Four Fish: A thought-provoking look into the fish we catch, the fish we eat, and why

Samantha Caravello

With all the work we do heading up the front lines of environmental advocacy, it’s pretty common to see CLF in the news. But to see us in a book that made it onto lists of 2010’s best nonfiction books was (for me, at least) pretty exciting. This book is Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg, and it details the evolution of four species of fish and the people who love (and catch and eat) them: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Working in the field of ocean conservation, I was naturally pretty jazzed about the opportunity to read and review a book about, well, four fish. But even if you’re not naturally drawn to the ocean and its inhabitants, this book may still be for you!

That’s because more than being just an inventory of changes in global fish stocks or a history of fisheries, Four Fish is an exploration of the relationship between man and the wild and between man and his food. Greenberg’s premise is that we are at a “crucial point” in our relationship with the ocean. For so many fisheries, including the ones about which Greenberg writes here, long gone are days of effortless plenty. At the same time, technology is allowing us to catch the fish that are left with ever-increasing precision, and advances in aquaculture are allowing us to actually farm fish. But does this alter the fundamental wildness of the resource? For example, does state-of-the-art gear that lets fishermen see and target schools of fish beneath the surface turn fishing from a fair fight into one where the fish are inevitably the losers? And are farmed salmon, genetically different from wild salmon and raised away from natural systems, still really salmon? Of course, it’s impossible to deny aquaculture’s potential for improving human welfare by providing a relatively inexpensive source of protein to those whose access to fish would otherwise be limited. But (and this is my question as much as it is Greenberg’s) does this mean we are obliged to rely on aquaculture not just to fight real hunger but to satisfy consumer preferences for fresh fish, year-round, nation-wide? Is there some measure of restraint that we as consumers can reasonably be expected to have?

Philosophical questions aside, where does CLF come into all of this? As the catalysts for change, of course. We pop up in the chapter on cod, where Greenberg notes that despite depleted New England fish stocks, no action was taken until CLF sued the federal government for failing to protect the ailing stocks, leading to a management plan for groundfish fishing. Greenberg notes this case as the turning point after which the federal government jumped in and tried to meet its responsibilities to protect stocks, calling consequent fishing closures “something completely new in the history of man and fish.” Perhaps my favorite scene in the book is when Greenberg goes meta and meets up with Mark Kurlansky (the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, another great read and a fan favorite over here at the Ocean program) for a cod taste test. The wild cod wins, although Kurlansky finds it a bit flavorless, but he concludes that that’s how a cod should be – and the texture of the farmed fish is all wrong, probably because it hasn’t developed the muscles that a wild cod gets from living “a cod’s life.”

Above all, Greenberg is pragmatic, ending his book with both priorities for sustaining wild fish as well as principles to guide us as we go forward with domesticating “the last wild food.” In my opinion, it’s this ability to understand the world from dueling perspectives, and to accept each as valid, that makes this book a truly great read. Whether fishing for wild salmon or discovering the secrets of breeding farmed fish, whether proclaiming his love for fishing or promoting conservation and restraint, Greenberg is thought-provoking in an informative but modest way, and I know I for one will be thinking about the issues he raises for a long time to come.

Editor’s Note: The Conservation Law Foundation was misidentified in the book as the Conservation Wildlife Fund.

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