The Future of the Last Wild Food
Penguin Press, 304pp, $25
An avid fisherman from his early childhood through his teens, Paul Greenberg returned to the sport in his thirties. He remembered catching "bucketsful" when he was a kid. A decade or so later, a two fish day was considered a successful outing. (He is now in its early forties.) What had caused this immense change? Four Fish is the result of the wide-ranging research Greenberg conducted in the effort to answer that question.
The four fish of the title, salmon, bass, cod and tuna were chosen for Greenberg's scrutiny because these four species dominate today's fish markets. Each type is "an archive of a particular epochal shift." Salmon "represents the first wave of human exploitation...where domestication had to be launched to head off extinction." Sea Bass "represents the near shore...where Europeans first learned to fish and where we also found ourselves outstripping the resources of nature and turning to more sophisticated domestication." Cod were early known for their "astronomical numbers which heralded in the era of industrial fishing"...which shortly and spectacularly collapsed the fishery.
Tuna (all species) "range across waters that belong to multiple nations or no nations and is thus 'stateless' making it hard to regulate the fishery" and the great fish have become "subject to the last great gold rush of wild food...a 'sushi binge' that is now pushing us into a realm of science fiction level fish-farming research." They have yet to be domesticated. (Who can even imagine it!)
The market today consists of about half wild, half farmed fish. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world. The farming of salmon, bass and cod practiced in many nations. But current farming methods are far from a solution to the appetite of the burgeoning human population. In fact, because we have chosen to domesticate the fish that satisfy our "whimsical gustatory predilections" rather than "sound ecological husbandry" and continue to ignore the perilous shrinking of wild stocks we are wasting both resources and the time that may be left to repair the damage we have done.
There are severe problems with raising these particular fish domestically. In his peripatetic research, Greenberg first visits the Yukon, one of the last two primeval salmon territories. (Eastern Russia is the other.) Native people lawfully subsistence fish the Yukon River's 2000 mile watershed as the fish return to spawn. When the fish count conducted by Fish and Game indicates, a commercial opening is allowed. But then, there is a year when hardly a fish makes the river run; so much for wild Alaskan King Salmon. Greenberg next ventures to Norway where salmon have been farmed on an ever increasing scale since the late 1960s. Currently they produce about three billion pounds a year. Southern Chile also has a large salmon farming industry which is relatively pollutant free simply because there is less industry in the Southern hemisphere. PCB contamination is an ongoing problem in the north and being a net protein loss feeder remains a problem in both hemispheres.
But, just as I finished reading Four Fish, the Prince Edward Island company, Aquabounty, made headlines with its announcement of developing a viable genetically modified salmon that grows twice as fast as other farmed salmon (and is, consequently, twice as profitable). However, all the objections of GMO operations apply.
Although about 180 million pounds of farmed sea bass comes to market (compared to 10 million pounds of "wild" bass) it is another inappropriate species to farm. Like salmon, sea bass eat wild fish and require three times more fish than they yield at harvest.
In his discussion about cod, Greenberg refers frequently to Mark Kurlansky's great 1998 book on the subject, titled, simply, Cod (reviewed here). "Greedy privatization, monopolization and industrialization driven by technological advancements obliterated artisanal fishing" (which had been sustainable).
Before the cod population crashed and the fishery was closed, removal of stock exceeded 95 per cent of historical population estimates. At the world's present state of consumption humanity needs 40 billion pounds (the size of the Grand Banks cod populations' highest recorded level...every year.
Cod are also being farmed but when Greenberg flew to Viet Nam to observe fish farming in that country he visited a tra (a local fish) operation. In comparison an acre of cod fish pens produce 10,000 pounds. An acre of tra produces 500,000 pounds and is a vegetarian. "If we must have industrial fish, let us use a fish that works well in industrial processes and has a minimum of impact on the wild world." Responsible poly-cultural fish farming of appropriate species is a partial solution.
As for tuna, they are in an equally hopeless state. "Fishermen get more twisted as the fish get scarcer," writes Greenberg, "like Tolkien's Golem." Today, a single fish can bring upwards of $150,000.00.
There are reasonable and reachable solutions and Greenberg concludes with a list of workable suggestions. If you have a conscience and an appetite, I hope you read this book and get on the boat!