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

Salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna, and how humans can literally eat the oceans to extinction.


Four Fish

Penguin Press, 2010, 284 pages



Our relationship with the ocean is undergoing a profound transformation. Just three decades ago, nearly everything we ate from the sea was wild. Today, rampant overfishing and an unprecedented biotech revolution have brought us to a point where wild and farmed fish occupy equal parts of a complex and confusing marketplace. We stand at the edge of a cataclysm; there is a distinct possibility that our children’s children will never eat a wild fish that has swum freely in the sea.

In Four Fish, award-winning writer and lifelong fisherman Paul Greenberg takes us on a culinary journey, exploring the history of the fish that dominate our menus — salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna — and investigating where each stands at this critical moment in time. He visits Norwegian megafarms that use genetic techniques once pioneered on sheep to grow millions of pounds of salmon a year. He travels to the ancestral river of the Yupik Eskimos to see the only Fair Trade–certified fishing company in the world. He makes clear how PCBs and mercury find their way into seafood; discovers how Mediterranean sea bass went global; challenges the author of Cod to taste the difference between a farmed and a wild cod; and almost sinks to the bottom of the South Pacific while searching for an alternative to endangered bluefin tuna.

Fish, Greenberg reveals, are the last truly wild food — for now. By examining the forces that get fish to our dinner tables, he shows how we can start to heal the oceans and fight for a world where healthy and sustainable seafood is the rule rather than the exception.




Paul Greenberg tries valiantly not to depress the reader too much, but it's hard to put an optimistic gloss on what is basically a tale of ecological devastation that's ongoing and shows no signs of stopping. The ocean, traditionally seen as a bottomless bounty of food, is being fished to the last fish. Okay, only some species -- that is, those we eat. Fish stocks are collapsing worldwide, with many down to a small fraction of their historical levels. The response from fishermen? Get them all before they're gone!

Four Fish examines the four most widely eaten fish in the world today: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. The story for each is the same: vast industrialized fishing fleets are harvesting them beyond their recovery limit, fewer are being caught every year, everyone knows it, but since it's a competitive international market, no one is about to stop unless everyone else does, and no one has the power to make everyone stop. Complicating the issue is the growing demand by third world nations, who argue with some justification, if not much pragmatism, that it's unfair that wealthy nations with huge fleets overharvested the seas when the fish were abundant, and are now telling smaller, poorer nations that they should settle for much less for the common good. Unfair? Most assuredly. But if everyone continues to collect their "fair share," there simply won't be any left for anyone. Everyone knows this, but the overharvesting goes on.

The story is more complicated than that, of course. Fishermen know as well as anyone else that they are fishing themselves right out of a livelihood, but when no alternatives are available and no else is about to stop and the demand for bluefin tuna has made them worth upwards of $10,000 per fish, it becomes clear (and Greenberg makes this point several times) that only unilateral government action really has much chance of pulling endangered fish stocks back from the brink. Greenpeace and the WWF has raised public awareness of the plight of whales and dolphins and bluefin tuna, but public awareness that doesn't result in the government declaring a fishing (or whaling) moratorium doesn't accomplish much except make some seafood-eaters feel a little more virtuous.

One of the notable success stories is swordfish, which was once down to less than 10% of its normal population due to overfishing. An advertising campaign persuaded hundreds of seafood chefs to stop serving swordfish, but more importantly, the U.S. government created a "swordfish preserve" in the Atlantic and banned the sale and import of swordfish. As a result, swordfish stocks have almost completely recovered. Unfortunately, this can't be done so easily with every threatened fish species.

Greenberg takes some detours to look at other fish species, such as tilapia, haddock, and basa, as well as looking at whales and whaling as an instructive comparison. (The 1818 case of Maurice v. Judd is described for ironic illustration of how logic, science, and common sense often have little to do with public policy: a New York court declared that whales are fish, dammit!) And in fact, there are fish that can be farmed and harvested in numbers more than sufficient to feed the world and then some. But getting people to give up bluefin tuna and "wild-caught salmon" (there is much discussion of the fuzzy line between and questionable benefits of farmed vs. wild fish) for river fish grown in teeming ponds living on shit, however ecological, has certain PR problems.

Nonetheless, his conclusions are only common sense and widely known, and the recommendations he makes, which ultimately boil down to stop fishing certain species entirely for a period of time and set aside ocean preserves where fish stocks can recover, while shifting our eating habits to more sustainable species, are the only ones likely to work. Since I place little faith in the global community's ability to put science and the public interest above greed, I would say Greenberg's more dire prediction, that the current generation will be the last to see many species of fish caught in the wild, is probably correct.



Verdict: Four Fish is not a scholarly work and the historical overview is broad but shallow. Greenberg is writing at the level of an extended New York Times article: interesting and engaging but he's not going to change the world or seriously deepen your education. It's a very readable book of pop science and public policy aimed at fishermen, seafood lovers, and armchair marine biologists, and it might convince you that you shouldn't eat bluefin.
Tags: author: g, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: science
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