In a world where the fish we eat is usually selected from the fish counter of a supermarket, few of us wonder where that fish actually came from. Was it born in an ocean or river, or has it been raised on a fish farm? Can we take the continuation of its species for granted or should we worry that wild fish may become rare or even extinct?
In his new book, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” (The Penguin Press, $25.95), which was released July 15, writer Paul Greenberg examines these increasingly important questions from the point of view of a life-long sport fisherman, whose development as a man is inextricably tied to his passion for fishing.
Early on, both of his parents played a role in his fishing life, but not for predictable reasons. His mother considered fishing a masculine character-building activity. And in a way his father did too.
You didn’t grow up in a fishing culture. What drew you to the sport?
My fish story begins with my parents’ divorce when I was 3. The book looks at it from my mother’s point of view but the back story is that when my father was a kid, he always wanted his father to take him fishing, and my grandfather never had time. Years later, when my parents divorced, fishing assumed an iconic status. Even though my father didn’t know how to fish, he would take my brother and me to little ponds to fish. I was 4 or 5.
When my mother moved us to Greenwich, Conn., we moved from house to house, and finally to a house on a huge estate with a pond. I started exploring and found the pond a mile’s walk from the house. The trees cleared, and there was this kind of Eden with huge largemouth bass basking in the sun. It was an amazing vision. I was 8 or 9
Eventually my Dad got me a Zebco fishing pole that was very simple for a kid to use. But, even with proper fishing gear, nothing we tried to use as bait would work. My mom got the idea of trying corn, and the bass sucked it up, but the gear I had was way too small for size of these fish, so the line just snapped. Everyone who fishes knows that feeling of losing a big fish. It sets you off on perennial desire to catch that lost fish.
“Four Fish” focuses on man’s relationship with the ocean. You write that the current moment is a crucial one. Why is that?
If you look at the food system of pre-Columbian America, there was a lot of wild animal protein running around. But at some point humanity made the decision to have a farm food system instead of a wild system. That’s where we are now with fish.
In the last 50 years, we’ve gone from an ocean system where nearly 100 percent of the fish we ate was wild, to now, where 50 percent of the fish we eat is farmed. When we drove the bison away from the Great Plains and replaced them with European cattle, we completely destroyed the natural eco-system and its wild protein. We have to be careful that we don’t do that with fish protein.
The book is organized around the problems faced by four different kinds of fish: Salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. Why?
Humans are natural organizers, and we don’t do well trying to organize too much. So four is the magic number when it comes to humans and food. With animals, it’s become cow, sheep, pig and goat. With fowl, it’s duck, chicken, turkey and geese. If you go to a seafood restaurant and look at a menu, you see four different kinds of fish flesh: something white and flaky, like cod; something more substantial and broilable, like snapper or sea bass; something pink and succulent, and rich enough in oil to bake or smoke, like salmon, and finally something thick and steak-like and grillable, like tuna.
Are these fish in trouble?
Wild Atlantic salmon are virtually extinct. Every piece of Atlantic salmon that eaten in the world today is farmed — Irish salmon, Nova Scotia salmon, Chilean salmon — we’ve seen the complete domestication of an animal. Most cod stocks around the world are depleted, and there’s no solution that will solve it all, though two main stocks are improving. Sea bass is better. In the United States, American striped bass made a remarkable recovery due to very good fisheries management. Atlantic blue fin tuna is the most stressed out population. The tuna population across the board is down 25 percent in last 50 years.
Farming fish seems like a viable alternative. But that has a bad reputation. What’s the problem?
A lot of those farm systems have had a detrimental effect. Look at salmon farming. Salmon like to live where the water temperature is what they like, so salmon are commonly farmed in net cages in the direct path of the wild salmon migration routes. That causes all sorts of problems, like infectious salmon anemia, which is most pernicious to wild fish. Overcrowded salmon farms attracted parasites like sea lice, and there’s a lot of evidence that they’ve jumped from farmed salmon to wild, adding another stress to already stressed fish. One third of the salmon begin in a hatchery, and people started putting hatchery salmon into rivers, and that wasn’t a good idea. There were more fish than the environment can handle.
Why is it important to maintain the stock of wild fish?
For those of us who love fish, there’s this aesthetic thing. Nothing is more beautiful than a wild salmon. But there’s also the wild food system itself. Why should we put all this energy into farming fish when, if we could fix our rivers, we could have this cost-free food system.
When was the last time when wild fish were broadly available for the consumer?
At least half the food at the fish counter is still wild. We take about 90 million tons from sea, which is equivalent to the weight of the entire population of China.
Are there good substitutes for wild salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna?
There’s no 100 percent good substitute out there for each of these flesh archetypes. But arctic char is a substitute for salmon. It has a nice orange color, a salmon-trout taste, and stands up well to smoking and baking. With sea bass, consumers have a variety of options: especially branzino and barrimundi, sometimes called Asian sea bass, which is popular in Asia and Australia, and available in the U.S. in some specialty markets. The closest thing to cod is haddock. But tilapia is doing well. And American farm-raised catfish. Tuna is the trickiest: there really is nothing out there that substitutes for blue fin tuna. But there’s Hawaiian Kahala (the seriola type). And amberjack, that is, yellowtail. They can be produced with high-fat content, giving them a buttery quality. They work well as sushi fish.
Are any government controls regarding overfishing?
The Sustainable Fisheries Act made very clear goals. Sometimes a little a bureaucracy not a bad idea — it gives some kind of metric to gauge where we’ve been and where we are going. We need to set goals, and we have to be conservative in our assessment, setting goals below what they should be for true abundance. We want to live in an atmosphere of abundance — not by using a lot of fuel, but enough so that the average American can take a kid fishing along the shore, and can come home with fish for dinner so that everybody feels ownership and the ability to participate.
Has your son Luke learned to fish yet?
He’ll be 4 in November. So far, he’s been an observer, but I’m hoping to put a chain pull in his hand and go fishing for snapper, or juvenile bluefish, in the 8- to 18-inch range. The best way to turn a boy into a fisherman is to tell him he can’t go fishing yet. For a year or so now, I’ve been telling him that maybe someday you’ll be able to do this.
Judith Weinraubhas won two James Beard Foundation journalism awards. She worked for 25 years reporter and editor at the Washington Post, where she wrote about food and politics, as well as arts and culture. Weinraub has also been a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow. Last year she conducted an oral history project for New York University’s Fales Library, recording the memories of people who have changed the way Americans think about food.