Finding sustainable sushi in Seattle can be complicated, but the good news is there's a great new guide to help you, and some delicious choices are available.

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Recently I did a good deed: I plunked myself down at one of my favorite sushi bars, handed the chef a folded piece of paper, and ate eight perfect pieces of nigiri sushi.

The place was Chiso, in Fremont, the chef was Taichi Kitamura, and the paper was the Sustainable Seafood pocket guide, 2009 sushi edition, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I asked the chef to stick to the green list (“best choices”) with occasional forays into the yellow list (“good alternatives”).

Kitamura didn’t flinch, and the result was staggeringly good. Kitamura served geoduck; Lummi Island sockeye salmon; bigeye tuna maguro and toro; Alaskan uni, or sea urchin. It was not exactly an exercise in deprivation.

That’s the good news about making sustainable choices at the sushi counter: Some of the world’s most delicious fish are abundant, inexpensive and caught in ways that have little adverse effect on the health of the ocean and inland waterways.

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The bad news: Sushi nomenclature is a mess (the word “tai” alone can refer to dozens of species of snapper and rockfish), and the person making your sushi often has no idea where that hamachi, or yellowtail, came from. “I think the younger sushi chefs are probably more aware,” said Kitamura, “but old-school sushi chefs are not really paying attention to stuff like that.”

Some of the most popular sushi pieces, I’m afraid, are on the red, or “avoid,” list. These include farmed salmon (pollution and negative impact on wild stocks); unagi, or freshwater eel (overfishing and dicey farming practices); and bluefin tuna (severe overfishing). Not to mention shrimp, most of which comes from Asian farms with heinous environmental practices. (British Columbia spot prawns, usually served raw as amaebi, are on the green list. Thank God.)

Ken Peterson, a spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says the pocket guide is not out to demonize chefs, and the aquarium offers free services to help chefs adapt their menus and find suppliers of sustainable fish. “If people who are eating sushi aren’t asking the chefs the questions that other seafood diners are now asking chefs,” he said, “the restaurants don’t feel the incentive to get more information themselves or change their choices.”

Casson Trenor helped research the pocket guides; “I have them on my person at all times.” But he says they’re not enough. Trenor, business-development director for the environmental group FishWise and author of the recently published book “Sustainable Sushi,” calls for stripping all red-list items off menus.

That’s what he’s done at Tataki, the San Francisco restaurant where he’s a partner. There he serves 18 choices of sustainably sourced nigiri. Bamboo Sushi in Portland has a similar menu and is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

What about Seattle? Bamboo hopes to open a branch here at some point.

Kitamura thought about going all-sustainable at Chiso and decided his customers wouldn’t accept it. At his more expensive upstairs restaurant, Chiso Kappo, he keeps it sustainable — up to a point: When I came up to take a peek, Kitamura was cutting up a beautiful piece of bluefin tuna.

“I can’t afford not to have toro on my menu,” he said. “I’m charging $100 a person, and I don’t want to disappoint my guests like that.” When bluefin is too expensive or unavailable, Kitamura serves troll-caught bigeye tuna (from the yellow list); frankly, I can’t tell the difference.

I took the pocket guide to an inexpensive neighborhood sushi restaurant, which I won’t single out. The salmon was farmed and the hamachi farmed outside the U.S. (red); the cooked shrimp was imported (ditto). But it was easy to make my own sustainable sushi platter of mackerel, albacore, kona kampachi (like the best hamachi you’ve ever tasted, and sustainably farmed to boot), striped bass, a spot prawn and a vegetarian futomaki. I’m not sure if the albacore was a good choice, since it appears on all three lists, depending on how it’s caught.

Lunch was $12.50, and it came with a lagniappe: the crispy fried head of the B.C. spot prawn whose tail I ate raw. I thought of it as a little present for trying to do the right thing.

Seattle writer Matthew Amster-Burton can be reached at Seattle freelance photographer Barry Wong can be reached at

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