Four Fish: A Book for Anyone Who Eats Seafood

Estabrook_Four Fish_7-20_post.jpg


Paul Greenberg's Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food should be required reading for anyone who eats seafood. The assignment won't be a burden. Greenberg is an unfailingly entertaining writer, and his book arms you with the information you need to make intelligent choices when you are confronted by the confusing and sometimes contradictory offerings at the fish counter.

Greenberg tells his story through what he calls four "archetypes of fish flesh": salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. These are species that humans are attempting to "master in one way or another," either by managing wild populations or by domesticating them and raising them as we do hogs, poultry, sheep, and cattle.

Unlike other diatribes bemoaning the sad state of seafood, Four Fish ends by proposing workable solutions to the problems—all proven to be successful in isolated cases.

An avid angler, Greenberg takes fish conservation personally. The book starts with a story about all the largemouth bass dying in his favorite boyhood fishing hole in Connecticut—a microcosm of what's happening in all of the world's oceans today to the fish species people happen to like to eat. The four fish he has chosen to focus on mark distinct steps in the grim worldwide decline and human attempts to ameliorate it.

Salmon are tough, lightening fast, capable of migrating thousands of miles over oceans and up seething rivers, but they cannot tolerate the encroachment of civilization. When people come with their farm fields, dams, and mills, salmon begin to disappear. So we've tried to tame them and raise them in pens—never mind that it would be hard to pick a species whose natural traits make it less suitable for domestication.

Sea bass live near the shore and were among the first saltwater fish humans caught for food. Now, they too, survive primarily on fish farms.

Cod, with its white flaky meat, was the first fish harvested on an industrial scale, creating a template for the factory ships that rove the high seas. Today, cod stocks everywhere are depleted and in some cases nearly extinct. Instead of turning to farming, fishermen have moved their voracious attention to other mild, white-fleshed species, such as Chilean sea bass and Alaskan pollock.


Penguin Press

And lastly, with Atlantic bluefin tuna populations on the brink of collapse and regulators failing to take the obvious conservation steps, the chapter on tuna exploitation is particularly timely. Noting that there are only enough mature Atlantic bluefin left to give 43 million sushi lovers "one last bite," Greenberg calls the quest for tuna the "last great gold rush of wild food."

What can be done? Greenberg literally travels the world in search of answers. He visits native Yupik salmon fishermen at the mouth of Alaska's Yukon River and then whisks off to Norway to interview one of the unrepentant founders of modern salmon aquaculture, stopping off in New Brunswick to interview a scientist who is trying to make raising salmon less harmful to the environment. He visits fish farmers in Greece, Scotland, Hawaii, and Vietnam. Unlike other diatribes bemoaning the sad state of seafood, Four Fish ends by proposing workable solutions to the problems—all proven to be successful in isolated cases.

Greenberg takes a refreshingly balance approach to the aquaculture-versus-wild-caught debate, making it clear that there are good and bad ways to do both. The wild species we choose for farming, he says, should be efficient feeders, not reliant on massive quantities of fish meal and fish oil produced from fully exploited wild stocks of anchovies and herring. They should be adaptable, and their presence should not spread disease to wild stocks. For wild fish, he suggests drastically reducing fishing and creating no-catch sanctuaries in important areas of the ocean ecosystem.

Ultimately, the message is that eating the last wild food is a privilege that we should not take for granted.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Health

Just In