The rich buttery flavor and smooth texture of amberjack has achieved real popularity with American sushi fans. Be warned, however — to get to the bottom of what hamachi sushi is, one must first establish what exactly is being served.
That is not easy. First off, there are four species of amberjack that are found at the sushi bar. To make matters worse, mistranslations are extremely common: Hamachi fish isn’t actually “yellowtail” at all. And the final monkey wrench: Names can change depending on age, size, and location.
So, let’s start at the beginning. What is hamachi fish?
What is Hamachi Sushi Exactly? Is it Yellowtail?
The are several types of fish used in sushi that are labeled hamachi sushi or amberjack sushi. It can get confusing as the names are often used interchangeably. The four species of amberjack fish are:
|Fish Species||English Name||Japanese Name|
|Seriola quinqueradiata||Japanese amberjack||hamachi|
|Seriola lalandi||Yellowtail amberjack||hiramasa|
|Seriola dumerili||Greater amberjack||kanpachi|
|Seriola rivoliana||Almaco jack||hirenaga-kanpachi|
The most common type of amberjack sushi comes from the Japanese amberjack. It is properly translated as hamachi, although age and location can affect the name used. Hamachi sushi is not yellowtail, regardless of what most menus claim.
The title of “yellowtail sushi” properly belongs to hamachi’s close relative, the yellowtail amberjack. This fish is known as hiramasa in Japanese. It’s easy to see why there’s confusion among the two fish in hiramasa vs hamachi debates.
The greater amberjack is also found in sushi restaurants from time to time and is translated as kanpachi.
Also, new farming techniques have resulted in an influx of the almaco jack sushi, which is technically known as hirenaga-kanpachi in Japanese.
According to the Japanese External Trade Organization, there is further delineation between the different species, how they are brought to market and the names that used to market the fish:
There are various designations for the fish depending on the area and the size of the fish, but in general, “Yellowtail” is used as a collective term for both natural and farmed fish, while “young yellowtail” is used only for farmed fish. Production of both natural and farmed is stable and they are in season in the wintertime when they become fatty. Yellowtail available in the wintertime is called “Kan-Buri (winter yellowtail)” which is very popular and also used in the special seasonal cuisine to celebrate the New Year.
Sustainability of the Hamachi Fish
I know no one wants to hear it, but the hamachi that we all love so dearly is a cause for serious concern. The Japanese farming operations that raise these fish employ some questionable practices, which are likely having a negative impact on the local environment.
First and foremost, hamachi fish is generally taken from the wild and reared in captivity, rather than being raised from an egg. This means that even though the fish are farmed, we are still taking them from the wild stocks. Every amberjack raised in a hamachi farm is one that will never have a chance to breed in the wild—and the wild stocks need those breeders. The exact causes are unknown, but wild hamachi populations have been in decline since the 1960s.
Hamachi fish farms in Japan also tend to stock their fish in high-density pens. This kind of aquaculture invites a significant risk of disease outbreak. Not only can these diseases be transferred to neighboring wild populations through escaped fish, but the disease threat is oftentimes countered with antibiotics, which can be passed on to the consumer.
To make matters worse, these farmed fish eat a lot of other fish. Farmed Japanese amberjack are often raised on sardines, and it can take up to eight pounds of sardines to get one pound of salable hamachi sushi.
Wild hamachi from Japan is available at sushi bars from time to time, but little is known about this product.
Wild hamachi from Japan is an open question. Stock strength continues to fall, perhaps due in part to the abduction of fry for hamachi-farming operations. Caution is the watchword here.
Farmed Japanese hamachi fish is a poor choice. Due to its dependence on wild juveniles, reliance on high-density systems, and continual demand for large quantities of fish for feed, this is an option that is best avoided.
Amberjack is an enormous part of the U.S. sushi complex, rivaling such staples as tuna and eel. If we want to continue to enjoy it, we have to change our habits. Order kanpachi, or even hiramasa, instead of hamachi, and as a general rule, eat less amberjack overall.
To learn more about the various types of fish used in seafood and sushi dishes, check out our guide on fish.
Casson Trenor is a frequent commentator on sustainable seafood issues. He has been featured in regional, national, and international media outlets, including CNN, NPR, Forbes, New York Times, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times.