Poké was originally a minimalist, low-impact dish. It started in Hawaii, where for centuries fishermen simply cut their raw leftover catch into cubes and seasoned it with whatever they had on hand.

In modern-day poké shops, however, catch-of-the-day poké is virtually unheard of. The menus in Los Angeles follow a rather standard formula: yellowfin tuna (also known as ahi), salmon, albacore and maybe octopus.

The poké craze in Los Angeles is undeniable. But with a raw-fish store in nearly every neighborhood, it’s time to consider the implications of the trend. While fresh fish drizzled with ponzu and Sriracha in a bowl is undoubtedly delicious, what are the environmental consequences of this craze?

For one, the growing demand for yellowfin tuna could put increased stress on worldwide fish stocks. Some salmon comes from farms in Canada, where certain open-ocean fish farms are known to generate pollution, disease and parasites. Also, fish used in poké restaurants are resource-intensive. More often than not, the kinds of seafood used in poké are at the top of the food chain.

It’s no secret that seafood is in a precarious situation. According to a 2011 report by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, nearly two-thirds of fish stocks worldwide require rebuilding. It is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. While the United States has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world, roughly 90% of our seafood is imported from abroad. And worldwide, only 7 percent of coastal governments employ rigorous scientific assessments as a basis for their management policies.

One of the biggest issues is by-catch. According to a report by Oceana, global by-catch may amount to 40 percent of the world’s catch. Some fisheries discard more fish at sea than they bring in, which includes injuring and killing thousands of whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles and sharks annually.

And while intensive aquaculture farms are sating our appetite for wild-caught fish and in part solving the problem of by-catch, aquaculture can be problematic for the environment as well. Fish farms produce enormous quantities of waste and release contaminated water into the natural environment.

“The main problem is that you don’t know what the fish is fed,” says Seth Cohen, co-owner of Sweetfin Poké.

Sweetfin Poké, with locations in Santa Monica and Topanga and more planned, is one of the few poké shops in Los Angeles that claims a commitment to responsible fish sourcing.

Salmon from Sweetfin; Credit: Alex Krohn

Salmon from Sweetfin; Credit: Alex Krohn

“The salmon we’re getting from Northwestern Scotland. This is a farm product,” Cohen says. “There’s a lot of misinformation about farmed versus wild, and when you want to get consistently great salmon, the only way to do that is to go with a farm product. And we wanted to make sure that if we were serving a farm product, we were serving the highest level of sustainably farmed product that we have. The farm product is certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. Our supplier, their entire process is vertically integrated, which means that not only do they grow the fish but they also create their own feed. They are providing the fish. It’s antibiotic-free and there’s no growth hormones in the feed.”

All other fish on the Sweetfin menu is wild and line-caught. Line-caught means that the fish was caught with traditional methods of hook and line and that there is no unwanted by-catch.

Sweetfin's albacore comes from just off the Fijian Islands and is managed by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which keeps track of conservation and management of the highly migratory fish stocks in the region. Tai snapper hails from a small fishing village in New Zealand, where they have their own quota-management system. The village implements yearly catch limits for every fish stock in the region.

Yellowfin tuna, which can be a controversial fish because it was put on the near-threatened list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is sourced off of the island nation of Kiribati.

“It’s really hard to find sustainably caught yellowfin tuna, and labeling it sustainable is a little bit difficult to do,” Cohen says. “With that being said, the fishery that we work with in that area is regulated by the Marine Stewardship Council. They are actively monitoring and making sure that the yellowfin tuna that we are receiving has a healthy level of population. We’ve spoken to them and it’s not an endangered species by any means especially in that area. It’s actually a very healthy stock.”

One of the main challenges of being a poké business is balancing price point with quality. Poké shops are fast-casual concepts, and low prices are a hallmark of that. 

Poké bowls from Sweetfin; Credit: Alex Krohn

Poké bowls from Sweetfin; Credit: Alex Krohn

“It’s a bit disheartening to see concepts that aren’t doing it the right way. They think it’s easy to put together a quick shop and call yourself a poké concept,” Cohen says. “One of our major concerns is the traceability of where fish comes from. It’s not just sustainability.”

Many poké shops won't discuss their fish sourcing with reporters; some managers will hang up on a caller who asks where they get their product. But Mainland Poké is one that says it is committed to responsible sourcing. Its products are certified by Friends of the Sea, an organization that promotes selective fishing methods and aims to reduce ecosystem impact.

“The certification also ensures high quality standards in terms of energy efficiency and social accountability,” owner Ari Kahan says.

Certification can get confusing, though. Both Friends of the Sea and the Marine Stewardship Council have met with controversy in the past. According to chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence and Connie & Ted’s, the solution is to buy American.

“At my restaurants, we buy and sell American fish,” he says. “Buying and selling American fish is a patriotic act. More people should understand that. I’m pro-business and people making a buck, but we have to be responsible about our choices.”

Thanks to domestic regulations, which are among some of the best in the world, seafood from United States waters is more likely to be responsibly caught. However, one-third of American-caught seafood is sold abroad.

“A lot of these [poké] businesses are based on cost and not based on the sustainability of the fish,” Cimarusti says. “We either protect the fish in our ocean and think about climate change or we put into action a series of events that’s irreversible.”

Cimarusti has long been an advocate of sustainable fish sourcing. His businesses, considered the best seafood restaurants in L.A., are committed to transparency. He gets his seafood from a program called Dock to Dish, which connects chefs to local American fishermen.

“There are sources for wild, American sustainable fish,” he says. “Whether or not businesses make that switch is another issue.”

According to Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, this switch on the part of Los Angeles poké owners could have a ripple effect for the rest of the seafood industry.

“[Angelenos] are such trendsetters that, if you could get people to convert to all sustainable poké, it would go a long way to helping the movement even more so [than] if it was started somewhere else,” he says. “I would love to see that.”

Consumers, he stresses, can be the catalyst for this movement.

“When you’re buying seafood, ask if it’s sustainable seafood,” he says. “If they can't or won't share where they’re getting their seafood, you might consider going someplace else.”

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