Sunday, January 12, 2014

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg

Why I Read It: Pisces. Will read anything having to do with water.

Summary: Salmon, tuna, bass and cod. Will they survive as wild fish?

My Thoughts: I think that if we really think about it, we will see that the oceans are the last wild frontier. Find an archaeological site on land, wrap a national park around it, and it's generally protected. Find a shipwreck offshore, try to do the same, announce its general whereabouts, then watch its artifacts walk away. Without policing, without a guard standing over it, the site is doomed to be plundered. The same goes with hunting. Designate terrestrial places where hunters are not allowed to go for species protection or human safety, and generally they follow the letter of the law. Fishing? Whaling? Not as much. Like one of the fisherman-turned-conservation strategists in this book said, you don't want to get between a hog and a trough.

We've drawn down the number of living creatures in the sea to scary numbers. Sadly, we've done the same thing with birds. We destroy habitat. We overhunt. We take what we want without considering consequences. We are causing a great extinction of life on earth. It used to be that the job was left to asteroids.

This book deals with the question of sustainability, using the four most common fish found in your grocer's display case as examples. The oceans are remarkably resilient. Give fish a little room to repopulate, and they will, even if drawn down to ten percent of their estimated historic populations. But we don't give them the breathing room to do so. We tax their populations to no end, save for in little corners of the ocean where states or countries hold rights over patches of water that they can actively police.

Do these fish have a future in the wild? Sadly, we can't say for sure. We genetically tinker with fish, tuck them into pens and "farm" them, even tuna, which need great distances of open ocean to truly be tuna. We release farmed salmon into rivers, but based on survival rates in the wild and in captivity, we set free individuals that may not have survived in the wild in the first place, therefore diluting the gene pool. We now scoop up young tuna from the sea to place in farms, therefore not giving them a chance to procreate in the wild, and still give out prizes for the biggest fish caught, usually the BOFFs, the "big old fat females" who are the champion breeders. We are taking away tuna's chance to breed at both ends of its life cycle.

The author suggests we stop subsidizing fishermen and let the industry truly find its level. If it doesn't make financial sense to fish, many fishermen will have to walk away and find other work. In his words we need an "artisanal sector of respectful fishermen-herders who will steward the species" rather than the current system of hunter-gatherers. He states we need more protected, fishing-free zones in the ocean. We need to protect unmanageable species like tuna globally, rather than considering only what's in our own backyard; treat tuna like we treat whales. And we need to protect the rest of the food chain. If we take the small fish out of the chain, we starve the large fish.

Standing where I am, on the coast of Massachusetts, I watch this story play out on a daily basis, with friends on both sides of the fishing/science fence. And I've seen the straddlers, not wafflers, but people who truly understand that fishermen and scientists can work together to find the answers as to why our cod are vanishing, for instance. The science seems rational, but how do you tell a third generation fisherman to pack up, go home, and go drive a truck for a living? In so many ways, our lives are tied to these fish, and changing their future for the better changes ours, and not always in the same direction.


  1. I'd seen this book mentioned somewhere else and it looked interesting. I have it on my TBR list (right next to Kurlansky's Cod).

    The idea of the artisanal fisherman-herders is interesting. I don't know what the answer is. I think that in addition to the difficulty in policing the ocean you also have the problem where people just can't see what's down there. I mean, you and I can see that there are no more passenger pigeons, but we can't see what's going on in the ocean ourselves. We have to rely on other people to tell us.

    I also think it is hard to accomplish anything without getting all countries to buy in. If the US restricts what it allows its fisherman to catch, other countries will just rush in to fill the void.

    Regarding farm fishing, I read recently that of the tilapia (not one of the 4 fish discussed in this book) consumed in this country, upwards of 80 percent comes from China! Wow! (I just looked up info at fishwatch,gov and found that 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported).

    We don't eat a lot of fish at my house. I think I was spoiled as a kid because we got fresh fish from my grandfather. I used to go fishing with him off Manchester. We'd get cod, mackerel, bluefish, flounder and in the winter we'd catch smelt (haven't had any since then). I wonder what changes he would see now over 3 decades later?

    Thanks for the review,

    1. Tilapia is mentioned in the book, as he discusses alternatives, by-catch and other species being affected by the ups and downs of these four fish.

      And you are correct about the need for international cooperation. In some instances it works. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has treaties in place with Caribbean nations in regard to the treatment of humpback whales, for instance, but if those whales stray to other waters where international whaling treatises are not heeded, they risk their lives, and their species' existence by doing so. So goes it with tuna.

      In general, we are down 90% in volume of the fish in the ocean, according to one recent report. By mid-century the ocean could be empty without a massive change in the way we think.

  2. Wow. 90%. That is scary!