Book review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

I chose Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg as part of my desire to learn more about the seafood I consume. I feel like I have a handle on what labels mean when it comes to treatment and nutritional content for meat and poultry, but for seafood the water is murky (if you can pardon the pun). Which is better? Farmed or wild? What do those words mean and is it different for types of species? How do we catch wild fish and how do we create fish farms?

I started eating seafood after I had a confirmed test that I was not allergic to shellfish, and around the time that Mark and I visited Boston on our honeymoon. It felt like a whole new culinary world was open to me. (Hello New England clam chowder.) But before I read (listened to) this book, I am ashamed to say I pretty much didn’t know what any of that seafood looked like before it was prepared for me to eat, let alone where it came from or what it ate. I still cannot tell you what different types of fish look like, except for maybe carnival goldfish or beta fish.

Like Twinkie: Deconstructed that I recently read, Four Fish is bursting with information that detail nerds will adore. The storytelling is a great frame for all this information; it doesn’t just read like just a bunch of facts. And I thought it had appropriate perspective: Greenberg fishes. He also relates a story about being shocked while on a party boat of people fishing that someone told him that Greenberg could have his dead fish, since he wouldn’t eat them. What is the point of killing a fish (as opposed to catch and release) if you aren’t going to eat it?

Greenberg highlights the plight of fish by highlighting the situations of four different types: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Each story is as different as the species are, but there are common themes – exploitation, over fishing, growing consumer demand, domestic farming operations (successful and unsuccessful, small scale and large scale), and that each species has particular needs. His book also raises a philosophical question of sorts that I had never stopped to consider. At what point do we consider living food that we eat wildlife, as opposed to just a food animal?

People balk at eating horse meat, but we have no problem eating beef, which comes from another four-legged mammal. At one point, it was common for humans to hunt for whales and eat them and use them for their oil. When their existence was endangered, people began a “campaign” of sorts to look at the whale as a species of wildlife that needed to be saved for the sake of its existence alone, not saved in order to find a way to continue to hunt it. Bluefin tuna is endangered too, but do we consider it wildlife or just a food resource?

After reading this book, it feels like the best direction is to support domestic farming of fish that has a constant eye on and consideration of the balance of the wild populations. We need to not give into consumer demand for particular fish as much as we need to be careful what fish we choose for our consumption – those which are efficient in converting energy. (It takes 20 pounds of food to create one pound of bluefin tuna. That’s insane.) This also has to do with the amount of fish we consume. Do we keep consuming more just because we can? Domestic farming of fish has to be non-destructive to wild populations of fish, where common diseases of domestication are less likely to spread to wild populations.

One of my favorite sentences of the whole book is when Greenberg says it ultimately comes down to approaching seafood with these three things: restraint, care and rationality. So you don’t really finish this book with exactly an idea of what fish to eat and which ones not to (although it’s a definite no on the bluefin tuna). But you walk away with much more of an appreciation for what a fish really is – a living creature – that demands as much respect as a food source as I give to cows, pigs and chickens.

Greenberg does mention the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has a rating system for what the “best” choices are for seafood to eat. They also have an app, so you can look it up on the go if you aren’t interested in keeping a card in your wallet. I think I’m going to start with this guide for my seafood choices until I can continue to do more research.

Also, Four Fish was written just as word was getting out that genetically engineered salmon was on the horizon. Now it’s almost to the point of FDA approval (with no labeling requirement, big surprise), and Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Aldi have come out in advance pledging not to carry GE salmon at their stores.

  • Face

    I think that whole “food or wildlife” question is an interesting one worth analyzing. In my opinion, it shouldn’t be an either/or but rather an “and”. When we start talking about a living being as solely being food, we can then begin that process of desensitization that leads to things like CAFOs and Tyson chicken houses. On the other hand, if we own up to the fact that these animals we kill for sustenance are, in fact, living and feeling creatures, we will find ourselves more cognizant of the need to be good stewards of their populations and not be so blase about meat consumption. Sure, some people might then be put off eating meat but, then again, maybe those same people need to face what is in the “Soylent Green”.