“Four Fish” by Paul Greenberg

This book was an excellent look at the sustainability of the planet’s aquaculture. I love the ocean environment and after reading this book, it’s sad to see how un-wild many of our fish species have become. The idea of taming an animal that doesn’t want to be tamed is on the surface abhorrent and lazy. Deeper than that, maintaining a species, such as salmon, as a main farmed fish for sustenance is greedy, often led by lobbyists. This book identifies the alternatives to these farmed fish. Additionally, I found it interesting that unlike crops or farmed land animals, we aren’t producing “wild” fish. We just pull and pull from the sea, expecting the yields to replenish themselves year after year. That certainly is not a sustainable approach especially with a rapidly increasing population.

  1. Loss can have a tricky way of playing itself out in the mind of the loser. A psychologist once told me that in the face of loss either you can grieve the lost thing or you can incorporate it into you very being and thus forestall the grieving.
  2. Early man put very little thought into preserving his wild food. He was in the minority in nature, and the creatures he chose to domesticate for his table were a subset of much greater, wilder whole. He had no idea of his destructive potential or of his abilities to remake the world. Modern man is a different animal, one who is fully aware of his capability to skew the rules of nature in his favor.
  3. Tout ce qui est impossible reste a accomplir—All that is possible remains to be accomplished.
  4. The English word “bass” derives from the Germanic barse or barsch, meaning “bristle” and most likely refers to the five-odd spiny rays that jut out from the dorsal side of species bearing that name. But as Anatoly Liberman, auth of the book Word Origins and How We Know Them and one of the world’s leading experts on names and their derivations, told me, fish names are slippery and not necessarily married to any one characteristic.
  5. The perciforms’ victory over gravity has in turn led to other morphological adaptations that make them both successful animals and good to eat. Without a need to fight gravity all the time, perciforms became more efficient swimmers and were able to trade in their heavy, energy-demanding “red muscle” tissue for ligther, more delicate flesh. Hence the white, light meat of many perciforms. Perciforms also evolved an efficient muscle structure that is principally attached only to the central spinal column. The result: a smooth, mostly boneless fillet, very pleasant to eat.
  6. Of the animals that humans chose to domesticate, Galton believed that they must have been:
    1. Hardy
    2. Endowed with an inborn liking for man
    3. Comfort-loving
    4. Able to breed freely
    5. Needful of only a minimal amount of tending
  7. Fish farming has the misfortune of coming into being at a time when all sorts of science was at its disposal. Through the application of modern research, scientists believed that any species could and should be tamed, regardless of how out of sync that species’ traits might have been with basic principles of domestication.
  8. Patagonian toothfish, that sold poorly until it was renamed “Chilean Sea Bass.”
  9. Ecological theorists posited in the 1970s that aquaculture, done right, had the potential to achieve the most elusive goal of animal husbandry—to produce one pound of flesh for less than a pound of feed. Because they don’t swim against gravity or raise their body temperatures, fish require substantially less energy than do land animals. If done right, farmed fish, food scientists believed, could solve the world’s protein problems with a snap of the fingers.
  10. Generally, animals that evolve in a cold-water ecosystem end up confined to a single half of the globe, because once they have adapted to cold conditions, warm equatorial climates are deadly and act as a kind of prison wall, effectively sealing off passage from one pole to another. It is for this reason that penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere and puffins only in the North.
  11. Both humans and codfish require extreme abundance of codfish for their continued prosperity.
  12. How do you even restore an ecology of abundance when even the diminished system is still being plundered by humans?
  13. Every generation has its own, specific expectations of what “normal” is for nature, a baseline. One generation has a baseline for abundance while the next has a reduced version and the next reduced even more, and so on and so on until expectations of abundance are pathetically low.
  14. This is not nostalgia on the part of the old or lack of empathy on the part of the young. It is almost a willful forgetting—the means by which our species, generation by generation, finds reasonableness amid the irrational destruction of the greatest natural food system on earth.
  15. Management schemes are usually implemented well after industrialized fishing has begun and only serve to stabilize fish biomass at low levels. In starker words, they tend to manage to preserve a status quo of scarcity, rather than to reestablish a historically correct abundance.
  16. Unlike cod and Pollock, which hurl millions of small eggs far and wide (“broadcast spawners,” in fisheries-science parlance), tilapia are of a family of fish called cichlids who have a tendancy to be “mouth spawners.” They lay fewer eggs than cod, but females typically gather up those eggs, once fertilized, in their mouths and protect them until they have passed the fragile early-larval stage.
  17. South American Indians farming coca leaves in Colombia also came to farm tilapia. And while the coca crop was of paramount importance to drug lords operating in the region, tilapia could also serve their purposes. With millions of dollars of excess cash that needed to be laundered, they saw in tilapia an opportunity both to improve the lives of their growers and also to cleanse their drug take.
  18. Chinese immigrants consider it good luck before sitting down to a meal of fish to release a live fish into the water. Because they are so hardy and require so little oxygen, tilapia are perfectly suited to take advantage of this cultural tradition.
  19. Humans seem to have an innate drive to master other creatures. If we must master something, in the case of the cod, instead of mastering the simplistic closed system of industrial aquaculture, perhaps we should seek the ultimate proof of our intelligence—the complete masterly and understanding of a wild system, a form of mastery in which we gradually come to understand how much fishing ground we must leave fallow as marine protected areas, areas that serve as a kind of bank-account principal from which we will earn interest every year in the form of a harvestable catch.
  20. If salmon led us out of Neolithic caves in the highlands down to the mouths of rivers, if sea bass and other coastal perciforms led us from the safety of shore to the reefs and rocks that surround the coasts, and if cod and the gadiforms led us beyond the sight of land to the edges of the continental shelves, tuna have taken us over the precipice of the continental shelves into the abyss of the open sea—the final frontier of fishing and the place where the wildest things in the world are making the last argument for the importance of an untamed ocean.
  21. Hard-swimming fish like tuna use large amounts of a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to store and expend energy. After death ATP is converted to inosine monophosophate (IMP), a chemical associated with the “fifth” flavor Japanese call umami, or “tastiness.” It is a flavor that even non-fish eaters find pleasant on the tongue. When cooked, however, IMP breaks down and combines with other chemicals present in fish flesh and produces flavors that people like my brother find unpalatable. In addition, the odors that might be emitted by not-so-fresh fish are neutralized in Japanese sushi technique by soy, ginger, and wasabi.
  22. I would like to be able to say that I did not “try the whale” because of some superior moral quality I possessed. But which animals we think of as food and which we think of as living creatures is highly contextual. My conception that a whale was somehow too good to eat comes from a historical process that predates me by nearly two centuries, a process that has yet to happen with fish.
  23. As with all things from the sea in earlier days, conservation was seen as necessary for the sake of future exploitation.
  24. Whales have become wildlife. But tuna have remained food. The “seafood choices” wing of the ocean-conservation movement would ask people to hold a dual concept of the Bluefin as both food and wildlife, but this doesn’t seem to be something humans can do. To most people an animal is either food or wildlife. If a fish ends up in the market, humans come to the obvious conclusion that it is food; they will then choose to eat it, even if they are warned that the fish is endangered or contaminated with mercury. In the absence of a larger moral argument and more profound government action, the animal’s appearance as flesh in the market, unfortunately, argue more effectively that do any caveats against eating it.
  25. As she strained to crank the handle of the reel, I felt I knew her thoughts: “I want to possess this thing of great power and beauty. To make it mine and to become its master.” Those would have been my thoughts thirty years ago were I standing in her shoes. But as the net came down and drew the fish in, she moved back from the rail. I saw in her the bud of rationality and the logic of both pursuing and saving fish. To know the power of wildness intimately and, at the same time, to recognize the right of the wildness to continue.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

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