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Tuesday, August 12, 2014


The sushi craze hit LA in the mid-1990s. I was an on-again, off-again vegetarian at the time and so I was open to my friend's suggestion to give the delicacy a try. After my first tuna roll and salmon sushi, washed down with a sake bomb or two, I was hooked. There were some days I'd eat sushi a couple times a week, and this occurred intermittently for over ten years, when in 2009 I became a vegan.

I didn't miss the raw fish habit all that much. By the time I stopped visiting my favorite bar, Sushi Mon, I had for several years been accumulating a list of so-called sushi cons - reasons to refrain - that extend beyond raw fish to seafood altogether. The benefits of fish are said to be its high nutrient content - B12, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids - as well as the generous dose of protein you get with each slimy salty bite. And of course the event. Going for sushi with friends or treating yourself to a couple cut hand rolls for lunch is like going for deep dish pizza only (seemingly) less bad for you, but is eating fish good for you, as even the AHA leads us to believe? Hardly.

Here's a short list of what's wrong with sushi (and other fish, whether grilled, steamed, seared, or fried)  that you should keep in mind the next time you are seized with the urge.

1. Fish is high in chemicals. The oceans are in pretty bad shape due to man-made pollution, and these chemicals (PCBs, pesticides, heavy metals) are absorbed by seafood and stored in their fat. Not too long ago I had a friend tell me she got mercury poisoning from eating sushi just twice a week. She must have been loading up on tuna rolls, as ahi tuna is one type of fish with the highest mercury content. Orange roughy and swordfish are others. Here's a list of mercury content of fish. Note that salmon, though low in heavy metals, is high in PCB's and other chemicals with long-term health adverse health effects.

What's mercury poisoning like? Not fun, says my friend. It put her in the hospital. Indeed mad hatter disease, or mad hatter syndrome, describes the occupational chronic mercury poisoning among hatmakers whose felting work involved prolonged exposure to toxic vapours. The neurotoxic effects included tremor, pathological shyness, depression, apathy, low-self confidence, and irritability (together called erethism). No wonder Lewis Carroll's character was so weird!

2. The fish are disappearing. Due to increased global demand for fish, prices are soaring and availability is more scarce, making the chances ever more likely that the fish you eat is farmed. Indeed nearly half of the seafood we eat today is farmed.  But while experts tout farmed fish as a "critical way to add to the global diet to hedge against potential crop losses or shortages in the supply of meat," not all fish farming is created equal. Carnivorous species like salmon and shrimp, while increasingly popular, consume several times their weight in fish feed - derived from other, typically smaller, fish - as they provide in edible seafood. It generally requires 20 kilograms of feed to produce just 1 kilogram of tuna. That's like paying $20,000 for your computer and turning around and selling it for $1,000. Not exactly good economics.
Moreover, poorly run fish farms can generate coastal pollution in the form of excess feed and manure, and escaped fish and disease originating on farms can devastate wild fisheries. The Worldwatch Institute notes that a fish farm with 200,000 salmon releases nutrients and fecal matter roughly equivalent to the raw sewage generated by 20,000 to 60,000 people. In Scotland, for instance, salmon aquaculture produes the same amount of nitrogen waste as the untreated sewage of 3.2 million people. That's half the country's population!

Cramped facilities can also create ill health for fish. In recent years, shrimp farmers in China have lost $120 million to bacterial fish diseases and $420 million to shrimp diseases, which as mentioned spread to surrounding waters and affect wildlife and enter water supplies.

But these facilities exist to meet your demand. If your sushi fix stops here, that's one less customer. Being the trend-setter you are, your friends will follow suit, and before long the oceans can go back to being havens of colorful diversity rather than cesspools of filth and disease:
Eating farmed fish raised in their own filth is like dropping your goldfish into the toilet, taking a few craps, fishing it out and throwing it on the fryer. Not exactly appetizing. But hey, there's no accounting for taste!

And finally (as if you need any further convincing):

3. There is the energetic component in the food we eat. Think of being raised in confinement in your own excrement and then pulled out of your cage and submerged in water until you suffocated. That's the fate of farmed fish (and suffocation is shared by their wild counterparts). We already know that in panic humans and animals release a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This is chemical fear. These chemicals enter the muscles and are consumed with animals when we eat their flesh. And we wonder why society is so stressed out!

I sometimes think back to the first time I saw a dead fish. It was at summer camp when I was 8 or 9. We went fishing in the lake and I came out with a catfish. My counselor stored it in a locker and handed it to me in a paper bag at the end of the afternoon to take home (and presumably cook, I think was the intention, though I was a vegetarian but didn't tell him this). When we arrived home I exited the bus and somehow the fish fell out of the bag and onto the street. How rancid it already smelled, just from a few hours being dead and unrefrigerated. Then there was the image of all that dirt and gravel, and the dead eye staring balefully at me.

So you see, eating fish has profound health consequences, not just for you but for the well-being of the world we live in. Vote with your fork (or your chopsticks) and when next you go Japanese, avocado rolls are the bomb!

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