Climate change is changing what seafood restaurants like Tojo’s Source and Serve

Climate change is coming for your favorite sushi and seafood restaurants, Vancouver.

According to a new study from the University of British Columbia, warming water temperatures are changing the supply and service of seafood in Vancouver. The study looked at 362 seafood menus from Vancouver restaurants dating back to 1880 and found that due to warming ocean temperatures, we are finding ourselves with more species associated with warm waters on our plates.

Local waters have warmed by about 10C since the 1880s. Around the world, ocean temperatures have increased by about 0.23C per decade between 1970 and 2016 in non-tropical regions, notes the study. This encourages cold water-loving species to pack their bags and seek out new environments closer to the north and south poles.

This creates a “cascading effect on fish and seafood retailers along the seafood chain,” the study says.

Chef Hidekazu Tojo, of Tojo’s restaurant, is credited for inventing the California roll and BC roll and for introducing smoked salmon to Japanese cuisine. He says there are about 60% fewer varieties of seafood available in Vancouver today than when he started cooking here in 1971.
Photo by Michelle Gamege.

It’s something Hidekazu Tojo, the chef behind iconic Japanese restaurant Tojo’s, has followed his entire career.

Tojo has worked with Vancouver seafood for 51 years (34 of them at his restaurant) and says local seafood selection has dropped 60% since the start of his career.

In the 70’s you could go to your seafood supplier, or Chinatown, and find abalone, crab, salmon, shrimp, halibut, perch, redfish, rock crab, lingcod, sea cucumber, sea urchins, octopus, eulachon, menhaden, geoduck, scallop, clams and oysters, he says.

Today you can buy crab, shrimp, salmon, halibut, lingcod, tuna, oysters and sometimes herring or octopus.

“Before, there were more than 20 articles; today it’s about seven o’clock,” he said. In other words, only a third of what was once available. And that was just 50 years ago.

Seafood menus are influenced by many different factors, says William Cheung, the paper’s senior author and professor and director of UBC’s Oceans and Fisheries Institute. There is food culture, chef preferences, availability of aquaculture or farmed seafood, and food imports, to name a few.

A pink plastic crate full of spotted shrimp, bound together with yellow plastic straps.

A case of spot prawns packed at Fisherman’s Wharf and bound for other markets.
Photo by Michelle Gamege.

The study excluded seafood that is not native to British Columbia waters, such as Atlantic salmon, but was unable to control for other factors.

For this reason, Cheung says he was surprised when their data aligned with other studies that have tracked local water temperatures and local seafood catches over the years.

With something like climate change and food availability, the changes can be subtle, but with large datasets the patterns become clearer, he says.

That may be the story told by local seafood menus, but it sounds like a different story on the water.

Dane Chauvel, a fisherman with organic oceansays he’s been fishing Vancouver waters for about 50 years and hasn’t noticed any general trends in the availability or abundance of seafood, with the exception of salmon.

Over the course of a year, a El Nino, a tropical ocean current that slightly warms local waters, could mean you can catch sunfish, mackerel, tuna, and blue, gray and salmon sharks off Haida Gwaii, he says. But in a cooler year, like this spring, when La Niña brings cooler waters, rainier skies, and slower snowpack melt, you get a great salmon run.

“There seems to be a general pattern of ocean warming,” Chauvel says. “We just don’t go out and see tropical fish anymore. What I see from year to year depends on Pacific currents and there hasn’t been a consistent trend.

Salmon is a special case. Their numbers have plummeted over the past four decades, and it’s not just ocean warming that’s impacting fish. Until the 1970s, Canadian fishermen took a average of 24 million salmon, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Today, the annual catch is closer to 2 million. Pacific Wild Conservation Organization said infrastructure such as dams and pipelines, as well as diseases spread by open-net salmon farms and poor fisheries management, leading to overfishing, have also contributed to the decline.

So there is less variety of seafood available and what is left over is more expensive.

“Before, we served all fish. Fish, fish, fish!” says Tojo. One dish would come with salmon steak, teriyaki salmon and tuna. , chicken or tofu.

For example, crab sold for $1.50 a pound in the 1980s — and today it sells for $16 a pound, he says.

“In the 1980s, seafood prices were very reasonable, everyone could afford it,” he says. “Today it is more expensive than meat, which is also expensive.”

King crab is so expensive that Tojo no longer serves it. It used to be that you could buy it for $5 a pound, but now it sells for over $50 a pound, he says.

With warming ocean temperatures, new species are also moving into Vancouver waters.

The Humboldt squid, which can measure up to two meters in length, has been appearing in local waters since the last 18 years old.

British Columbia once had a large Pacific sardine fishery, which collapsed in the 1940s due to overfishing. Warmer waters are creating more favorable conditions for sardines, which could make a big comeback, Cheung says.

Chauvel says he can’t always find Humboldt squid in local waters and the only local sardines he knows of are those his father, also a fisherman, talked about in stories from the time. For now, the only sustainably harvested Humboldt squid that Organic Ocean sells is imported from Peru, he says.

When asked what he would do with an influx of squid and sardines, Chef Tojo thought for a second before laying out his plans for marinating the sardines in light vinegar and a strategy for squeezing the squid to soften it. The most important thing is not to waste seafood, he says. That goes for using a fish’s skin, scales and bones on an individual basis, and not overfishing or overconsuming seafood on a large scale, he says.

Worst-case scenario, he says, if seafood prices continue to rise, he would do what any smart business owner would do and change course.

“Maybe we’d change to an Italian restaurant,” he said with a shrug. “I am very flexible.”  [Tyee]

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