The real deal about eel

June 3, 2010, 12:54 a.m.

Next time you’re craving a roll from the Axe and Palm, think twice about choosing the unagi or freshwater eel, variety.

Despite its popularity, the eel-farming process is not sustainable–each year more juveniles are removed from the wild, and fewer are left to grow and one day reproduce to replenish wild stocks.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch report about unagi, 90 percent of eels are raised by “aquaculture,” another name for “farming” seafood. Unagi received a red “avoid” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for, among other things, being overfished. Seafood is given a red rating when the fish is “caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.”

Throw in habitat destruction and dammed rivers that block eels’ return to the sea, and the plight of the freshwater eel becomes dire.

In some areas of the world, it has gotten so bad for the eel that government agencies are forcing fishermen to put their nets away for a season. Eel fishing will be banned in the oceans surrounding the Netherlands, where the European eel once thrived, from September to November starting this year. This was primarily done as a response to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora of 2007 placing the European eel on the list of “species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”

While Stanford Dining’s Sustainable Food Program goals include prioritizing “food that is community-based, fair and ecologically sound,” Matthew Rothe, sustainable food coordinator at Stanford Dining, was not aware of a specific sustainability policy for the items in the grab-n-go sections.

“I’ll need to check in with the supplier and with our unit manager to get some clarification on the matter and to discuss possible corrective actions,” Rothe said.

The previous sustainable food coordinator, Erin Gaines, said that she did not do much with unagi in particular during her tenure. However, Gaines was instrumental in organizing Sustainable Seafood Week on campus in November 2008.

“For seafood purchasing, Stanford Dining follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood watch card,” Gaines said. “And since unagi is on the red list, our policy was not to serve it, or at least enter the process of phasing it out.”

Lwin Maung Maung and his partner hand roll more than 200 sushi trays daily for the Stanford students and visitors who eat at Tresidder Memorial Union and the Axe and Palm.

Maung carves slices out of a hunk of bright pink fish and arranges them into an aesthetically appealing pattern. Preparing for the second sushi delivery of the day, he worked calmly and with purpose, expertly wielding a lime green-handled knife. Tall with short brown hair and kind eyes, Maung, who answers to “the sushi guy,” has made sushi for the Stanford community for seven years.

He seals each package with a light blue “Southern Tsunami” sticker.

“It’s like a McDonalds, but on a smaller scale,” said Angie Canchola, franchise administrative supervisor at Advanced Food Concepts–the parent company of Southern Tsunami, whose fish come from Taiwan. “We supply them with the fish, and they prepare it.”

Advanced Food Concepts is one of the largest fish distributors in North America, distributing fish to more than 3000 sushi bars in the United States and Canada. Many of their products can be found in grocery stores, hospitals, universities and amusement parks under their Southern Tsunami label.

But back home on the Farm, that lime green-handled knife slices and chops, while students grab trays of unagi from the Axe and Palm before going to Old Union to study.

Sustainable food student groups do not appear to be putting much pressure on Stanford Dining to hasten this process.

“It is not in the nature of Students for a Sustainable Stanford to boycott dining institutions like the Axe and Palm as we have been working with their staff to transition,” said David Geeter ’11. “We value our ability to make long-term partnerships with staff and faculty on campus that value student input to make measurable changes over time.”

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