Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food
The Penguin Press | New York, NY
2010 | 284 pp
Paul Greenberg’s expose on the global commercial fishing industry is less a lament for a traditional way-of-life lost to industrialization than it is a dire warning of about the biological impacts of our current methods of fish cultivation. Greenberg is concerned not just with the auxiliary impacts of commercial fishing on “undesirable” marine species discarded as bycatch, but the secondary impacts of our selective breeding of four particular fish humanity has deemed pleasant to the palate.
By examining the four fish that humans have deemed appropriate for “dewilding” — salmon, tuna, bass and cod — Greenberg uses Four Fish as an opportunity to develop a historical understanding of how and why these species have been selected for industrial human consumption, and what this means for the future of fish.
Humanity has shifted its thinking about what fish should be, Greenberg argues — so far, perhaps, that salmon, tuna, bass and cod have been reduced to “four archetypes of fish flesh.” This is the crux of Greenberg’s thesis: while admitting “this is not the first time humanity has…selected a handful of species to exploit and propagate,” the ignorance which plagued the food selection process of early humans has no modern equivalent. Humanity “is fully aware of [its] capability to skew the rules of nature in [its] favour.”
And skewing nature we are. By selecting four species of fish for human cultivation, we have inadvertently downgraded the worth of other, less desirable fish, “abandoning the rest to gradual extinction” as Wayne Grady noted in his review.
Greenberg takes the reader around the world to seek answers to what is the fundamental question of Four Fish: “must we eliminate all wildness from the sea and replace it with [a] human controlled system,” he writes, “or can wildness be…managed well enough to keep humanity and the marine world in balance?”
He spends the rest of Four Fish successfully convincing you of the latter, and the range and depth of his experience go some way towards making the current system of fish-farming seem repugnant. Greenberg weaves together the significance of his scientific opinions with the adventure of discovery as he introduces you to Mediterranean entrepreneurs, Middle Eastern marine researchers, Japanese offshore fisheries experts, and Alaskan Yupik Eskimos.
While Greenberg is not in favour of a radical overhaul of commercial fisheries, he advocates for a greater awareness of what exactly humanity is doing when it manipulates natural food supplies. “Wild fish did not come into this world just to be our food,” he notes. And if alternative species are to be domesticated in future, Greenberg rightly notes the decision must be based on more than “market principles and profit” with little regard for how the chosen species naturally behaves. Fisheries managers and biologists must be brought into the conversation about food supply.
Knowledge is power, and Four Fish is a tremendous place to start learning the history and politics of the fish on your plate.