The abalone was trying to escape. And, for the last few minutes, I had been formulating a plan to assist it. I lifted the ceramic lid again. The mollusc was still firmly attached but its strong muscular foot was slowly curling toward the rim. Anthropomorphizing is a tricky business, so I hesitate to say it knew it was in mortal peril. Still, it was clear that it did not want to be in that dish and, by extension, part of my meal. That made two of us. I looked around the room at my companions. All were engrossed in the contents of their own platters, eliciting the kind of focus required for a dining experience that had thus far been a bucket list of foreign tastes: shark heart carpaccio, sea urchin roe, greenling sashimi, a gelatinous cube of anglerfish, and a heaping portion of raw cod testes. Would they notice if I slipped the abalone into the folds of my yukata robe? Would they care? A Japanese woman in a floral kimono re-entered the room. Our server. She crouched near my platter with a smile and lit the fuel canister under the dish containing the abalone. If we were going to make a break for it, it was now or never.
I can say with ease that I have a love/hate relationship with Japanese cuisine whenever it includes seafood—thus, most of the time. Novel tastes and textures aside, I mostly struggle with the seeming contradictions in Japan’s seafood culture. This is a country where consumption ideals focus on species diversity, eating with the seasons, and supporting local fisheries. Along the Sumida River, slightly inland from Tokyo Bay, sits the world’s largest fish market: Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee). Here, inside the tuna auction room, is a large red banner that reads Sakana wo taisetsuni. “Handle fish with care”. As in: treat them with respect, do not waste them. All of this makes sense. Which is why I do not understand how there seems to be so little attention paid to ecological sustainability within the country. Japan is the top global consumer of bluefin tuna and eel—species whose stocks are heavily depleted in almost all parts of the world. Why the continued pursuit? In 2016, sales by the vendors at Tsukiji totalled about 410,000 tonnes. Is this volume perceived as infinite? And if not, what is being done?
This trip was another opportunity to learn. Or, at the very least, to observe. Along with Wilf and a small but eclectic group of fisheries scientists and seafood enthusiasts, I had come to see northern Japan for the first time. We caught a morning bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai and spent the rest of the day driving along the coast of Tohoku, the region hit by the 2011 tsunami. Roughly 300 kilometers that once accommodated active fishing communities had been washed away in minutes. Over 20,000 people lost their lives. Now, six years later, it felt as though we were visiting the world’s largest construction site. Looking out the window, I struggled to see distinction between one place and the next. Foundation stones could be seen peeking through otherwise vast and barren fields—skeletons of former neighbourhoods. Pockets of civilization were marked not by homes and shops and docks but by heavy machinery, dump trucks, retaining walls, and concrete dykes. Signs along the road that indicated the reach of the tsunami wave were more frequent than street signs, and construction workers more abundant than residents. Many of the people left homeless continue to live in temporary housing and these large featureless buildings could be seen tucked behind the scattered foliage. Unlike other development projects this area did not convey a mood of progress or exciting new opportunities. It carried a feeling of uncertainty. More than anything, it carried a feeling of loss.
It was dark by the time we approached Minamisanriku, a town where the quick drop in altitude between mountains and sea is akin to places on the west coast of Canada. Hotel Kanyo is built into a cliff and the lights of the immense building sparkled on the calm black water. Once parked, we shuffled inside to the reception desk. The interior gleamed with polished brass railings, exquisite chandeliers, vases heaped with bright flowers, and a floor so polished I could see my reflection. I was at once struck by the outdated opulence; it seemed the place was virtually unchanged since the day it opened several decades earlier, and I felt like I’d stepped into a different era. Still, with no other guests in sight, I couldn’t help but feel this shiny emptiness was a bit eerie. As we made our way down the long corridor, we joked at the extravagance of the décor. In the lobby hallway was a 3D TV featuring a short documentary about the tsunami. A box of red and blue glasses was provided for those who wanted to watch.
An elevator showcasing advertisements for seagull sightseeing tours and shark fin soup took us upstairs. As I was putting on the indoor slippers that had been provided, Wilf noticed the welcome platter in our room. Kelp tea and locally-made confections. He heated the kettle and passed a cup of brewed tea over to me. I took a sip and cringed. Unsurprisingly, it was incredibly salty—like drinking hot seawater. I swallowed with difficulty, made some quip about rural cuisine, and handed it back. Still on a high from the surreal motif downstairs, I was about to make another remark about the gaudy lamp that had caught my eye when I felt my heart catch in my throat. These people—whose lives had been affected in a way I could never imagine—were offering me the best they had. And I was laughing at them. I didn’t know (and still don’t) where this condescension originated but I instantly felt like the world’s biggest asshole. Then, just as quickly, my feelings switched from guilt to pity. Then I felt remorseful for that pity. I was on the verge of tears as I explicated all of this to Wilf. He listened and then told me how he had read that Hotel Kanyo had been a refuge to more than 600 locals after the tsunami hit. For many who lost their homes, it had been a safe space in the following months. I wondered out loud why they had made a situation so heartbreaking into something as gimmicky as a 3D movie. Ever supportive, he gently reassured me, “it’s ok if you don’t know how to feel. It’s a pretty overwhelming situation and it’s not possible to comprehend it all in a day.”
Suffice to say, it was not a good night to meet the abalone. I knew we were in for an evening of local cuisine but I had not expected that one of the courses would still be alive when I sat down. After three visits to Japan, I should have known better. As time passed since the canister was lit, I knew my chance for a rescue was quickly slipping away. Ten minutes later, it had passed. Our server came back, lifted the lid, dowsed the cooked abalone in melted butter and, not removing it from the dish, dislodged it from its shell and sliced it into large meaty chunks. She seemed so happy to be sharing this delicacy with such a group of foreigners as she motioned for me to try it. I smiled and thanked her. Taking a piece with my chopsticks, I put in my mouth. It tasted like butter. Chewy butter. It was not unpleasant but I did not enjoy it. The final course of the evening was to be shark fin soup. However, at check-in, I had asked that my meal not feature this dish. Of the seven people in our group, three others made the same request while the rest chose to eat it.
The following day took us farther north to Kesennuma, one of the main ports for the Japanese distant water longline fleet. Much of the catch landed here is swordfish and tuna, but these boats also land a large volume of shark. I was willing to eat the carpaccio at Hotel Kanyo and I have eaten shark meat in the past. Although not keen on the taste, I am not fundamentally opposed to people eating it. For me, the overarching problem with shark fishing is the practice of finning. In a nutshell, this is the removal of a shark’s fins prior to the animal being discarded (usually still alive) back into the ocean. As has been detailed by others, this practice is both wasteful and brutal. Since fins are typically used as the namesake ingredient in an expensive soup, their consumption is primarily for demonstrating social status or wealth. Kesennuma is Japan’s largest supplier of fins to the emerging domestic market as well as established markets in Hong Kong and mainland China. It was midday by the time we reached Kesennuma so the landing and sale of sharks and tuna had long since ended and the port was empty. Still, we decided to visit the shark museum just across the street. Exhibits here highlight the importance of sharks as a commodity for the region, the history of the fishery, and the impact of the tsunami. Below the museum is a small indoor market, featuring seafood shops as well as restaurants where one can order—among other things—shark fin soup, shark nuggets, shark burgers, and soft-serve ice cream drizzled in shark fin syrup.
As we drove farther inland, the landscape became increasingly covered in snow. We talked about what we had seen during the trip and one member of our group queried me about my decision not to eat the soup at dinner. “Don’t you want these people to have jobs?” he asked. I knew he was trying to provoke me but at the same time, I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the matter. Yes, obviously I want these people to have jobs. But I also know that in order to have a fishery, you need to have fish. Tens of millions of sharks are caught annually around the world.* This immense quantity cannot be sustainable in the long-term. For many species, it is unsustainable already. Sharks are targeted because of the value of their fins. And although fin products served in Kesennuma originate from sharks landed with their fins attached, I still felt uneasy knowing that the demand for this commodity fuels an underground market that is not only wasteful, but also needlessly exploits both animals as well as desperate people. Many fishers in poor coastal countries have limited employment alternatives, which forces them to engage in illicit fishing practices, including finning. Of course, I also know that one bowl of soup is insignificant in the grand scale of the problem. But, similar to why I choose not to eat bluefin, for me it is a matter of principle rather than one of volume.
The morning after we returned from the north I went to Tsukiji. As I walked through the massive building that is an ocean above the ocean, I considered the overwhelming expanse of marine life in light of the experiences of the previous two days. I know that deep down the reason I keep returning to Tsukiji is not because I take pleasure in walking the cobbled, wet alleys overflowing with 1,500 tonnes of dead fish. On the contrary, I am drawn to Tsukiji because it haunts me; it makes me uncomfortable being human. Our species is both privileged and burdened by having a choice in what we eat. No other animals have such a diversity of options when it comes to dining, yet from this comes a responsibility to choose wisely. For some, this means choosing taste above all else. Others will choose cost, others efficiency, and others environmental impact. Others will eat whatever they are served out of respect for their hosts. Of course, having this choice at all is a luxury in itself as the only goal for millions of people on our planet is obtaining enough calories to survive. For many of these people, fish is life. Tsukiji makes me think of this—all of this—at once. In all my travels, I have not seen any other place where the power and vulnerability of humankind are simultaneously visible in such dramatic fashion. More than anything, Tsukiji is humbling.
The first thing I unpacked upon returning to Halifax was the abalone shell. As our group was filing out of the dining area at Hotel Kanyo, I had gently dropped it in my pocket. I realize some may think that taking part of the animal I had for dinner is a bit sadistic. To me, however, it is not a frivolous souvenir. My rationale for its acquisition goes hand in hand with the reason I have a tuna hook hanging on my wall. This tool is used to drag frozen tuna carcasses across the concrete floor at Tsukiji and I bought it on my first trip to Japan—the one and only time I chose to eat bluefin. To me, these items play a symbolic role rather than a physical one. They are important reminders of decisions I have made, as well as my place in the marine ecosystem—and the responsibility that entails.
*Not all sharks are targeted for the fin trade and many are caught as unintended bycatch in other fisheries. However, due to the underground nature of the shark fin trade and discarding of bycatch at-sea, it is difficult to estimate the total global shark catch. Annual values have ranged from 26-73 million sharks upward of 273 million depending on the methodology used.