there’s a nice variety to put our concerns of overfishing to ease.

As far as finding the larger grocery stores providing responsible choices of seafood, there are a couple that have started to display where the fish have been caught and whether it is considered sustainable. If you go to the larger cities or on the mainland, then you may be able to find items labeled with the Marine Stewardship Council logo. Those are, however, somewhat rare where we live in Okinawa. With the Japanese culture dependent on massive quantities of fish, expecting sustainable practices in all fishing aspects may be a bit much to ask for all at once. It may be a long road to incorporate sustainability in all fishing processes here, but the fact that some suppliers are offering clearer choices is a big step forward in creating an educated public and giving consumers more sustainable options.

In terms of committing to our previous shopping practices of buying as sustainably as possible, it has proven much more challenging here than in the states. However, now we actually get to see our fish come straight from where it was harvested…something that didn’t happen for us in the Midwest or the Southwest states. We appreciate the great effort put into using all parts of the fish to reduce waste, the detail in preparing fish caught for a purpose, and the deliberate nature of merging culture with food. Our family is up for the challenge of seeking out those places that choose to educate consumers and make sustainable seafood part of their offerings. We love experiencing a place with a culture completely immersed in food tradition. It will be interesting to watch how its sustainable practices unfold over time, but for now, we’re hopeful that there are food suppliers willing to make the effort and lead the way to a sustainable seafood future here in Japan.

Credit: seafoodblogproject