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Vancouver’s RawBar has had to replace popular sushi items with sustainable ones to become 100 per cent Ocean Wise.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's RawBar will become the first sushi restaurant in the city to exclusively serve Ocean Wise fish and seafood, nine years after the national designation was first developed in the city awash in sushi restaurants.

The Vancouver Aquarium established the Ocean Wise program in 2005 to denote fish and seafood caught with the most sustainable means possible and the program soon went Canada-wide. The country's first completely Ocean Wise sushi bar opened in Toronto in November, 2013, and was followed by another in Prince Rupert.

But Vancouver has been tougher.

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"You're really messing with something that people have a comfort zone with and a preconceived notion of what it ought to be. And, that's probably a bit of a risk to take," said Darren Brown, executive chef at RawBar, located in the Fairmont Pacific Rim in downtown Vancouver.

He said the restaurant has been "very close" to 100 per cent for the past year, but taking popular sushi items off the menu and replacing them with sustainable ones has been a challenge.

Teddie Geach, spokeswoman for Ocean Wise, said the program has worked closely with Mr. Brown and his sushi chef to make sure the seafood on their menu is coming from sustainable sources.

It means, for example, ensuring albacore tuna is featured in the sushi instead of other species.

Albacore is a Pacific species caught in B.C. waters by hook and line, a method of fishing that targets one fish at a time, meaning any bycatch can be thrown back alive.

But much of the tuna used in sushi rolls is caught by industrial fleets that use pelagic long-lines – "strings of hundreds and hundreds baited hooks" – that can reach up to 150 kilometres long, Ms. Geach said.

"With that fishing method, you don't just get tuna getting caught on those hooks, you get things like sharks and sea turtles," she said. "You can even get birds like albatross, which are considered endangered, diving down and drowning on those hooks."

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Buying Ocean Wise fish can be a bit more expensive, but Ms. Geach noted there is a "bigger environmental cost" to unsustainably harvested seafood.

"Overfishing is the biggest issue facing our oceans today," she said.

Scientists have estimated 90 per cent of the large predatory fish – such as swordfish, tuna and marlin – have already been overfished.

"This means that we're actually just fishing the last 10 per cent of those animals," Ms. Geach said.

"It's pretty depressing if you look at it that way, but we can actually make a huge difference by making responsible choices when we go to restaurants or grocery stores."

Part of that means changing the mindset of sushi consumers about some of the go-to fish on sushi menus, she said.

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Ms. Geach said if sushi isn't listed as Ocean Wise, chances are it's coming from an unsustainable fishery.

Vancouver's most famous sushi chef, Hidekazu Tojo of Tojo's, is not an Ocean Wise partner. Tojo's menu does not have the Ocean Wise stamp of approval, but he says that he buys sustainably harvested fish. "Maybe it's time to put Ocean Wise on the menu," said Mr. Tojo in an interview.

At RawBar, Mr. Brown wants consumers to understand the value of Ocean Wise.

"If people understand why, then hopefully we're not just feeding them, but we're educating them too," Mr. Brown said.

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