Monday, June 8, 2009

Rant: Nobu & Bluefin Tuna

Nobu, the popular and well-known Japanese fusion restaurant, has recently become a major target of Greenpeace and others. There are calls for boycotts of Nobu, and some Hollywood celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon. It is filling the news channels and blogs.

Why is this so? Because Nobu serves blue fin tuna.

On a recent Saturday night, Casson Trenor and members of Greenpeace staged a "dine-in" protest at the Nobu in Tribeca. They tried to place false menus and business cards at the restaurant, the menus listing dishes with endangered species such as Mountain Gorillas and the business cards stating that Nobu was specializing in endangered species. Some of the protesters also badgered the waitstaff about blue fin tuna and sustainability. Eventually, the protesters were asked to leave the restaurant.

There is no question that Nobu does serve blue fin tuna. Their menus do state that blue fin is “environmentally challenged” and customers are suggested to ask about alternatives. But are the protests and calls for a boycott justified?

I am very concerned about the lack of information being disseminated concerning Nobu and blue fin tuna. There are so many unanswered questions out there, yet I see few people, if any, pointing out that fact. Emotions and soundbites are being promoted over logic and analysis. It seems as if Nobu was chosen as a target solely because of their celebrity status.

I do not think people should blindly follow the call for a boycott of Nobu. Instead, they should first ask questions of Nobu's critics. Get them to provide the necessary answers that will provide justification for action.

Here are some of those questions:

Where does Nobu get their blue fin? Is the blue fin acquired by Nobu caught by sustainable methods?

Why has Nobu been selected as a primary target when so many other restaurants also serve blue fin tuna? Shouldn't the boycott be called on all restaurants that serve blue fin?

How much blue fin does Nobu purchase each year? And what percentage does that constitute of all the blue fin caught worldwide? Is Nobu really a significant offender? Who are the most significant offenders? What efforts are being taken against that greatest offender?

Where does the majority of blue fin tuna end up? What percentage of blue fin ends up in the U.S.? How many U.S. restaurants serve blue fin?

These questions are but a starting point for the discussion as the answers may lead to additional questions. And if the critics of Nobu don't have answers to these questions, that really calls into question their actions. Sustainability is certainly a very important issue but blind adherence is not necessary or warranted.

Question everything.

Update 6/8/09, 7pm:

I found a WWF FAQ on Bluefin Tuna in the Mediterranean which has some interesting figures. It is estimated that approximately 60,000 tons of bluefin tuna are caught in the Mediterranean each year.

"In the two-year period of 2004-2005, some 33,788,590 kg of processed fresh and frozen Mediterranean BFT (bluefin tuna) were imported by the EU, whilst 52,805,389 kg were imported by Japan, and 871,592 kg by the US. BFT is thus sold in almost all European countries. Within the EU, 15 per cent of the 2004-2005 imports went to non-Mediterranean countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany, United Kingdom, and Holland."

What that seems to mean is that the US imports only about 10% of the bluefin tuna. Japan is the largest offender and the European Union is also a significant offender.

8 comments:

adele said...

It's kind of like the squawking about foie gras, isn't it? (Isn't the kind of tuna they can in bad shape, too?)

Jill said...

Richard,

Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece. I agree, questions like this should be asked by the food community so that people don't sign on without knowing all the facts.

Casson said...

I'd like to offer my perspective on these questions that you pose, as they are all excellent and merit discussion, certainly.

"Where does Nobu get their blue fin?"

From what I understand, much, if not all, of the bluefin served by the Nobu restaurants in North America and Europe is from the Mediterranean Sea.

"Is the bluefin aqcuired by Nobu caught by sustainable methods?"

No, because simply put, there is no bluefin on the planet that is caught by sustainable methods.

Mediterranean bluefin is actually the worst of the worst, a victim of constant crushing fishing pressure, blatant disregard for scientific advice, and piratical IUU plundering. Some Nobu restaurants claim to served farmed Mediterranean bluefin tuna, but they don't mention that these "farmed" fish were originally captured from these flagging wild stocks as juveniles and subsequently fattened on insanely high protein feeds, often pure sardines and other "trash fish". These are fish that needed to be left in the ocean to breed and rebuild the population. Instead, they were kidnapped before they could do so.

"Why has Nobu been selected as a primary target when so many other restaurants also serve blue fin tuna?"

Nobu is a perfect candidate for change. As a high-powered innovator and a leader in the sushi world, Nobu can prove to the rest of the high-end sector of the sushi industry that you don't need to sell bluefin to be successful.
Not to mention, a chain of twenty-four restaurants goes through a lot more bluefin than your average one-off sushi joint.

I don't want Nobu to fail. I want to support Nobu, I want to give them more business. But they need to change their approach to business. This planet belongs to all of us, and their practices are harming it.

I mean, healthy oceans are necessary for a healthy sushi industry, so really, we all want the same thing. But Nobu needs to wake up to the reality of the situation. By continuing to pillage the ocean for bluefin that are growing ever more scarce, they're cutting their own throats.

"Shouldn't the boycott be called on all restaurants that serve blue fin?"

Absolutely. I'm all for it.

"How much blue fin does Nobu purchase each year? And what percentage does that constitute of all the blue fin caught worldwide?"

A great question, and one I don't know the answer to. But again, I have to remind you that this isn't just about numbers. Nobu has prestige, and is recognized as a leader. This is the kind of restaurant that can make statements by doing things like selling (or not selling) controversial items.

"Is Nobu really a significant offender? Who are the most significant offenders? What efforts are being taken against that greatest offender?"

The greatest offender is the Japanese domestic market. Hands down. And I agree, it's time to get serious with that industry. But that does not mean that Nobu is off the hook.

"Where does the majority of blue fin tuna end up?"

Are we talking about all three species of bluefin combined? If so, Japan, no question.

"What percentage of blue fin ends up in the U.S.?"

Not much. If all three species are considered, probably less than 5%, all told.

"How many U.S. restaurants serve blue fin?"

Not many. But enough to make a dent. There are so few of these fish left, any restaurant that serves bluefin is seriously contributing to the problem.



I hope my comments were of some use.

Oh, one last thing -- there was no "badgering of the waitstaff" at the dine-ins. Our goal was simple -- to deliver a message to the management. We did so through direct communication, polite questions, and the dissemination of a satirical menu. There was a bit of sensationalism in the NYT article which contributed to this rumor about Greenpeace "disrupting the operations of the restaurant," but I assure you that at neither the NYC nor the LA event were activists entering Nobu with the goal of causing chaos or annoying the servers.

Piamonte said...

Richard, I absolutely agree with Casson. The fact that you pose the question: "Is the bluefin aqcuired by Nobu caught by sustainable methods?" tells me immediately you do not have a grasp of the real issues here. The group targeted Nobu to get the conversation going. Would it have been as effective by targeting some no-name sushi shop in Concord? Not a chance. And even if Nobu used 6 pounds a week, they still have to catch and kill a whole bluefin to obtain that six pounds. I'm not sure why quantity was even raised as an issue.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Adele:
Though there may be a few common points with foie, there are some significant differences as well. The foie issue is more about alleged cruelty. The bluefin issue is more about it being endangered.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Jill for your support. We all need to ask questions before blindly surging forward to action.

Richard Auffrey said...

Casson, thanks very much for taking the time to address my questions. I am sure my readers will appreciate the effort too.

1. "Where does Nobu get their blue fin?"

What is the basis for this determination? Is it more than just the testing done of the tuna from the London Nobu?

2. "Is the bluefin aqcuired by Nobu caught by sustainable methods?"

I would disagree with your response here, based on the words of the WWF. They clearly indicate some tuna is caught through sustainable methods.

"...WWF strongly advises that you avoid Atlantic bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean – unless it is caught using sustainable methods like the traditional tuna traps of Andalusia in Southern Spain."

(http://www.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/mediterranean/about/marine/bluefin_tuna/what_you_can_do)

3. "Why has Nobu been selected as a primary target when so many other restaurants also serve blue fin tuna?"

I understand some of the rationale for targeting Nobu, but I still am not sure that any significant change would result if Nobu stopped selling bluefin. There is a lot of speculation in that regard, without hard evidence of the potential results.

Maybe I would like to see evidence of other changes that Nobu has wrought in the industry.

4. "Shouldn't the boycott be called on all restaurants that serve blue fin?"

The problem is that the boycott campaign seems directed only at Nobu, and not at all restaurants in general. That seems to color the situation, that Nobu is only the real villain.

5. I'll combine the rest of the questions, as they are all related concerning numbers of bluefin.

To me, it seems as if a minor offender (Nobu) is being primarily targeted while the major offenders are generally being ignored. So I question whether efforts should be redirected towards the greatest offenders instead of worrying as much about the smaller guys.

As much as Nobu may be a trend setter, how much quantitative impact would they have if they no longer sold bluefin? No one really knows. Yet lots of time and effort are going into a campaign against Nobu.

As you mentioned, maybe 5% of bluefin ends up in the U.S. So can we really say Nobu has had a significant impact on the dining scene in the U.S.? Even if every restaurant in the U.S. stopped serving bluefin, it still would be insufficient alone to save the bluefin.

So to me, a boycott of Nobu is like stopping a fire by spitting on it. It is insufficient alone to resolve the problem. Sure it gets lots of press in the U.S. But how much of that gets to Japan?

Thanks again!

Richard Auffrey said...

Piamonte:
How does my question: "Is the bluefin aqcuired by Nobu caught by sustainable methods?" indicate I don't have "a grasp of the real issues here?"

I suspect it is because you believe bluefin is never caught using sustainable methods. But read my reply to Casson, which indicates it actually does exist.

You can also read in that same reply my answers concerning the numnbers issue.