Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Feartured: FOUR FISH by Paul Greenberg [Vol. 4, #4.5]

“The Exploitation
of the World’s Oceans

A review of
Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.
By Paul Greenberg.

Reviewed by Sara Sterley.


FOUR FISH - Paul GreenbergFour Fish:
The Future of the Last Wild Food.

Paul Greenberg.
Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2010.
Buy Now [ Amazon ]

In January of 2010, after much waffling, I decided to stop eating commercially-farmed meat. I came to this conclusion after reading lots of Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry (among others) over the course of a few years. We buy a pig every January and a quarter of grass-fed beef every summer from a local farmer who we have come to know and of whose farming practices we approve. I typically eat vegetarian if we’re out to eat or at a friend’s house, but, increasingly and happily, more and more restaurants are jumping on the local food bandwagon and our friends and family tend to go out of their way to buy meat from a local butcher or farmer’s market when we come over for dinner. All that to say, my resolution has caused little actual sacrifice on my part.

Last year, when I pledged to avoid “bad” meat, I didn’t really set out any rules on fish other than to attempt to stick with fish species rated green by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. I don’t eat much fish, so I didn’t see the need to spend much time deciding what fish to eat and which ones to avoid.

That is, until I finished Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg. Greenberg uses four of today’s most popular and widespread fish species to describe in detail the exploitation of the world’s oceans: salmon, sea bass, cod, and blue fish tuna.

For each of these species, their popularity has brought about their downfall. Unlike traditional agriculture in which man’s original farmers chose the species to breed based on several characteristics including the animal’s hardiness, their compatibility with humans, the amount of time required to tend to them, and their ease in breeding, the fish species we humans have gravitated toward have little to do with the more thoughtful characteristics that guided land animal husbandry.

In the case of salmon, Greenberg traces the near extinction of wild Atlantic salmon to the damming of rivers in hundreds of mill towns in the northeast during the late nineteenth century, which left migrating salmon without spawning grounds. The death knell for wild Atlantic salmon came in the 1950s when fishermen discovered salmon traveling lanes off the coast of Greenland and fished the area ad nauseam. Scientists today are concerned about similar overfishing occurring to the Pacific strains of salmon off the coast of Alaska.

Norwegian biologists and fishermen began breeding salmon in the 1960s, selectively cultivating the best and largest strains of salmon. Farmed salmon now accounts for three billion pounds of salmon annually, three times more than wild salmon. Farmed salmon cause many unforeseen environmental issues: they compete with the wild strains when they escape (which they do frequently), they require five pounds or more of fish feed in order to produce one pound of farmed salmon flesh, and they are far more susceptible to diseases and viruses due to their proximity in captivity.

Sea bass were once used as a “holiday fish” for family’s special occasions. This perception of sea bass has led to its demise in the wild, as well. After the successful breeding of salmon, Israeli and French scientists turned their sights to breeding sea bass due largely to the existing (and lucrative) market for the special occasion fish. Unfortunately, according to Greenberg, “if you were to look for a portrait of an animal that by all rights shouldn’t be domesticated, you would be hard-pressed to find a better example than the European sea bass for your case study.” In nature, less than one percent of sea bass actually make it to adulthood, they are unusually susceptible to a large number of diseases, and their young are particularly difficult to nourish in captivity. Scientists spent years and millions of dollars unlocking the keys to breeding sea bass, largely through hormonal and genetic modifications. Ironically, what scientists learned from breeding sea bass has enabled them to breed nearly every other type of fish that has been farmed over the last half century.

Where sea bass were cultivated because of their reputation as a fish meant for special occasions, cod are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Made famous as a working man’s fish because of its ready availability in the wild, cod now show up largely in mass produced items like fish sticks. But cod are no longer plentiful due to immense overfishing, and the former “everyday fish” is now so depleted in the wild that companies are employing scientists to replicate what they learned in farming sea bass to cultivate cod. The problem with cultivating cod, however, is not only that they do not take well to captivity, but that the finished product does not taste like cod. Greenberg goes on to propose several other species of largely freshwater fish that have characteristics more appropriate for an everyday fish.

Greenberg saves the biggest for last: the blue fin tuna. He describes them – almost lovingly:

For those of us who have seen their overside-football silhouettes arrive, stop on a dime, and then disappear in less than a blink of an eye; for those of us who have held them alive, their smooth hard-shell skins barely containing the surging  muscle power within, they are something bigger than the space they occupy.

Greenberg makes a convincing argument that these “tigers of the sea” should never be fished. Like whales, they should be treated as wildlife, not food.

As I was reading Greenberg’s fascinating history of four of our favored fish, I realized the hypocrisy in my own occasional fish eating, despite my strict meat-eating guidelines.  In accordance with the Seafood Watch Program’s ratings, I have eaten mostly farmed fish that, I now realize more clearly, live in conditions similarly as deplorable to both the fish and the environment as factory farms. It seems to me that the answer to the fish problem is similar to my answer to the meat problem. I think Americans should eat less meat; the meat that they do eat should be raised by family farmers (in their own communities if at all possible) using centuries-old animal husbandry practices that are best for the animals and for the environment. After reading Four Fish, it seems to me that fish should be treated in the same way: fished by fishermen and women that care about the future of that specific species, who use more traditional and safe catching practices, and who impose limits on themselves for the sake of their children’s children having the opportunity to eat fish too.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


One Comment

  1. Really good points, Sara! Sounds like a great book