Business Week recently reported that Maine lobstermen brought in a record number of lobsters last year. A total of 93.4 million pounds of lobster, valued at $308 million were brought to port. The folks who caught them, those lobstermen, received $3.31 per pound, a 14 percent increase over 2009.
As Paul Greenberg explains in “Four Fish,” Maine lobstermen have become artisanal farmers of sorts. They are given plots of the ocean from which they can fish and are required to be stewards of their respective ecosystems.
“Four Fish” is the story of the four fish humans have, over time, consumed to the point of massive population decline. These exploited fish are salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna.
Greenberg’s connection to fish began as a child growing up along rivers in Connecticut. Eventually, as a teenager he began fishing in the Atlantic Ocean during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Greenberg chronicles the reasons these fish became desirable, how they were overfished, and the efforts made to meet the rising demands through new technology and fish farms. Despite the picture of four fish on the title, this book doubles as an anthropological study of how humans have mismanaged overabundance, disrupted polycultures, and chosen fish based more on proximity and less on ability to survive human demand.
While there were a lot of take aways from this book, the big one is that fish must be viewed as wildlife first and food second.
All four fish have been overfished to the point of extirpation, but each specie has swam a unique path to where they are today. Salmon’s natural habitat in fresh water where they return after spawning in the ocean have been destroyed by dams, pollution, and logging near rivers. Salmon grown in fisheries suffer from a range of diseases including sea lice and anemia. Worst of all is that millions of these fish escape and mate with wild salmon. This event weakens the salmon genome since natural selection usually kills 99% of salmon in the wild. Those farmed salmon pass along weak traits, hurting future generations of purportedly “wild” salmon.
Sea Bass, particularly the European variety and those found in the Mediterranean are struggling. Their natural fisheries have been destroyed and efforts to farm them have led to poor result as the bass, originally a holiday fish has become a staple in restaurants and diets. Greenberg things sea bass farming should be replaced by the domestication of barracundi, a fish more amenable to being farmed.
The third fish, Cod, was at one point so plentiful according to Greenberg, it was simply referred to by some as fish. Cod is a climax animal. It is at the top of its chain. Before suffering the fate of overfishing, cod was being pulled out of the water at a weight of 20 pounds. Now that more than 90 percent of cod have been fished out, the genome has weakened and cod is down to about three pounds. Cod is starting to make a comeback, thanks in part to Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. The fish which serves as the white meat found in fillets, fish sticks, your McD’s Filet-O-Fish is not suited to being farmed by man. Demand continues to grow for all fish, particularly cod. Greenberg believes the answer is to embrace what Maine has done in protecting its lobster population. Industrial fishing has destroyed the cod by failing to be good stewards of the oceans. Local fisherman are one part of the solution. The other component is to embrace fish like tra and tilapia who are similar to cod and better suited to being farmed.
The first three sets of fish all have something in common: they spend the majority of their time in the territorial water of specific countries. Tuna, the large blue-fin type, spend their time in international waters, traversing the Atlantic Ocean with some frequency. This means they are regulated by non-binding international agreements or unenforceable conventions that do little to protect the tuna. The rise in demand for tuna stems from its use in sushi, which is a development that came to be in the years following World War II. Greenberg explains that catch quotas are based less in science and more in the demands of the fishing industry. He adds that while the US has placed limits on the catching of tuna, Europeans, now that the huge blue-fin tuna are scarce, have began catching young tuna to fatten them up and sell them as adults. This only further depletes the tuna stock. Greenberg believes it makes little sense to farm tuna since they require 20 pounds of feed for every pound of meat they produce and it makes even less sense to eat blue fin tuna, farmed or wild.
If this well-written book ended on this note, it would be a total kick in the pants. Hey, we have depleted the oceans of the fish necessary for its survival and while there are some positive developments, they are mostly outweighed by poor management. Fortunately, Greenberg wraps it up with a conclusion and epilogue.
Greenberg unveils four priorities for the management of wild fish going forward and five standards for future domestication of fish. Instead of posting them here, I urge you to go your library or book store and pick up of a copy of this important book. What it boils down to is that a better job of being stewards towards the ecosystems we rule over must happen. Many of the fish we eat now, we do because it is what our ancestors. And when I say ancestors, I’m not talking your grandpa, I’m talking 16th century folk in the Meditterean or colonists in 18th century port towns in New England.
It is easy to look out at the Atlantic, or one of the great lakes, or a river like the Connecticut and see nothing more than what looks like a placid floor interrupted in time by waves or the current or the river. We are seeing the roof of a spectacular universe practically unknown to us. In the centuries past, we have taken this stupendous bounty and run amok. At the same time, people need food. Starvation is unacceptable and hunger unallowable. The oceans are a place where strong, sensible regulations would make a difference, not only for our generation, but those schools of humans who come long after we are gone.