Growing up as a millennial in Southern California’s beach cities, I watched many food trends come and go – designer cupcakes, self-serve frozen yogurt, acai smoothie bowls, to name a few. I rolled my eyes at all the hype and how much people obsessed over them. But, I will be the first to admit that I cannot get enough of the latest food fad sweeping California and other parts of the country – poke.
Pronounced “poke-EY,” the Hawaiian dish of diced raw fish seasoned with soy sauce, served over a bed of rice, seaweed salad, or kale, and garnished with a variety of topping from avocado to pineapple, has become the fast-casual lunch of choice for many Americans.
It makes sense why poke shops are proliferating across the United States. Poke is fresh, healthy, high in protein, customizable, relatively inexpensive for what you get, and fits right in line with the current “bowl” trend of fast-casual restaurants originally set by Chipotle.
According to Foursquare, a location technology company that tracks trends in the restaurant industry, just in the two years between 2014 and 2016, the number of Hawaiian restaurants in the United States nearly doubled from 342 to 679, many of which serve poke or have “poke” in their name.1The majority of these restaurants are located in California, Oregon, Washington, and New York, but poke shops are popping up all over the United States.
Poke, meaning “small piece” or “cut piece” in Hawaiian, was originally a simple dish of diced small reef fish mixed with Hawaiian salt, chopped seaweed, and ground kukui nuts.2It was a way to meld the traditional Japanese preference for appreciating the simple flavors of fish with local Hawaiian seasonings, while preparing it in a less fussy way than Japanese sushi. Hawaiians used a variety of fish to make poke, from octopus and squid to crab and oysters, but the most popular fish was and still is ahi tuna.
“Ahi” is the Hawaiian name for two types of tuna: bigeye tuna and yellowfin tuna. Prized for its deep red color and firm flesh, ahi tuna was once a fish for royalty.3 Dedicated fishermen caught ahi through Ika shibiand palu ahi,two traditional handline fishing methods where a single baited line and pole caught tuna and large fish.4
When I was twelve, my family took a vacation to Maui where my dad and I spent a day on a deep-sea fishing boat on a quest to land the freshest ahi tuna sashimi possible. After heading straight out to sea for over an hour, I watched as each of the roughly twenty crew members skillfully cast their lines in the water and waited patiently for that moment when the big one would hit. When it did, it was a mesmerizing experience – both fish and fisherman fighting against each other, trying to get the last say. Finally, the fish lost the battle, and a group of crew members scurried to haul the nearly one hundred pound yellowfin tuna on board. The adept crew gutted, cleaned, and immediately threw the blue and yellow beauty over ice, but not without allowing a small portion of a filet to go to eager stomachs onboard.
As much as I would like to imagine the tuna in my poke bowl lived just like the tuna I tasted fresh on the boat – swimming freely through Hawaiian waters, only to be honorably reeled in on a single pole – that is not the reality.
Today, the United States imports 90% of its seafood, and a large portion of that is tuna. Hawaiian caught ahi tuna alone is not enough to even satiate Hawaii’s appetite for poke, especially as most fresh tuna is shipped to Japan where markets pay the highest price.5The majority of ahi tuna comes from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.6 Aside from the greenhouse gas emissions associated with transporting the fish, importing fish from foreign fisheries results in a number of other environmental and social consequences unseen by the American poke consumer.
In the United States, fisheries face strict regulations to ensure fish is caught and served in an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable way. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages bigeye tuna and yellowfin tuna fishing in the United States. NOAA’s management plan includes limiting the number of allotted commercial fishing permits, limiting the time and areas for fishing, restricting the use of certain types of fishing gear, and monitoring the size and quantity of fishes caught.7 These regulations help preserve tuna stocks and reduce ecosystem damage, but they are not enough. Because tuna are highly migratory species, they are therefore subject to whatever rules and regulations – or lack thereof – of the surrounding countries.
“It’s exceedingly difficult if not outright impossible to know the origins of an imported tuna product or its chain of custody, from when it was caught to when it’s put in your poke bowl,” says Caleb McMahan of Hawaiian Fresh Seafood based in Honolulu, Hawaii. Caleb’s Hawaiian fishing fleet is monitored by NOAA’s strict regulations, and values taking the necessary steps to ensure the sustainability of the ocean and fishing environments in the future.8
While many small-scale fisheries in Hawaii still use traditional handline methods like ika shibiand palu ahi, the major fishing industry in Hawaii is longline fishing. Longlining involves casting a single spool of line containing thousands of baited hooks that can stretch up to 50 miles. In the 1980s, as the international market for Hawaiian-caught bigeye tuna increased rapidly, so did Hawaii’s longline fishing industry.9
Longlining can be a controversial form of fishing, because depending on the depth of the lines and care of the fisher, it can result in the unintentional capture of many sea creatures. However, today, fishermen like Ben Harding of Hawaiian Fresh Seafood still highly value maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem and adhere to strict regulations including limits of when and where they catch fish, the number of tuna they retain, as well as the type of gear they use. Ben prides himself on using only deep-set longlines for tuna fishing, and monitoring the lines closely to ensure he is doing everything he can to only catch tuna that is within NOAA limits.10
Unfortunately, in foreign waters, it is a different story and regulating who, where, how, and how much fisheries extract from the ocean is a task too large for the NOAA to govern alone.
Overfishing is perhaps one of the oceanic issues with which people are most familiar. Tuna are top-levels predators, and overfishing not only reduces the number of tuna in the ocean, but also results in “fishing down the food web,” in which over time there will be an overabundance of the lower level fish that larger fish like tuna normally prey.11Overfishing with tuna is an especially tricky subject because they are highly migratory fish.
On the one hand, tuna like bigeye and yellowtail are overfished in parts of the western central Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; but, in oceans around the Hawaiian islands where fishing fleets must meet strict regulations and quotas, tuna are in good stock. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program established a three-color stoplight system to help inform consumers about which tuna are in good stock and ok to eat and which to avoid. Seafood Watch creates its ratings based on where the fish are caught, as well as how the fish are caught.12
For Hawaiian fishermen like Caleb McMahan this confusion over whether or not tuna is “overfished” causes frustration. “The truth is that most overfishing is occurring in the equatorial Pacific where foreign fleets are fishing. The Hawaiian fleet is regulated by strict, enforced quotas, management measures regarding protected species, and other gear restrictions. If other fleets could live up to these types of standards, we might not have a problem to begin with.”13
Aside from the potential for overfishing, another major ecological challenge with the commercial tuna fishing industry is by-catch. By-catch is all that is caught from fishing that was not the target species, such as other fish, sea turtles, dolphins, and sea birds. By-catch in the tuna industry is most common with purse seining and certain types of shallow longline fishing, which are effective ways of capturing large quantities of tuna at a time. However, they also catch thousands of unintended sea creatures, as well. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, as many as 250,000 sea turtles are caught as by-catch each year, along with thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises.14
Purse seining is a fishing methods that requires releasing a large net around an entire school of fish. Once the fish swim through the bottom opening of the net, the net closes, and the fish (along with anything else caught in the purse seine) are hauled into the fishing vessel. One way fishermen locate schools of tuna to caste purse seines over is through the use of fish aggregating devices, or FADs. FADs are wooden structures with nets that float to the surface and attract a variety of fish, from ahi tuna to smaller sardines and anchovies.15 The problem with FADs, like other forms of purse seining is that it makes it nearly impossible to only catch the target species. Another detrimental purse seining method involves tracking down and casting nets over pods of dolphins, as dolphins feed off tuna and serve as another way that fishing vessels target schools of large yellowtail and bigeye tuna.
By-catch as an issue from tuna fishing did not start with poke’s proliferation. Prior to the 1990s, the canned tuna industry was culprit to killing millions of dolphins through purse seining fishing methods.16 In reaction to the sharp number of dolphin deaths, the United States Department of Commerce established the Dolphin-Safe Tuna label in 1990 for canned tuna to inform consumers about how their tuna was caught. As a result of the Dolphin-Safe Tuna label, the three largest canned tuna companies, StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea all agreed to intentionally sell tuna that was not caught by chasing pods of dolphins.17 Unfortunately, while the canned tuna industry was able to make small strides towards reducing by-catch by increasing consumer awareness, there is currently no such label or designation for tuna sold in poke.
Environmental sustainability is not the only issue in jeopardy when more and more poke restaurants buy from unregulated foreign sources. It is also a social issue for domestic fishermen. “The problem is that these imports compete directly alongside what US fisheries are producing and it’s not exactly a fair deal,” says Caleb McMahan. “It’s a lot cheaper for industrial foreign fleets to catch, process, and export their product here when they don’t have to comply with the strict regulatory oversight that US fisheries operate under,” Caleb adds.18 Despite the spike in tuna demand for poke, cheaper prices from foreign suppliers make it difficult for Hawaiian fishermen like Ben Harding and Caleb of Hawaiian Fresh Seafood to find a domestic market.
A big part of poke’s appeal is that it is seen as healthy and fresh, and costs half the price of its raw fish predecessor, sushi. But, to quote Caleb McMahan, “Like everything else, you get what you pay for…and when you’re talking about raw fish, this is especially true.”19Particularly when it comes to food safety, price may not lead you to the freshest poke option.
Most recently, two back-to-back hepatitis A outbreaks headlined newspapers in May and June of 2017. The reported cases were first found on Oahu in imported frozen raw ahi tuna cubes from Indonesia. Shortly thereafter, additional yellowtail products distributed to California, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas from the Philippines tested positive for hepatitis A.20
Imported seafood has almost always been frozen during transport, and that bright ruby red color that ahi tuna is so well known for is not naturally that bright after traversing the globe. After a few days of being cut and stored, the red flesh of tuna begins to oxidize and turn brown, much like apples and avocadoes do. As a way to enhance and preserve ahi tuna’s red color, fish processing facilities treat the tuna steaks with carbon monoxide smoke. When treated with carbon monoxide, a piece of tuna can retain its bright color for several weeks.21
So, bright red tuna does not equate to freshness. In fact, because a carbon monoxide treated piece of tuna can retain its color for several weeks, it can still look “fresh” even when the fish itself begins to lose quality, making it especially difficult for consumers to know if their fish is safe to eat or not. The misalignment between appearance and actual freshness is what leads many hepatitis A and salmonella contaminations to go undetected until it affects consumers.
As Caleb McMahan of Hawaiian Fresh Seafood puts it, “People assume that because it’s raw fish that it’s automatically fresh and healthy. I would say that eating raw fish that’s been frozen, thawed, treated with carbon monoxide, then frozen again before being thawed yet again, and tossed on some kale or rice isn’t healthy and it’s certainly not fresh.”22
When shopping at a grocery store in the United States for ahi tuna, products often say where they were from and whether or not they were previously frozen and treated with carbon monoxide, making it more obvious to the consumer how the fish was treated. But, when I want to go out to eat poke at a restaurant, how am I supposed to know how fresh the tuna in my bowl is or where it was caught when it is already diced up and seasoned?
Some poke shops in the US do commit themselves to sourcing responsibly and making that information transparent and accessible to eaters. In Los Angeles, Sweetfin Poke is committed to only sourcing from fisheries that are monitored by a third party, like the Marine Stewardship Council, to ensure its fish comes from a responsibly operated source, whether that is their wild and line-caught ahi or farm-raised salmon from Northwestern Scotland. Their bowls range from $8.95 to $13.95 before add-ons, only making them about a dollar above most Southern California poke prices. Unfortunately, Sweetfin Poke is in the minority, and most poke shops certainly do not advertise that they use carbon monoxide-treated tuna caught along with a dozen dead sea turtles and dolphins in the Philippines. So, the answer? You have to ask.
I will be the first to say that when I am hungry, in a pinch, craving some raw fish, and standing at the front of a twenty person line, I do not want to be that person who stops the assembly line to nag about where the fish came from, how it was caught, how it was handled, and how fresh the fish actually is. Eating previously frozen, carbon monoxide-treated imported tuna is likely not going to kill me, but unless I suck it up and change my actions as a consumer, I will just continue to fuel an industry that is degrading ocean environments, putting domestic fisheries in jeopardy, and doing the Hawaiian tradition of poke an injustice.
1 Foursquare. Hawaiian Restaurants Across the U.S.https://apps.voxmedia.com/graphics/eater-poke-trend-map/?initialWidth=720&childId=eater-poke-trend-map__graphic&parentUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.eater.com%2F2016%2F9%2F14%2F12839882%2Fpoke-trend-hawaiian-food-growth. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
2Laudan, Rachel. The Food of Paradise : Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage. University of Hawaii Press, 1996, pp. 37.
4Pooley, Samuel G. “Hawaii’s Marine Fisheries: Some History, Long-Term Trends, and Recent Developments.” Marine Fisheries Review, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, pp. 11.
5 Mac, Rick. “Peak Poke? (Or, Our Choices Have Consequences).” Deep Sea News, 2017, http://www.deepseanews.com/2017/04/peak-poke-or-our-choices-have-consequences/.
6Hawaiian Fresh Seafood. “What’s Really In Your Poke Bowl? Making a Case for Hawaiian
Ahi.” Hawaiian Fresh Seafood, 19 Jan. 2017, https://www.hawaiianfreshseafood.com/single-post/2017/01/19/WhatE28099s-Really-In-Your-Poke-Bowl-making-a-case-for-hawaiian-ahi.
7NOAA. Atlantic Bigeye Tuna. 2017, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/atlantic-bigeye-tuna.
8Hawaiian Fresh Seafood.
10 Mcmahan, Caleb. “Catching The World’s Finest Tuna.” Hawaiian Fresh Seafood, https://www.hawaiianfreshseafood.com/single-post/2017/10/25/Catching-The-Worlds-Finest-Tuna-Is-Like-This. Accessed 27 Feb. 2018.
11American Fisheries Society. “Fishing Down through the Food Web.”American Fisheries
12Seafood Watch.“Seafood Recommendations from the Seafood Watch Program at the
Monterey Bay Aquarium.” Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2017, https://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations.
13Hawaiian Fresh Seafood.
14Seafood Watch. “Effects of Bycatch from Fishing for Wild Seafood.” Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
16International Marine Mammal Project. “Dolphin Safe Fishing.” International Marine Mammal Project, http://savedolphins.eii.org/campaigns/dsf. Accessed 1 Mar. 2018.
17EuroCBC. “Tuna Boycott Which Lead To The Dolphin Safe Tuna Label.” European Cetacean Bycatch Campaign, http://www.eurocbc.org/page322.html. Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
18Hawaiian Fresh Seafood.
20Consumer Affairs. Feds Trying to Track Frozen Tuna Contaminated with Hepatitis A. 7 June 2017, https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/feds-trying-to-track-frozen-tuna-contaminated-with-hepatitis-a-060717.html.
21Hawaiian Fresh Seafood.
American Fisheries Society. “Fishing Down through the Food Web.” American Fisheries
Society, 2015, https://fisheries.org/2015/07/fishing-down-through-the-food-web/.
An Overview of the Global Tuna Market | GLOBEFISH | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/in-action/globefish/fishery-information/resource-detail/en/c/880744/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
Carrier, Jim. “All You Can Eat.” Orion Magazine, 20 Feb. 2009, https://orionmagazine.org/article/all-you-can-eat/.
Consumer Affairs. Feds Trying to Track Frozen Tuna Contaminated with Hepatitis A. 7 June 2017, https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/feds-trying-to-track-frozen-tuna-contaminated-with-hepatitis-a-060717.html.
EuroCBC. “Tuna Boycott Which Lead To The Dolphin Safe Tuna Label.” European Cetacean Bycatch Campaign, http://www.eurocbc.org/page322.html. Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
Foursquare. Hawaiian Restaurants Across the U.S.https://apps.voxmedia.com/graphics/eater-poke-trend-map/?initialWidth=720&childId=eater-poke-trend-map__graphic&parentUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.eater.com%2F2016%2F9%2F14%2F12839882%2Fpoke-trend-hawaiian-food-growth. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
Hawaiian Fresh Seafood. “What’s Really In Your Poke Bowl? Making a Case for Hawaiian Ahi.” Hawaiian Fresh Seafood, 19 Jan. 2017, https://www.hawaiianfreshseafood.com/single-post/2017/01/19/WhatE28099s-Really-In-Your-Poke-Bowl-making-a-case-for-hawaiian-ahi.
International Marine Mammal Project. “Dolphin Safe Fishing.” International Marine Mammal Project, http://savedolphins.eii.org/campaigns/dsf. Accessed 1 Mar. 2018.
Laudan, Rachel. The Food of Paradise : Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage. University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Mac, Rick. “Peak Poke? (Or, Our Choices Have Consequences).” Deep Sea News, 2017, http://www.deepseanews.com/2017/04/peak-poke-or-our-choices-have-consequences/.
Mcmahan, Caleb. “Catching The World’s Finest Tuna.” Hawaiian Fresh Seafood, https://www.hawaiianfreshseafood.com/single-post/2017/10/25/Catching-The-Worlds-Finest-Tuna-Is-Like-This. Accessed 27 Feb. 2018.
NOAA. Atlantic Bigeye Tuna. 2017, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/atlantic-bigeye-tuna.
Pooley, Samuel G. “Hawaii’s Marine Fisheries: Some History, Long-Term Trends, and Recent Developments.” Marine Fisheries Review, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, pp. 7–19.
Seafood Watch. “Effects of Bycatch from Fishing for Wild Seafood.” Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
—. “Seafood Recommendations from the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.” Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2017, https://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations.