The Future of the Wild Ocean

Fish market

Paul Greenberg cast his first fishing line before he got to first grade. The author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, moving from cottage to cottage on various estates in the wealthy town. “I grew up kind of poor, sort of a ‘Slums of Beverly Hills’ story,” he said. And though his mom  encouraged him to share her interest in birding, Greenberg said, “What got me going, to her chagrin, was going out and catching and eating fish.” While writing Four Fish, fishing transformed from something Greenberg saw as a personal hobby to something bigger – “an issue of the survival of the wild ocean.” Below, Greenberg explains why we eat the fish we eat, how we catch or farm it, and whether it’s risking the oceans.

Q. Why four fish? How did these four become our eating staples?

Four Fish, by Paul GreenbergA. A word about the fish as they are. Anybody who knows anything about fishing who sees salmon, tuna, bass and cod on the cover will say, well, which salmon? Which tuna? Which bass? Which cod? They represent broad categories of fish. Salmon has at least two genuses of fish. Bass has at least four or five different taxonomic families. Common names are misleading when it comes to fish.

But what they represent to me was the kind of flesh archetypes that an average seafood consumer recognizes in the marketplace. There’s this theory I developed over the course of working on this book. Your average person, someone who is intelligent and food conscious, you go into the fish market or a restaurant and you open the menu and you have the expectation of seeing these archetypes to feel like you’re looking at a complete menu. If you want something light and flaky and deep-fry-able, you want cod. You may want a whole fish – something meatier and broil-able – and that’s where you get your bass. In the book I focus on European sea bass, but it might be striped or black sea bass or Chilean sea bass. Then you’re going to want something pink and succulent – that’s salmon, and you might have it smoked or baked, it’s oily enough to withstand baking. And if you want something steaky and meat-like and grill-able, that’s tuna. That’s how the consumer approaches seafood. So why not take a consumer lens and look at the world of the ocean through that lens? It was not a lens I was used to looking through. I came at it as a sportsman. I like the diversity of fish. But I thought I’d look at the flesh we put on our plates, and how we can get it on our plates in an environmentally sustainable way.

There’s another factor in this. I’ve read Michael Pollan, and he very aptly divides up the food system into four meals in Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s a useful way of approaching a huge topic. Then, when I looked at it more and more, the number four has a certain kind of enchanted quality to it. If you look at early humans, they ate dozens of mammals – muskrats, elks – but in the end, when domestication started about 10,000 years ago, we ended up with four main mammals that we eat – pigs, cows, sheep and goats. And again, if you look at birds, we used to eat many more – snipe, woodcock, everything – but now we’re down to four birds that are our main staples: turkey, chicken, duck and geese. If humanity has this tendency to pare things down, I thought, what are the four fish we could look at?

Each of the four fish also represents different phases of fishing that we’ve gone through over the last few thousand years. Salmon we get home-delivered – they come to our rivers, and were probably some of the first large fish we ate in any great numbers. Then, going out further from shore are the fish we access by net, by small coastal fisheries, so I chose bass for that zone. Further still, when we started having an impact on coastal fish up to the continental shelf about a thousand years ago, that’s how we got into cod in a serious way. Finally, tuna actually cross open oceans and end up in international waters. That’s the latest phase of fishing.

Q. How did we come to eat so much seafood?

A. It’s certainly a trend. The per capita seafood consumption has nearly doubled in the last half century. The world catch has gone up markedly.

I think a big part of it was World War II, and the rise of a sort of post-war, petrochemically-driven seafaring economy. Certainly the appearance of cheap oil has let fishing expand to places it couldn’t have. World War II was instrumental in launching new technology like SONAR, which helps us map the bottom of the sea and identify individual schools of fish. The other thing that comes out of petrochemical era is polymers woven into fishing nets. During the 1960s and 1970s, Asian countries developed huge drift nets, which relatively recently were made illegal on the high seas. Some of these nets were many miles long. Without petrochemical advances you couldn’t have made a net that way, it would have been too heavy.

Also after World War II, though this hasn’t been fully documented, much of Europe and large parts of Asia and Oceania were devastated from the war. They needed some way to get calories on the table. Wild fish were probably in better shape after the war. Fish were part of how we clawed our way to viability after the war.

The second part of the story is the discovery of omega-3 fatty acids, which helps vascular tissue remain pliant. It’s a heart healthy component of the diet. That made a lot of people in developed countries look at fish as this healthy alternative to beef or even chicken, just in terms of protein per unit of mass. There’s low fat in most fish, so it’s less artery-clogging than beef. That fueled demand.

It’s hard to say whether it was health or technology that really pushed up demand though. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg question.

Q. How does fish farming compare to land-based agriculture in terms of environmental damage?

A. There’s a scientist at the University of Washington, Ray Hilborn, who did a recent study comparing fishing to terrestrial agriculture. He found that fishing was better and more environmentally friendly, actually. In terms of raw damage to the environment, what’s the biodiversity of a cornfield? Zero or one. It’s one species. But fishing, while you might cause depletion or elimination of a type of fish, a marine ecosystem has so much more biodiversity than a field.

It’s important to start thinking about fisheries in the context of food production. As far as fish farming versus agriculture, there are many things to recommend fish farming over land-based systems of animal husbandry. Fish have the potential to be extremely efficient farm animals. There are a lot of ways terrestrial animals spend energy that fish don’t have to spend. Land animals are warm-blooded, so they have to warm their bodies. They have to stand against gravity. Fish float and are cold-blooded, and they can convert feed into flesh in a more efficient way.

But look at the context of where we are in human civilization – there are no more wild animals in the context of farming when we farm animals on land. We’ve gotten rid of a huge number of deer, elk, bison that might have been on the plain at the same time as the cattle. What that means is you don’t have to worry about the interaction of cattle with wild animals. You don’t have to worry about disease from cow to bison. With fish farming, most of it today unfortunately still occurs in a wild context. Salmon, for example, you tend to farm in the same environment where wild salmon prosper. You have these viral infections that can jump ship from farm to wild. You also have issues were pestilent materials come out of farming operations – uneaten feed pellets, excretions. If you don’t practice proper husbandry, you end up screwing the habitat for farm fish and wild fish.

Q. What’s the status of environmental regulation around the world to make sure we farm fish properly?

A. It’s a case-by-case and region-by-region basis. For instance there was a disease that first appeared in Chile and spread around the world through Norway, through the Bay of Fundy and Atlantic Canada. It’s infectious salmon anemia, which causes massive crop loss. The provincial government of New Brunswick introduced a management plan, mandating the rotation of crops.

The U.S. actually doesn’t do a lot of fish farming, because a lot of states don’t allow it. This has been a big battle in the environmental world, where aquaculturists make the argument that farming fish will reduce pressure on wild stock, and environmentalists say it damages the environment and causes a net loss. What’s happening in effect is that the U.S. has outsourced the problem. Eighty percent of our seafood is imported at this point. We have good fishing regulations in this country, but this doesn’t stop us from importing fish caught using questionable practices. It doesn’t stop us from importing farmed fish, which may not be the best environmental practice. We do limit importation of aquacultural products that use certain chemicals, but there’s not a whole heck of a lot we do to make sure that environmentally clean products get into the fish market in the first place.

Q. In Four Fish you discuss the concept of the next seafood. What should we be eating?

A. I make the argument that this word seafood is kind of a cruel word, in that it lumps all of these wild animals together into this category: here’s a bunch of stuff from the ocean that we eat. What I recommend is, if we’re going to continue to eat wild fish, we need to change the way we think about them. We need to think about them as game rather than industrial products. That’s one side of the equation. What I’d like to see is an emerging seafood market where wild fish are much more valued. It’s the equivalent in a way of grass-fed beef. We should eat less of it per meal, and value it more, and it should cost us more. The way we’ve been treating it has not been fair from an ecological and ethical viewpoint.

On the flip side, I had a very interesting conversation in Vietnam a couple years ago with an aquaculture scientist. He fought in the war and remained a dyed-in-the-wool communist. Looking ahead to the future he said there will be two kinds of fish – these valuable, prized, expensive fish, and farmed fish that are run-of-the-mill, not spectacular on the plate, but do the job of feeding people. The four fish aren’t necessarily those fish. By and large the future seafood, the fish I think can stand up to industrial husbandry and serve a larger economic role, they tend to be tropical fish like tilapia, catfish, another Brazilian fish called pacu. Tropical fish tend to be much more feed-efficient. They grow faster in warmer weather. They’re often freshwater rather than marine. I’m not sure why that’s so but it’s often the case. They’re more blue-collar fish overall. They’re more herbivorous than carnivorous.

Tilapia you can raise on algae. That’s not how they’re currently farmed – they’re fed with soy and corn and fishmeal. They’re used by poorer farmers as a polycultural crop – the fish eats waste and algae, and provides protein as well. Tilapia is a development fish, promoted a lot by the Peace Corps. They were found in Africa to be this great fish, fast growing, able to survive in a number of different environments. There are tilapia all over the world, but Africa’s key species from the Nile and Mozambique are the most common, and they were exported to Indonesia, to South America. They serve a dual role – they’re used in small artisanal ways for local farmers, and farmed in large-scale operations to serve a first-world market.

Q. How bad is the state of fish and the oceans today?

A. Sometimes the media and even my publishers like to push this gloom-and-doom message, the end of wild fish. What I think is important to remember is that the annual global catch is around 90 million tons of seafood a year. That’s the equivalent of the weight of the human population of China. It seems like a lot. But it’s amazing that in this day and age the ocean is able to produce that much wild food without our having to do anything about boosting production. There’s a frequent distortion in the media that gives the impression that wild fish are about to become extinct, which is far from the case. What’s happening now is the early signs of the loss of the global abundance of wild fish. We don’t want to get to the point of having to go on safari to see these fish. We want to live in an atmosphere of abundance. But we have a relationship with fish that’s disrespectful but useful economically. If we don’t establish a good relationship, we’ll just run roughshod over them and eliminate ocean life as we know it. I don’t want people to come away from this book thinking it’s apocalypse time. It’s time to do some major rethinking so that we don’t have an apocalypse.

*Photo courtesy Thomas Quine.