This past weekend, as I sat munching on Gourmet Heaven sushi and studying a YouTube video of a thylacine, I was struck by a connection between the two.
There are at least two good reasons why most people have no idea what a thylacine is. First, it sounds like part of a gene sequence; second, the last one died of neglect in an Australian zoo in 1936. A sort of marsupial wolf with tiger stripes, thylacines were exterminated as chicken-stealing pests throughout Oceania before anyone realized what was going on. Should you care to suffer heartbreak, track down the short film of the last thylacine, romping about its enclosure, yawning its distinctly wide yawn and bounding up like a canine kangaroo to greet visitors on the other side of its fence.
In retrospect, the extinction of the thylacine was almost astonishingly easy. There was no unrelenting campaign to destroy it for political ends (as there was for the American bison); no mass slaughters (as of Passenger Pigeons); no lucrative trade in its furs or bones. No one, from governments down to zookeepers, had taken responsibility for the marsupials, allowing them to be destroyed in plain sight — a collective, apathetic accident. It was all too easy.
All of which brings me to sushi. Trendy and nutritious, sushi is also very easy to find around Yale, whether pre-packaged from G-Heav or Durfee’s, slurped down with a 20 percent student discount from Sushi on Chapel, or splurged on during pilgrimage to Sushi Palace. The global proliferation of sushi — this summer I sampled salmon rolls in a Kazakh market town — is emblematic of another accidental extinction in the making. Here, though, both the scale and the fallout dwarf the lamentable case of the thylacine.
Large saltwater fish — tuna, swordfish, shark and sturgeon, to name a few — are being overfished so voraciously that many populations may already be unrecoverable. International failure to adequately address the issue can approach theatrical absurdity. The evening before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species held a vote to ban trade in the critically endangered bluefin tuna in March, convention members were served gourmet bluefin sushi. Needless to say, the ban was not passed.
In light of this, the recent acclaim for Bun Lai’s sustainable approach at Miya’s — the Huffington Post named the innovative chef “Greatest Person of the Day” on Monday — is well-deserved and timely. I only hope that Lai’s culinary pyrotechnics don’t obscure the fact that Miya’s has managed to stay in business while serving environmentally-sound sushi at absurdly low prices (at least for the simpler varieties). Lai’s still-conceptual Invasive Species Menu is a brilliant gourmet penance for the past sins of the sushi industry. Also, I can’t wait for someplace in New Haven to start serving periwinkles.
But lauding Miya’s successes also allows us to ignore the failures of our other sushi sources. The persistence of unsustainable sushi options at our everyday eating establishments should provoke the same response as a dining hall menu featuring sea turtle steaks. Freshwater eels may not be quite as adorable as hawksbills, but their ecological niche is every bit as vital and they may well be on their way to similar scarcity. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch firmly classifies them under “Avoid” due to unsustainable aquaculture practices and a sharp decline in wild populations. Meanwhile, containers of broiled unagi pile up in Bass Café.
I have come to believe that people are most likely to change their ways — at least regarding matters that do not bear immediately on their survival — only when it becomes extremely convenient to do so. Sorry, militant Cross Campus vegans – few Yalies are likely to read a stomach-turning pamphlet and spontaneously herbivorize. It is likely, however, that there wouldn’t be a clamor if G-Heav quietly phased out its endangered options in favor of imitation crab, shrimp and Alaskan salmon — though I’d also appreciate a goddamn recycling bin to get rid of the containers afterwards. It wasn’t consumer pressure that took diamondback terrapin off the Delmonico’s menu — it was a top-down cascade of government regulation and other official decisions. Barring such choices on every level, from international bodies down to restaurateurs, bluefin, yellowtail, eel and a host of other popular sushi species may well vanish — not from malice, but rather from a neglectful approach to managing them.
I am hardly a paragon of environmental saintliness. I take long showers, I don’t own a bike and I’ve been known to indulge in raw, threatened sea creatures from time to time. So let me take a step, drop in the bucket though it may be, and pledge to refrain from the latter from now on. Farewell, freshwater eel. Delicious as you were, I’d rather forsake you than watch a grainy video in which the last Anguilla rostrata flirts sinuously with the camera, blithe in the face of obliteration.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.