Fish Out of Water

Asian Americans find it hard to adapt to the idea of sustainable seafood consumption.

December 1, 2008

WHEN DEREK EMMONS organized a lecture promoting sustainable seafood choices at San Francisco's Chinese Culture Center in September, many warned him that the topic was a touchy issue. After all, no one in the community likes to be told what they can and cannot eat.

"I'm proud of my mother's Cantonese roots, but the culture and my advocacy sometimes clash," says Emmons, a fourth-generation Chinese American, environmental studies major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an advocate of sustainable seafood consumption. "For instance, there's a saying. 'The Cantonese eat everything that walks, crawls, swims and flies.' but it places us on the spot when it includes species with slow recovery rates, such as sharks."

Albert Cheng, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center, says the event helped gauge how members of the community would receive a campaign on sustainable food consumption, particularly seafood.

"It was a mixed reaction but it was mostly positive," Cheng says. "Of course, attitude may not be consistent with behavior. A lot of people may find it difficult to actually choose sustainable fish over the ones they've been used to buying and eating."

Asian Americans eat greater quantities of seafood than the general American population (71 versus 63 grams a day), according to a 2003 study by the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.

Yet as the call for sustainable seafood choices becomes more resolute and earnest, Asian Americans have on the whole shown staunch resistance to changing their eating habits. It seems that for the community, in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, there are no other fish in the sea.

Cheng points out that eating habits are culturally ingrained: What we put in our mouths defines who we are. "The Asian American communities are very diverse, and we each have our own cultural beliefs about food and our eating habits are governed by such beliefs," he says. "So you see, it is not just about economic factors. Changes in existing habits will be difficult, particularly if it deals with people's stomachs."

Equally Delicious?

A wave of evidence that our seas can no longer bear our appetites is crashing upon our dinner tables. A 2007 study by the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that 52 percent of the world's fisheries are at their maximum sustainable limits. This means that there are already certain fish species that can no longer provide any more fish.

Overfishing is pushing the limits of the world's fish population. Ninety percent of large fish such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate and flounder have been fished out since large-scale industrial fishing began in the 1950s, according to Greenpeace.

The Atlantic cod, once plentiful off the Newfoundland coast, is now nearly gone. Other overfished species include: shark, bluefin tuna, Chilean sea bass and many kinds of West Coast rockfish. Destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling, dredging and gillnetting are also destroying marine ecosystems.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program publishes a guide that shows which fish to "avoid," "good alternatives" and "best choices." For instance, hamachi or yellowtail tuna (farmed in Australia or Japan) is on the avoid list; its good alternative is USfarmed yellowtail tuna while its best substitutes are gindara, sable fish or black cod.

Cheng, a seafood enthusiast and sushi lover, says that it will take him time to consciously veer away from fish such as Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna that are on the endangered list.

"It would be difficult for me to compromise on the sushi unless I find sustainable fish that are equally delicious," Cheng says. "So far, I've tried the alternatives but they are not as appealing and tasty to me."

Jesse Marsh, fisheries research manager of Monterey Bay Aquarium, recognizes the challenges that seafood-loving Asian Americans face when it comes to giving up certain seafood items or switching to more sustainable options. But she says, "There is also a great opportunity for Asian American communities to help shift the market towards sustainable seafood."

Some Asian Americans may be more resistant to the idea than others. Those in lower income brackets may find it difficult to pay more and to be conscious about keeping fish populations alive, according to Pat Tanumihardja, a food and travel writer and author of the upcoming book, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook.

"When putting food on the table is already a struggle, everything else falls by the wayside. You cannot blame them," Tanumihardja says. "I have the same argument for eating sustainable, local and organic produce. It's easy for us who live in communities where it is readily available and affordable. But if you live in an area where it isn't, it just isn't practical."

Immigrants and older generations of Asian Americans, who grew up with a different cultural mindset and palate, would also have difficulty accepting sustainable eating habits. "During my parents' generation, the concept of depleting fish populations was nonexistent," Tanumihardja says. "My mom loves her grouper, tiger shrimp and pomfret because that's what she grew up with and what she's used to. It would take a lot to transform that sensibility."

Big Switch

The ideal situation is to have consumers and Asian markets and restaurants work together to spur a successful shift to sustainable food; getting all the sectors concerned on board this endeavor is essential, experts say.

But restaurants won't change until customers do, as demonstrated by a conversation between Carolyn Jung, former food editor for the San Jose Mercury News, and a chef of one highly regarded Japanese restaurant about sustainable sushi.

"[They] thought the guides were a good Idea, but didn't think their restaurant would necessarily stop serving toro or unagi," Jung says. "They argued they have to serve what customers want. Then they went on to say how difficult It is to get toro these days, how expensive it is, how it's not so readily available and how their customers are upset about it."

Asian restaurants also fear that going the sustainable food route will force them to raise prices. Restaurant owners told Tanumihardja that even if they realize the benefits of sustainable food, they couldn't afford to pay for it.

"It's such a hard industry to be in as it is, margins are already so tight ... there's no way they could survive in this economy," Tanumihardja says. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't start educating them on why it is important to promote sustainable foods and how they can make a difference."

Casson Trenor, business development director of FishWise and a seafood sustainability expert, believes in a two-pronged approach.

"For such a campaign to be effective, it should start from the bottom-up, as well as from the top-down, meaning consumers and the fishing industry should both take the responsibility of becoming stewards of this change," he says.

Trenor is the sustainability guru of San Francisco's Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar, a sustainable sushi restaurant that he calls an example of a business that can be both sustainable and profitable.

Tataki doesn't serve farmed salmon; instead it serves arctic char, a fish that has the same rich texture and rosy-orange color of salmon. Sablefish replaces the overfished unagi (eel) on the menu.

"We believe that if we are to preserve the art of sushi, we must protect endangered fish stocks," Trenor says. "Our mission is to safeguard biodiversity in our oceans by integrating sustainable seafood choices in our menu. Because if we don't start now, the art form that is sushi will cease to exist as well."

Tataki is a popular place where conscious consumers can go to enjoy seafood that is good for the environment, Trenor says, while those who are still skeptical about making mindful choices can get a taste of sustainable sushi.

"Tataki sets an example by doing and by actually letting the experience do the talking and convincing," Trenor says. "I believe we've helped people realize that making sustainable choices is not a big sacrifice - that instead of losing the art and taste of sushi, they have gained environmental responsibility."

Sustainable Eating Habits More Palatable

What Asian Americans need to realize about unsustainable seafood production and consumption is that the consequences are happening now, and that the threat of losing entire fish populations is very real and urgent. They also need information on how to replace their favorite fish with inexpensive sustainable substitutes (Alaska pollock is a great option that won't harm the wallet, Marsh says).

Since it would be more realistic to expect change over a few generations, it would make sense to focus efforts on younger generation Asian Americans.

"It may be difficult to jumpstart a change in behavior among APAs regarding sustainable seafood; I know it can't happen overnight," Emmons says. "But one thing that would help is to make campaigns culturally sensitive and focused on conveying that we are interconnected with our environment, other communities and with each other as individuals."

Tanumihardja says that campaigns like the Seafood Watch Program would do well to target Asian American communities specifically, tapping into cultural values and belief systems and relating the concept of sustainability to everyday life. "Just as we've adapted to using American ingrethents to re-create our favorite traditional dishes, so can we substitute sustainable fish for our favorite seafood," she adds.

After all, sustainability is a concept that should be intuitive to Asian Americans.

"Considering how strongly Chinese culture emphasizes prosperity and health of future generations, sustainability is highly practical," Emmons says. "If we deplete our resources, we leave our children with [a] less secure and poorer world."

Tips for Eating Sustainable Seafood

Asian Americans eat more seafood than other ethnic groups in the United States. But many popular species are over fished and getting people to switch to alternatives or change their eating habits can be difficult, due to culture, diet and economics.  However, even simple, small steps can pave the way for change.


  • Be the example. When you go out to eat, ask questions and order sustainable seafood.  Explain why you're doing so to family and friends
  • Engage the chef in conversation. Ask if the seafood is farmed or wild, how it was caught and where it's from. And don't forget to share your point of view by leaving feedback for the restaurant's chef.
  • Use the guide. When you're out at a restaurant, use your Seafood Watch pocket guide ( and choose something sustainable.
  • Learn more about sustainable seafood in traditional dishes. 


Cantonese Style Steamed Fish (black bass, catfish, other whole white fish)



  • 1 whole white fish
  • 1 tsp coarse sea salt or plain salt
  • 1 tbsp finely shredded fresh root ginger
  • 3 tbsp finely shredded spring onions
  • 2 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp groundnut oil
  • 2 tsp sesame oil
  • fresh coriander sprigs, to garnish



Pat fish dry with kitchen paper and evenly rub with salt, rubbing it inside the cavity as well if you are using a whole fish. Put the fish on a heatproof plate and scatter the ginger over the top.

Set up a steamer or put a rack into a wok or deep pan. Fill it with 5 centimeters or 2 inches of water and bring to boil over a high heat.

Put the plate of fish on the rack, cover tightly and steam the fish until it is just cooked. Flat fish fillets will take about 5 minutes; whole fish, or fillets such as sea bass, will take 12-14 minutes. The fish should turn opaque and flake slightly but still remain moist.

Remove the plate of cooked fish  and pour off any liquid that may have accumulated. Scattter the spring onions on the fish, then drizzle with light and dark soy sauces.

Heat the two oils together in a small saucepan until smoking, then immediately pour them over the fish. Garnish with the coriander and serve at once with boiled rice.

These recipes were part of the handouts given to attendees of film screening and discussion on sustainable seafood consumption organized by Derek Emmons at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco.


Illustrator Jorge Mascarenhas


Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes is a San Jose-based freelance writer and graphic designer who secretly wishes to become a foul-mouthed chef in her next life, preferably with a British accent.

San Jose-based writer JENNIFER B. SIMES tucked into the issue of sustainable seafood and Asian American eating habits for this issue. Simes, who written for Asianweek, Nha Magazine and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said the dish that exemplifies the community's contradictions is shark's fin soup. "People say they won't order shark's fin soup in restaurants, but if it's at a wedding banquet or an associate bought it for them, they won't hesitate to eat it. Some don't want to be rude while others simply don't want to waste. There's that dichotomy of thought and action."

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where can I write Ms. Jennifer Bagalawis-Simes privately to ask about sustainable seafood and Asian cuisine?