Famed Fishmonger at Pike Place
by Lynda V. Mapes
"For us it was a matter of our customers and what they wanted.
We had people who hated us for selling it," Yokoyama said.
It's already the loudest and most entertaining fish market in Seattle. But can those fish-tossing mongers at Pike Place Fish Market, a beloved Seattle icon, become sustainable too?
Owner John Yokoyama says he is determined to try, as he yanks some species, hikes prices for others, and reviews everything at his market stand from lighting to packaging with an intent to adopt more sustainable practices.
Even figuring out just what sustainable means is a tall order. Unlike organic, or country-of-origin labeling, no government policy sets minimum standards for the marketing claim "sustainable."
Seafood is a last frontier in the feel-good food fight, and it's inherently complex. Involving hundreds of species, dozens of gear and harvest practices, and countries all over the globe, seafood is one of the most far-flung, complex, inscrutable foods to follow from source to plate.
But sustainable seafood's the new thing, and everybody's talking about it. Wal-Mart is promising to use only sustainable sources for its wild seafood -- a small portion of its fish on offer. Target has announced it will no longer sell farmed salmon. Safeway, Publix and other mainstream supermarket chains also are examining their practices.
While definitions vary, the term "sustainable" is broadly understood to describe practices that will enable both the product sold, and the environment that produces it, to endure into the future.
Some conservation organizations and private certification firms offer lists of recommended seafood. Their standards differ. And entire realms of consideration, such as carbon footprint, are not part of the metric. That, for some, renders the sustainable label suspect.
Yet here comes Yokoyama, wading in deep, to assess everything from how his tuna is caught to where to get a replacement product for sheets of Styrofoam used to line shipping boxes. Not only that, but his commitment has a distinctly Seattle touch.
To him, it's about not only conservation, but human relationships. Going sustainable, Yokoyama says, is just one more step in the evolution of his business, where he and the staff have adopted a high-minded goal far beyond selling fish.
"Our commitment first is to make a difference on this planet, one person at a time," Yokoyama said. "We are about peace and prosperity for everyone. Then we will sell fish."
Some fish have to go
More than 100 varieties of seafood from around the globe are displayed on beds of immaculate shaved ice at Pike Place Fish Market.
Rachel the Pig stands guard nearby, and droves of tourists are enthralled and clap as the boys, as the workers call themselves, hurl salmon back and forth over the counter. There's one fish a day sacrificed for this show, so the goods aren't damaged.
You can buy just about anything here. Affordable, local shellfish. King crab claws from Russia and tuna from the Philippines.
Fish flash frozen at sea; fish caught and airlifted fresh to market, or pulled from the deep freeze for the few customers who occasionally ask for it -- kippers, anyone? No problem.
One thing you won't find for sale here anymore is wild steelhead from the Olympic Peninsula.
Yokoyama and his staff recently announced on their blog they would no longer sell the delicacy, after a barrage of angry e-mails organized by steelhead sport anglers. In the process, the staff decided to review everything sold at the market, with a goal of going 100 percent sustainable.
Along the way, they stepped squarely into a long-running political fight between tribal and sport fisherman -- and discovered that while it sounds simple, the word sustainable means many things to many people.
Yokoyama said he doesn't believe the steelhead he sold were unsustainable, but he thinks having angry customers is.
"For us it was a matter of our customers and what they wanted. We had people who hated us for selling it," Yokoyama said. "That's not what we are about. We are committed to world peace. Just that fact that we were getting people upset in the world is not part of our vision as a company. As soon as that steelhead issue came up, it was a key to our intention, a trigger."
For Yokoyama, a lifelong resident of the Puget Sound region, selling fish is just a small part of his market's mission. Through team-building meetings, consensus goal-setting, and yes, their earsplitting call-and-response routine, the staff works as a synchronized unit.
"Pound of crab, wrapped for travel," barks one monger, and in seconds the whole staff repeats it with a timing and gusto that would be the envy of any opera company.
It's not just theater, although the crowd loves it, Yokoyama says. "It creates teamwork, and you have to be alert," Yokoyama said. "When everyone's yelling together, the team is working."
He has created a training video sold worldwide, and his fish mongers are the stars of management seminars across the country.
While going sustainable might seem unlikely, so did becoming world famous, a goal the market staff set for itself and actually achieved. So why not?
Tom Fitzgerald, senior policy specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund oceans program, predicts an uphill battle.
"They've already had a taste for what's in store for them, at least on a small scale, and something that will speak early on to their credibility is how transparent they are as to their decision process, and how they determine if something qualifies," Fitzgerald said.
"They could be the greatest people in the world, or they could be completely full of crap."
Next off the inventory at Pike Place Fish Market, Yokoyama said: Chilean sea bass. As soon as he's out of stock, Yokoyama says, he won't sell any more, because it's overfished.
As for the market's trademark monkfish, always front and center of the display, with a string attached to its jaw so the mongers can make it gape? It's history, too. King crab from Russia? A goner.
"The way we fish today, it's raping the oceans," Yokoyama said.
"I see it right here at Puget Sound. I used to go out with my dad and catch everything, ling cod, black cod, salmon. Now you go out all day and don't even get a bite. Columbia River spring chinook? We used to die for those. They were 30 pounds with a lot of fat in their bodies because they have to swim so far. That's why Columbia River king was so good. Now all we get are the hatchery fish; they are not the same product."
Yokoyama's market offers only wild salmon right now, but farmed salmon is a staple in the winter offseason. Whether he'll continue to carry farmed salmon at all is under review.
Wild salmon is a delicacy unaffordable to many. Wild king is $25 a pound at Yokoyama's market right now, and that's not even the glamour puss Copper River salmon is, at nearly $40 a pound. Of course prices will drop come summer.
But the year-round cheapest alternative, farmed salmon, is among the dirty dozen on nearly every sustainable-fish list out there.
At issue are a host of concerns, including pollution caused by concentrating thousands of fish in open pens, such as floating feed lots; depletion of wild fish stocks to produce the feed for farmed salmon; and Atlantic salmon escaping into Pacific waters.
Outlook for customers
Paying more for good food and watching some foods disappear from what's now available is exactly what customers need to expect, said Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which publishes a widely used list of recommended sustainable seafoods.
"The cheap seafood in the market doesn't take into account the cost of pollution and ecosystem damage at bringing it to us at an artificially cheap price," he said.
If wild salmon are less frequently available at an affordable price, maybe that is telling us something we need to hear, Peterson said. "When you are trying to maintain a tradition of wild salmon, you also need an ecosystem where they are abundant."
Yokoyama bought the market stand in 1965 for $3,500. He was 25, had $300 in the bank and figured owning his own business would be the best way to pay off his treasured new Buick Riviera. "That's the only reason I did it," he said.
His own expectations have come a long way since then, and so have his customers', Yokoyama said.
"We are going to lose some products, but we are also going to gain some," he said. "I don't think you could have done this even 20 years ago. But today, I think customers will support it."
see the video
read the script
learn the songs