Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food
by Paul Greenberg
Penguin Press, July 2010
Hardcover 284 pp. ISBN 978-1594202568
I’m a fishatarian, and I love good food writing, so I looked forward to digging into Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Paul Greenberg, journalist, conservationist and fishing enthusiast, offers a thorough and thoughtful study of the demise of wild fish due to overfishing and overconsumption. But Four Fish is much more—it’s a travel narrative and a personal memoir written in an accessible, entertaining style. Greenberg is a keen observer of people as well as fish.
"In 1978 all the fish I cared about died." He starts off with his not-very-privileged childhood, raised by a single mother on the fringe of upscale Greenwich Connecticut. She encouraged his interest in fishing, laying the foundation for a lifelong love of the sport and the fish themselves. The focus of the book is four fish species—salmon, bass, cod and tuna. Greenberg did his homework and presents a wealth of information in a well-spun yarn, his alarming facts jostling fly and fin with amusing adventures.
To learn about the scarcity of wild Pacific salmon from various viewpoints, he travels up the Yukon with commercial salmon traders and Yupik Eskimos. He reports the numbers along with his adventures—it boils down to there being more demand than can be met. After extensive travel and research his conclusion should interest salmon lovers who shun farmed salmon: "If we are going to continue to eat wild salmon, we must eat them sparingly as the rarest of delicacies and their price should reflect their rarity in the world." Remember abalone?
His seafaring adventures move to the Mediterranean where he meets up with Thanasis Frentzos, whom he describes as the Odysseus of sea bass: "Trim and square-shouldered, with a deep, resonant voice, a flowing mane of hair, a heroically long and flat nose, and an impressive, curling beard, he seems like someone recently escaped from the side of an ancient urn." Finding sea bass unsuitable for farming, Greenberg proposes an alternative, the Australian barramundi. It hasn’t caught on here yet, but he notes that what we call Chilean sea bass is really Patagonian toothfish: it sold poorly until it was renamed. Maybe they should call the barramundi "Asian sea bass?"
Colorful characters abound in his stories—sagas of the sea—woven into the tragedy of the demise of wild fish. He goes on to the history and collapse of cod fishing in Canada and New England. He does taste tests—wild versus farmed—with Mark Kurlansky, the author of Cod and numerous other food books. He addresses the growing scarcity of tuna because of high demands for sushi and compares the successful whale conservation movement to current efforts to get tuna listed as an endangered species. The big question, he says, is how we choose to co-exist with these wild, often magnificent, and increasingly scarce creatures: "Dining on a 500-pound bluefin tuna is the seafood equivalent of driving a Hummer." Greenberg argues his case convincingly and ends with recommendations for rebuilding the seas and for consumer awareness and action. But along the way he has taken readers on a voyage of discovery and adventure, like taking a class on an ocean cruise. In the company of a Ship of Fools-worthy cast of characters, we’ve crested the waves and felt the sea spray on our faces; we’ve come home with tales of the ones that got away.May 2, 2011