Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food should be required reading for anyone who eats seafood. The assignment won’t be a burden. Greenberg is an unfailingly entertaining writer, and his book arms you with the information you need to make intelligent choices when you are confronted by the confusing and sometimes contradictory offerings at the fish counter.
Greenberg tells his story through what he calls four “archetypes of fish flesh,” salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna—species that humans are attempting to “master in one way or another” either by managing wild populations or by domesticating them and raising them as we do hogs, poultry, sheep, and cattle.
An avid angler, Greenberg takes fish conservation personally. The book starts with a story about all the largemouth bass dying in his favorite boyhood fishing hole in Connecticut—a microcosm of what’s happening in all of the world’s oceans today to the fish species people happen to like to eat. The four fish he has chosen to focus on mark distinct steps in the grim worldwide decline and human attempts to ameliorate it.
Salmon are tough, lightening fast, capable of migrating thousands of miles over oceans and up seething rivers, but they cannot tolerate the encroachment of civilization. When people come with their farm fields, dams, and mills, salmon begin to disappear. So we’ve tried to tame them and raise them in pens—never mind that it would be hard to pick a species whose natural traits are less suitable for domestication.
Sea bass live near the shore and were among the first saltwater fish humans caught for food. Now, they too, survive primarily on fish farms.
Cod, with its white flaky meat, was the first fish harvested on an industrial scale, creating a template for the factory ships that rove the high seas. Today, cod stocks everywhere are depleted and in some cases nearly extinct. Instead of turning to farming, fishermen have moved their voracious attention to other mild, white-fleshed species, such as Chilean sea bass and Alaskan pollock.
With Atlantic blue fin populations on the brink of collapse and regulators failing to take the obvious conservation steps, the chapter on tuna exploitation is particularly timely. Noting that there are only enough mature Atlantic bluefin left to give 43 million sushi lovers “one last bite,” Greenberg calls the quest for tuna the “last great gold rush of wild food.
What can be done? Greenberg literally travels the world in search of answers. He visits native Yupik salmon fishermen for wild salmon at the mouth of Alaska’s Yukon River and then whisks off to Norway to interview one of the unrepentant founders of modern salmon aquaculture, stopping off in New Brunswick to interview a scientist who is trying to make raising salmon less harmful to the environment. He visits fish farmers in Greece, Scotland, Hawaii and Vietnam. Unlike other diatribes bemoaning the sad state of seafood, Four Fish ends by proposing workable solutions to the problems—all proven to be successful in isolated cases. Greenberg takes a refreshingly balance approach to the aquaculture-versus-wild-caught debate, making it clear that there are good and bad ways to do both. The wild species we choose for farming, he says, should be efficient feeders, not reliant on massive quantities of fish meal and fish oil produced from fully exploited wild stocks of anchovies and herring. They should be adaptable, and their presence should not spread disease to wild stocks. For wild fish, he suggests drastically reducing fishing and creating no-catch sanctuaries in important areas of the ocean ecosystem.
Ultimately, the message is that eating the last wild food is a privilege that we should not take for granted.