Wild Food or Wildlife?

Image courtesy of the New York Times

By Jean Farrington

I love salmon, for its appealing color and its delicate flavor, even though it has become the chicken of the banquet world.

I had a delectable preparation of sea bass at Prospect last week, and I’m sure I consumed cod as a kid in the frozen fish sticks my siblings and I considered a treat when our parents went out to dinner.  That was rarely and so the sticks were not the usual mealtime fare.  And, I confess, I could eat tuna salad for lunch five days a week—and did until I had reason to think about its possible mercury content.

These four fish, salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna, are the subject of Paul Greenberg’s personal and engaging account of how these sea creatures come to be on our plates in Four Fish:  The Future of the Last Wild Food. For Greenberg, fishing was an enjoyable childhood pastime and even as an adult, he continues to fish.  Some years ago, he was struck when all the large fish he used to catch were gone from the pond near his Connecticut house.  Disappointed and saddened, he began to pay attention.

He investigated the disappearance of salmon in the wild, the depletion of cod off New England’s Georges Bank and Canada’s Grand Banks, and the many efforts around the world from Alaska to Greece to Chile to Norway to raise fish in captivity, to farm them as it were.  The result is this book.

Greenberg’s style is warm and personal with occasional touches of humor.  He knows how to pull a story out of scientists and fishermen alike.  Particularly intriguing is his account of a visit with the Yupik Eskimos on the Yukon Delta in Alaska.  If the number of salmon is great enough, Fish and Game will declare a commercial salmon opening and the fish that are caught can be sold to the fishery; if not, then it is a subsistence opening only to provide for the local Eskimo community. Greenberg is fluent in Russian, and I’m guessing this enabled him to capture all the nuances of the bartering and trading when it is just a subsistence opening.

You may not know that sea bass was once a holiday fish for special occasions, associated with the Mediterranean.  A whole one fit nicely on a dinner plate, it became popular, and since then has been called by a string of additional names from branzino to loup de mer to bar.  Its popularity, but not the ease of raising it, made it a candidate for cultivation.

Working out the precise diet and conditions for fish that are farmed and doing this in the least expensive way in order to get a good return on investment is a time consuming and inherently tricky business.  One Israeli scientist, Yonathan Zohar, considered “among aquaculturists as one of the world’s best at cracking the reproductive codes of the marine world” said he is “like ob-gyn for fish.”

Greenberg also details industrial fishing and what is done to monitor fish stocks once fishing of cod, for example, is allowed again, so that we humans take into account the dynamics of cod populations.  In his chapter on the tuna, one of the fastest, most powerful, and most far-ranging ocean fish, he allows that there are contradictory impulses, sometimes in the same fisherman, to both save bluefin tuna and to kill them for the sport of it.

What then is Greenberg’s overall point?  He is never preachy and for this I give him high marks.  In his conclusion, he outlines a set of four priorities for protecting the ocean and managing wild fish and also a list of qualities that should be considered for any fish we choose to domesticate.

He does not advocate giving up eating fish (he tried it and it didn’t last), but he does ask us to consider whether fish are merely food or are they also wildlife. And if fish are wildlife (like whales which are protected), then shouldn’t we be aware of our actions and be working to protect them?  Definitely food for thought.

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