Four fish fight for the future

How much of the world’s food supply is locked up in a few crops – corn, wheat, rice (for example) – and even fewer livestock – cows, pigs, chickens? Of the major commercial food production industries, only fish, and even then, only some fish, are still hunted. In a very real sense, fish are the last wild food. That may be changing. In Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, published last year, Paul Greenberg highlights the ways in which commercial fishing is becoming less like hunting and more like agriculture, with a few, often farm raised species, dominating the market.

Greenberg, a native of Long Island Sound who fished there since the 1970’s, documents the changes in four major fisheries – salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna – and the changing attitudes of the (mostly) men who catch them. He travels to Alaska to meet with First Nation salmon fishermen, to Greece to visit groundbreaking aquaculture facilities, he charters a tuna boat to experience the fight first hand, and across the world he talks to those of whom fishing matters most, including himself. At times, the book becomes autobiographical, focusing on Greenberg’s personal journey – but this is a book about fish and fishermen, and he is, if only recreationally, a fisher.

Four Fish is divided into four sections, one for each fish, and while Sea Bass and Tuna were interesting, entertaining, and brought some new insight into these oft-discussed fisheries, I found the other two sections lacking. Salmon overlooked many critical aspects of the wild-versus-farmed dynamic and ignored the roll of disease epidemics (like Infectious Salmon Anemia) in the farmed salmon industry. Cod was essentially an extended summary of Kurlansky’s eponymous opus – a much more exhaustive document. For someone new to these topics, all four sections provided an adequate and engaging overview of the fisheries.

Greenberg is an aquaculture-phile. His focus throughout in on how we can tame our last wild food – identifying the key elements of a maritime livestock and breeding the perfect captive fish. Aquaculture may be a solution for food security, but it is not the solution to ocean conservation. While he is upfront about the fact that there are some fish we just shouldn’t eat, his optimism about aquaculture blinds him to to some of the major problems with the industry in its current form. He also fails to examine any of the non-vertebrate aquaculture operations – shimp, clams, oysters, lobster, among others – which contradict his hypothesis that we increasingly rely on four essential seafoods and which fit more closely his model of an ideal farmed “fish”.

The book has shortcomings, but overall it provides a strong historical framework for the modern state of these four fish, is fair to the fishermen, and is thoroughly entertaining. Readers should approach Four Fish with a critical (though not cynical) eye towards aquaculture, and remember that the story for each fish runs much deeper than a few hundred pages can accommodate. There is a place for aquaculture in marine conservation, and there is a place for sustainable, wild-caught fisheries, but there is definitely no place for for simple, one-size-fits-all solutions.