If you knew sushi

Had raw fish lately? If not, it's because you've consciously avoided it. The recent explosion of sushi bars, from boutique restaurants like Roy's to the seafood counter at Publix and other supermarkets, has made sashimi (the grade of fish; sushi refers to the rice) the new hot ticket. And not just in Orlando.

Recent estimates have it that there are more than 45,000 sushi restaurants in the United States, one for every neighborhood in the country. Teens are picking up plastic-covered trays of California rolls instead of ordering pizza, and ads from the Louisiana tourist board have jumped on the craze by rechristening oysters as "Cajun Sushi." Sales of sushi in the United Kingdom have nearly doubled in the past two years, and schoolchildren in Glasgow are getting fish and seaweed on their lunch menu.

Since it may take 10 years for a sushi chef to perfect his or her art, demand is high enough to warrant several Internet job boards where the budding itamai-san may seek gainful employ.

Unfortunately, by the time the new generation of sushi masters can ply their trade, there may not be any fish left to filet.

Words bandied about in the environmental community - overfishing, marine meltdown, disaster - tend to be ignored by the general population. Fish, after all, is a renewable resource, isn't it? Unfortunately, fish aren't harvested like renewable crops. They're mined like coal by massive factory ships that prowl the seas. The world catch of fish went from 19 million tons in 1950 to 90 million tons in 1997. The United Nations says that almost three-fourths of marine fish stocks, and 11 of the 15 major fishing grounds, are either fully exploited, overfished or depleted. And the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization says another 30 million tons are destroyed when fish caught "accidentally" are thrown away. According to The Audubon Society, for each pound of shrimp caught, seven pounds of other marine life, including sea turtles, are killed and discarded - what the shrimpers call "trash fish."

Long-range industrialized fishing fleets from Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Russia, Norway and the United States employ methods that catch the most fish, namely drift nets that are more than a mile long, and bottom trawling. Andrianna Natsoulas, of the Greenpeace Oceans Campaign, says, "Industrialized fishing from any corporation is incredibly destructive. Bottom trawling, dragging huge nets across the ocean floor ... it's like clear-cutting the ocean.

"If it continues," she says, "... no more fish."

Just like everything else on the planet, the sushi business is driven by economics. Last September, newspapers around the world took glee in reporting the Japanese sale of a 444-pound bluefin tuna for close to $175,000 -- a fish that would have brought about $35 a decade ago. The North American domestic market for nori seaweed is in the $70 million per year range, while California's export trade in sea urchins is in excess of $80 million dollars annually. Fish has become the cocaine of food.

It's not within our rights to look askance at culinary traditions dating back hundreds of years, but Japanese cuisine does include "ikezukuri" (sashimi made at the table from live fish) and whale. Then again, we think nothing of boiling live lobsters and eating raw beef. But just the quest for a good hamachi roll doesn't equal the pillaging of the seas. Every aspect of industrial commercial fishing is suspect and devastating environmentally, and follows fashionable trends. Designer seafood like Chilean sea bass and monkfish (once a "trash fish") are severely over-fished, and orange roughy, a fish that wasn't considered palatable several years ago, is caught by bottom trawlers that destroy coral reefs and other fish habitat. Hydraulic dredges scoop up massive sections of ocean floor to sift out scallops, clams and oysters. Grouper, a local favorite, is so heavily fished that it's one of the few ocean fishes ever proposed for an endangered species listing.

Pardon the Apocalyptic tone, but we're already seeing the beginning of the end. Restaurants are complaining that they're having to purchase teenagers instead of adult fish. The average swordfish weighs in at 90 pounds or less; in the 1960s it was typically over 200 pounds. Supply hasn't been affected -- yet -- because the federal government requires that all fish, except tuna, must be sold frozen to restaurants. Wholesalers are better able to stockpile frozen fish for times of the year when certain species of fish are out of season. "You don't see a shortage of product," says Vince Lombardi, of Orlando-based Lombardi Seafoods. "You see demand rising, which in turn is raising the price."

Tuna prices, as one measure, have inched up more than $2.50 a pound in the last five years. "Prices are always going up," says Masahiko Ikemoto, owner of Sushi Hatsu, at 24 E. Washington St. in downtown Orlando. "Every time it's a different price depending on whether the tuna are coming from New York or Boston. Those are especially good-quality fish. I don't care about price. I want them to send me good, quality tuna."

The answer, one might imagine, is commercial fish farms. Already, about half the shrimp, one-third of the salmon and almost all of the catfish and rainbow trout consumed in the U.S. is raised on aquaculture farms. But the farms, and salmon farms in particular, cast a deep and dark environmental shadow.

Natsoulas cites "coastal destruction, pesticides `and` virus spread" as just part of the problem. Salmon fisheries are usually located right on the natural waterways that are home to wild salmon, disrupting access to spawning areas and depleting the wild population. Not to mention that farmed salmon are raised on fish meal -- that's right, food made from fish. Each pound of salmon from the farm requires three pounds of meal and oil, usually from wild salmon caught right outside their pens. And the latest European Union research found that fishmeal and oil carried the greatest contamination of dioxins in all animal feeds, while a BBC documentary reported that farmed salmon carried up to 10 times the levels of dioxins and PCBs as their wild counterparts.

Fish stressed by overcrowding -- imagine an acres-wide, writhing sardine can -- develop diseases such as infectious salmon anemia, which get spread to the native population along with the massive antibiotics used to treat the "herd." Friends of the Earth in Scotland has traced outbreaks of the salmon disease in sea trout, eel and farmed rainbow trout all across the country, an interspecies jump not previously thought possible. Pollution from Scottish salmon farms has been blamed for an almost total collapse of the local shellfish industry. Scientists have calculated the farms release nitrogen and phosphorus into the ocean in amounts equal to the pollution of twice the country's human population. Blooms of red tide created by runoff from fish farms along the southern coast of Norway may in fact end salmon farming permanently, and take the native cod population along with it.

And then there's the escapes. According to environmental watchdog SeaWeb, 300,000 farm-bred Atlantic salmon escaped into Puget Sound in 1997. The Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia estimates that more than 345,000 Atlantic salmon escaped from farms between 1991 and 1999 into rivers populated by native Pacific salmon. Escaped salmon now outnumber native fish in Scotland by seven to one, with more than 400,000 "breakouts" so far this year. Norway experiences as many as 1.3 million fish escapes every year. While the mental image of salmon leaping for their freedom may be appealing, the new refugees put a load on the local environment that usually wipes out the wild population. Salmon are extinct in 40 percent of the rivers along the North American Pacific coast.

Of course, in the bigger scheme, we've heard horror stories about beef processing and the chicken industry as well. The British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association (BCSFA) says, "Antibiotics are used within a framework which considers the health of the animal, the farm worker, the environment and the consumer ... . There is no evidence to indicate that disease has spread from farmed fish to wild fish." They claim that "interbreeding between Pacific and Atlantic salmon is almost impossible. Even under controlled laboratory conditions, very few hybrid offspring survive and these are sterile." To the question of escapees, BCSFA says, "64,000 Atlantic salmon were reported escaped in 1994 in BC. The provincial Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks conducted extensive surveys in over 30 individual streams on our coast and found only two Atlantic salmon."

Which seems to mean that 63,998 dead fish ended up ... somewhere. Meanwhile, the fish that does make it to the sushi bar is almost flavorless and ribboned with layers of fat, and according to some experts, higher in cholesterol than a steak. More than one chef has said that, due to the massive amounts of carotene forced into the fish to maintain color, farmed salmon can actually stain their cutting boards orange.

Seafood, to most folk, is healthy, and sushi is still such a novelty that it's not even considered fish. While sitting at a sushi bar in Winter Park, a stylishly casual 20-something said, "I just started eating sushi ... I like it. It's new, isn't it?" Her two friends nodded in agreement.

But look at the model we're emulating, the country that consumes 30 percent of the world's fresh fish: Japan. To the four basics tastes -- sweet, sour, bitter and salty -- the Japanese add a fifth: umami, the very attribute of how tasty food is. And apparently fish is mighty umami; the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that every man, woman and child in Japan devours almost 180 pounds of fish a year. Americans, even the burgeoning sushi addicts among us, eat between 15 and 44 pounds. In its appetite Japan has overharvested its sea urchin population (for the roe, a delicacy called uni) to such a point that it imports most of its staggering intake from the United States. California's largest export item from the ocean is uni, which, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, is already showing signs of depletion. Maine harvests more than 40 million pounds a year for export to Japan, which is ironic considering that the sea urchin business saved the economy of the Northeast Coast after the collapse of the salmon industry.

And even if we all wake up tomorrow and decide to eat one less piece of maki, we'd still be guilty of decimation by tradition every time we pick up disposable chopsticks, called waribashi in Japan. Enormous tracts of aspen forest in the Philippines, Indonesia and Canada are clear-cut to produce several million pairs of chopsticks a day. The Rainforest Action Network has been calling for boycotts against Mitsubishi for years, saying that their deceptively-named Canadian Chopsticks Manufacturing Co. throws away 85 percent of the trees it cuts down to produce waribashi because "the wood is not white enough." It's easy to point at Japan because most of the 25 billion pairs (about 200 a person) it uses annually are made from other countries' trees, but China holds the prize, making and throwing away more than 45 billion pairs every year, which takes as many as 25 million trees to produce. At that rate, China's forests will be gone in a decade, while still importing more than 60 million cubic meters of timber a year.

Is this any worse than the 25 billion Styrofoam cups Americans throw away every year? Apparently so, since even the Chinese government blames floods that killed more than 3,000 people on soil erosion due to excessive logging in river basins.

Nobody is suggesting that we stop eating sushi; it's probably not even possible. But every now and then, order mackerel (saba) instead of tuna. Ask if the crab is real (preferably Dungeness) rather than "surimi" -- the pollock the so-called "fake crab" is made from is so overfished that California and Canada sea-lion populations are dropping. Try squid (ika) instead of dredged scallops. Even in regular seafood restaurants, choose Pacific halibut, New Zealand hoki or tilapia, which has the least environmental impact of any farmed fish.

Shop in supermarkets, such as Whole Foods, that endorse the Marine Stewardship Council's seal of approval of fish caught in accredited fisheries. Members of the Council travel to fisheries across the globe to see if they meet the agency's standards: Does the fishery have no-take zones? Does it respect catch limits? Does it overfish to the point where the reproduction of the species is affected? Is it minimizing oil spills and other industrial accidents on the high seas? Does it use poisons and explosives?

Fisheries that pass inspection are allowed to use a seal of approval -- a blue logo that has a fish with a checkmark across its back. You might pay $2 more per pound for wild Alaska salmon caught by one of these fisheries, but the safety of the species -- not to mention the taste of the fish -- should be worth it. "Wild salmon are so much more robust than farm-raised salmon," says Kate Lowry, a Whole Foods spokeswoman. "They're chock-full of Omega-3s and they have a very vivid pinkish salmon color."

The decrease in demand of farmed-raised salmon will mean that fish-farms raising the Veal of the Sea can switch to lower impact "crops." Carp, tilapia and catfish aren't carnivores; they feed on plants.

Take the example of the fledgling environmental movement in China, which has forced government-owned restaurants in Beijing to wash and re-use chopsticks. South Korea has largely switched to metal chopsticks, banning the use of disposable ones six years ago in larger restaurants. Bring your own plastic or wood ones, and let the restaurant know why.

In the 1980s, the determined work of the late environmentalist Lesley Scheele forced the tuna industry to accept "dolphin safe" standards. It's time someone stepped up to make sushi "planet safe."