You may have noticed that I don’t often write about fish. It’s not a big part of my diet and cooked fish almost not at all. I love a crudo or some sushi every now and then, but I don’t know when I last bought fish to make at home…maybe smoked whitefish for a chowder six months ago. We always have some tinned sardines around and maybe some cheap caviar. But that’s the extent of it. All this is to say that it wasn’t the topic that drew me to Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food (Penguin Press, 2010).
I’m a huge fan of Greenberg; he’s one of our great writers. And in this book, a beautifully written and thorough explainer of the history of the Big Four–salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna–Greenberg’s compassion and respect for these creatures transfers seamlessly to his reader. I particularly like his discussion of the language we use for them–seafood. Obviously it’s an uphill battle to get the human mind to see fish as anything other than our own unlimited lunch box. Well, we sense there are limits as varieties disappear from menus–like cod–and most of us have an inkling that our grandchildren probably won’t have the opportunity to taste bluefin tuna.
Greenberg fills in these cultural rumors we’re already hearing–about PCBs, mercury, dirty fish farming, extinctions, collapsing fisheries–with the whole story. It’s a mostly depressing tale, but Greenberg highlights hope where he can find it and gives people more credit than they are due–if you consider corporations to be people that is. The Japanese don’t come out smelling like roses here either. But, writes Greenberg, we have the knowledge and the tools to reverse our course–like opening unused dams that block spawning grounds, closing more areas to fishing, selecting more logical fish for farming, and generally seeing the ocean as a delicate ecosystem necessary for our survival rather than that lunch box I mentioned.
Greenberg resists the notion that there are “good” and “bad” fish for us to eat, because every time there’s a new “it” fish we tend to go overboard and decimate the population. But here’s the short version: Your salmon is farmed and probably a little retarded since we sidestep the whole natural selection bit–and yes, it has PCBs; Your sea bass could be anything; Your cod is an endangered species because we wasted it on fish sticks; And, no, you should never, ever eat bluefin tuna–in fact you should see them as one of our planet’s other depleted kings like elephants, tigers, and whales.
As for fish you can eat with a clear conscience? It doesn’t really exist, yet, but according to Greenberg the fish we should be cultivating (i.e. harvesting sustainably) are tilapia, baramundi, something called tra, and a Hawaiian fish called Almaco jack, kahala, or Kona Kampachi. I for one will look out for these and take a break on the Big Four. I skipped the tuna on my splurge at Sushi Taro last week, in fact, and barely noticed. The other thing I can do is recommend you buy this book.