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Seaside Saturdays: Book Review – Four Fish

In keeping with our Seaside Saturday theme from last week, this week we’ll discuss a great book for anyone looking to learn more about the cultural traditions and conservation implications of four iconic fish species that have come to dominate our global taste for seafood.


In his recent book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg presents readers with an enriching history of our dynamic and oftentimes odd relationships to the fish we domesticate.  I was pleasantly surprised that Four Fish does not mirror a typically dry historic tale nor does it in any way feel like an “environmental” book, as the title would suggest.  By weaving carefully connected stories, Greenberg gives readers an intriguing (and at times humorous) understanding of the intentional choices and accidental moments that have brought specific seafood to our plates.  Similar to our dependence on four primary ungulate and poultry animals, Greenberg traces the technological achievements from Canada to Greece that led to an increasingly presumptuous domestication of riverine salmon, coastal sea bass, offshore cod, and finally transnational tuna and eventually argues that humans should strive to master the complexities of wild fish rather than serving up a sea of genetic modifications in a sterile tank system.


One interesting theme throughout the stories was how both global politics and fish biology guided which fish came to international prominence.  Salmon were the first farmed fish not only due to population declines, but because their large eggs allowed for curious entrepreneurs and early geneticists to decode their spawning secrets decades ago in Norway, one of the birthplaces of aquaculture.  Similarly, the Australian barramundi have become popular not due to their tasty flesh, but because they are naturally docile, fertile, and disease-resistant.  (In fact, many of the fish aquaculturists are trying to promote around the world gain traction because they taste like nothing rather than tasting “fishy”).  Another example of this is Vietnamese tra, which can withstand low oxygen conditions because it breathes air.


If modern salmon were born in Norway, Greenberg argues that farmed sea bass got their start in Israel, of all places.  However, once Israel lost access to its coastline, they lost their competitive edge to the Greeks.  Interestingly, the African tilapia (grown all over the world and now considered an pesky invasive species) was a convenient front for Columbian drug lords shipping their products around the world.  As can be seen, it is not always cultural traditions that make something popular or lead to exploitation (Japanese only acquired a taste for fatty Bluefin tuna after the Americans did!), but a strange alignment of odd circumstances that lead to one fish (often farmed) replacing a wild fish in global markets.


In the final chapter, Greenberg brings readers back into the early 20th century to draw a comparison between tuna’s plight and that of another long-lived sea creature: whales.  Whale populations owe their recovery not to the moratorium that was signed in the early 1980s (so recent!), but more to the development of cheap whale oil substitutes and the anti-whaling sentiments that stirred the world throughout the 1960s and 70s.  Greenberg argues that the moral evolution that changed whales from being food to being wildlife is entirely lacking for tuna.  Tuna is fish is food.  While there is nothing amoral about this logic, but when people fail to recognize that the planet’s wild-life that we cherish is also the same wild-life that we eat, there is little support for conservation and management in the face of short-term economic gains.

Aside from pointing toward the need for a greater appreciation of wildness within our fishing industry, Greenberg does note the importance of fish for feeding the growing global population.  He simply wants us to make smart aquaculture choices (rather than farming tuna at a 20:1 feed ratio or using surrogate fish moms – imagine!).  One challenge he admits is that all of the good science and political will can’t change the fact that consumers aren’t familiar with fish such as tra, barramundi, or the more recent kona kampachi of Hawaii.  So, in the meantime, Greenberg encourages the global fishing community to master the subtleties of fisheries science for wild predators and leave the fish farming to the vegetarian species that can have a smaller impact on surrounding ecosystems.  Overall, I highly recommend this book for a very engaging and thought-provoking read.

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