Are there plenty of fish in the sea? Author says it's time to reconsider industrial fishing

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[This interview was conducted in 2010.]

Each year we remove 170 billion pounds of fish and shellfish from the ocean, according to Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. He says we need to back away from industrial fishing, which has put some species of fish in danger.

"[Fishermen] need to feel intimately related to their particular stock of fish and feel both responsible for the catching of them and for the preserving of them," Greenberg says. "If we can get to that place, I think that there's a hope for fish as food."

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Four fish. Which four, and why only four?

Paul Greenberg: The four fish are salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. When I chose those four fish, I really wanted to look at the problems of the sea in the way that the consumer confronted them. There have been many books about the end of the ocean or the problems with fishing, but I think the average consumer finds it confusing.

What I really wanted to do was look at four fish that were very, very common in the marketplace, and to follow those fish both in and out of domestication. All of them are being domesticated in some way or another.

Bluefin Tuna

(Photo: InvernoDreaming / Flickr)

LRK: Let's pick one of those fish as an example. Since bluefin tuna is the darling of every sushi chef and every sushi lover, let's talk about the bluefin tuna.

PG: First of all, there are three species of bluefin tuna out there: an Atlantic, a Pacific and a southern.

The one that everyone is concerned about right now is the Atlantic bluefin. This is an amazing fish. This fish swims at 40 miles an hour. It crosses the Atlantic. It can be more than 1,000 pounds and more than 15 feet -- it's a huge, huge fish.

Another interesting fact is that they're warm-blooded. A lot of people think of fish as like the expression "cold fish," but this is in fact a warm fish. In certain cases, when you bring them out of the water, when you put your hand on their flank, you can actually feel the warmth coming off their body.

It's an incredible fish. For those of us who've seen them and helped them, they really feel much more like wildlife than food.

"Something has to get scarce enough for us to slap ourselves on the forehead and go, 'Duh. Oh my god, it was wildlife and we ate it all.'"
-Paul Greenberg

Once upon a time, bluefin were despised even by the Japanese as table fare. The nickname that sushi chefs gave to bluefin was "shibi," which means 4 days. Japanese sushi chefs, when they first started using bluefin, would bury them in the ground for 4 days to get rid of that bloody, metallic taste. Over the years, the Japanese grew to appreciate bluefin, mostly because during the American occupation, they were exposed to high-fat foods like beef -- that translated into this very fatty bluefin.

It's really the fat content that makes bluefin particularly appealing on the palate. (Often, with a lot of fish, it's fat content). Bluefin are extremely rich, particularly the otoro, which is this ventral chunk of flesh near the belly. That's become really, really appreciated and loved.

I think there's a certain class of people out there who just want the best, no matter what it does to the world. It's those people who want to drive a Hummer, even though they know they're getting five miles to the gallon or 10 miles -- whatever it is. It has become ensconced that bluefin is the best. Our fetish of this fish has really just gotten out of control.

LRK: I don't think we realize that fish are wild.

PG: It's true. Even if you look at the word seafood, it's a disgusting word. We don't call everything from the land landfood. But seafood is this catchall word that we use to just pull out whatever we want and turn it into food.

One of the reasons that I think we don't recognize it as wildlife is that there are still a lot of fish in the sea. We take 170 billion pounds of fish out of the oceans every year, which is equivalent to the human weight of the population of China. We take that out every year. It's not like we're dealing with buffalo, tigers or lions in terms of raw numbers; there are still a lot of fish out there.

We haven't gotten to this point of extreme scarcity that we have to start thinking about it as wildlife. In a way, abundance or scarcity is linked to the word wildlife. Something has to get scarce enough for us to slap ourselves on the forehead and go, "Duh. Oh my god, it was wildlife and we ate it all."

What I'd like to see happen with fish is that we realize it's wildlife before we eat it into a situation of scarcity. I actually think for the Atlantic bluefin, there's still a chance to do that.


(Photo: Kjoland / iStock / Thinkstock)

LRK: What is the story behind cod? Isn't it endangered at this point?

PG: You can never talk about a single species in the way that you talk about, say California condors. Because with fish, they're still so numerous that there are these separate populations -- what they call stocks -- of cod around the world that function like nations. They have independent ecological economies. There are several cod stocks that go up and down the American and Canadian coasts. They're all severely depleted, but some of them are rebuilding. In particular, the Gulf of Maine cod stock is now, according to marine fisheries, 50 percent rebuilt. [Update: In November 2014, counts were so low in the Gulf of Maine, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enacted a 6-month ban on cod fishing in the area. Cod fishing is restricted through April 2016.]

But taking another step back and unpacking that endangerment further, we have to always look back at history at what we had and what we lost. The amount of sheer abundance of cod that was out there is just astounding. As recently as the 1960s, there were 2 billion cod fish off the coast of Canada. Now we're talking probably numbers in the low millions to hundreds of thousands. You could say to somebody, "There are 1 million cod fish out there. That's pretty good." But compared to 2 billion? It's several orders of magnitude. It's that abundance thing that we really want to focus in on and try and restore to our oceans.

What cod really represent is the industrialization of fishing. Before we found cod, fishing was really much more of just a hook-and-line endeavor. Cod, because they have these huge aggregations, really prompted us to ramp up our industrial fishing -- huge bottom trawlers that tear up the bottom -- and just a massive, massive fishing effort.

It's really with cod that we really need to start backing away from that industrial effort. As some of these cod fish populations rebuild, what we need are ecologist fishermen. I call them herder fishermen in the sense that they need to feel intimately related to their particular stock of fish, and feel both responsible for the catching of them and for the preserving of them. If we can get to that place, I think that there's a hope for fish as food.

From This Episode: 
Four FishField Goals
June 19th, 2015

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