« December 2009 Table of Contents
One on One: Casson Trenor
Senior markets campaigner--Greenpeace USA; Founder--Tataki Sushi, San Francisco; Author--"Sustainable Sushe: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time"
By James Wright
December 01, 2009
"I really believe the world is a real blessing to humans and it's our responsibility to preserve it for future generations."
With schooling in environmentalism and international studies, a reverence for the oceans and a passion for Japanese cuisine, Casson Trenor has fashioned an intimate perspective on sustainable seafood and how to balance the pursuit of ecological morality with the desire for indulgence. He's either a paradox or a pioneer, as possibly the only environmental activist - a staff member of Greenpeace, no less - to have ever helped open a sushi restaurant.
A lifelong raw bar reveler, Trenor a few years ago had to reconcile with the notion that his gastronomic proclivities had become a burden on the oceans' abundance; making sushi sustainable became his mission. In 2008, he helped San Francisco sushi chefs Raymond Ko and Kin Lui open Tataki Sushi by providing guidance - and confidence - that the daring duo could source exclusively sustainable seafood and not contribute to the overfishing reports they were constantly reading about. It is a commitment that very few sushi chefs have made. While some eco-warriors might deem such a venture a transgression, Trenor sees Tataki as the ultimate test kitchen for the solution to dwindling fish stocks and detrimental fishing and fish-farming practices. He has "impunity over the fish," he says, but is not involved in daily operations.
The tiny but bustling restaurant, on which the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) Seafood Watch cards adorn every table, is all about alternatives. Elbow-to-elbow diners hungering for melt-in-your-mouth bluefin tuna are in for a stunning departure from the sushi status quo. In the spots that hamachi, sake (farmed salmon) and unagi might normally occupy at a traditional sushi restaurant, you'll find instead Kona kampachi, Arctic char and "Faux-nagi," an imaginative dish comprising blowtorch-glazed Canadian black cod instead of the ubiquitous smoked eel.
Trenor, 30, has also helped another sushi restaurant conduct an extreme green makeover. Seattle sushi chef Hajime Sato, owner of Mashiko, eliminated all species Trenor deemed unsustainable - even the monkfish liver dishes that made him famous. Trenor's impact is growing: His first book, "Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time," was released earlier this year. The MBA's inaugural Seafood Watch sushi guide used much of the three years of research that went into the book (Trenor counts Japanese among the five languages he speaks). I caught up with him in late October, a short while after the Sustainable Seafood Multi-Stakeholder Summit was held in his adopted home in the City by the Bay.
WRIGHT: Is sustainable seafood your calling?
TRENOR: I grew up near a little beach in Mukilteo, Wash., and a lot of my early memories have to do with the ocean, digging for clams, stuff like that. I've always loved seafood; it's a big part of who I am. Over the course of my life I watched that little beach die. Pollution, runoff, overdevelopment; it got to the point where I wouldn't touch a clam from that beach with a 10-foot pole.
The majesty and mystery of everything below the waves - it's been a huge part of my life. I just marvel at it. I really believe the world is a real blessing to humans and it's our responsibility to preserve it for future generations. It would be a travesty if through our actions we destroyed it for profits in the short term. As someone who takes my paycheck from the oceans, it's my responsibility to steward it properly.
You once crewed a Sea Shepherd vessel battling Japanese whalers. Was that successful?
Absolutely. But I am frustrated with illegal whaling and have a real problem with the reasoning. It's not because my ethics prohibit it. The problem I have is they are killing whales for reasons that have nothing to do with whales. It's about politics, national sovereignty and drawing the line in the sand about [traditional practices]. I wish there was more pressure, from a top-down policy and business standpoint. If we don't want [the Japanese] to kill whales, why aren't we doing anything about it at a higher level?
What impact have Greenpeace's retailer rankings had on seafood-sourcing practices?
I think it's helped a lot; it's created a lot of discussion. It's yet another voice saying, "Hey, we're doing our homework, this is our opinion." There's only so many times a company or a consumer can ignore that.
Companies are loath to give Greenpeace credit for changing. Does this bother you?
No. I know that change has occurred, that certain retailers have made positive things happen. [Credit] doesn't matter; what matters is there's been change on the water.
What is a common misconception about Greenpeace?
That it's not a scientific organization. We have extensive, thorough science and a large lexicon of data. We're not rabbit activists that get fired up and run around with signs. That's not at all what we are.
Trader Joe's accused us of going after them with no rhyme or reason. But we attempted to contact them for 18 months without a single response. The ocean does not have the luxury of that kind of arrogant mentality in the corporate sector.
How difficult are purchasing changes for sustainability?
It was not easy for me to recognize that the state of the oceans meant that I shouldn't be eating sushi as much as I had. It takes a while to arrest the inertia. By the same token, "Carting Away the Oceans" is coming up on two years. That is a lot of time, and we've seen retailers make changes and it's really refreshing.
With sushi, you just have to stop selling bluefin tuna. You have to be honest: Do you want to run a restaurant that's in harmony with the oceans or not? If you drop one thing from the menu it's not going to sink you.
Those of us who work in seafood, we talk about fish all day - that's what we do. The guys at the [retail] seafood counter say if consumers want sustainable seafood they'll tell us. But consumers don't have time to learn about sustainable seafood the way we do. How can we ethically put the onus on them? In a perfect world my book would be unnecessary.
Do people come to Tataki strictly for its environmental profile?
All the time. Every night. That's how we got started. The way it works is this: You can be sustainable and customers will come in once because they're curious. If you want them to come back, it's about quality. It's about taste. It's about the dining experience. We're trying to prove you can have sustainability and sushi hand in hand. If it meant you had to give up taste and quality it wouldn't work.
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at email@example.com