A conversation with Paul Greenberg about his new book Four Fish

In this podcast, Andrew Light, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress interviews Paul Greenberg, a lifelong fisherman and author of the new book Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food about the overfishing crisis, international agreements, and other issues. That is followed by a book review by Sean Pool and Laurel Hunt and is cross-posted at ScienceProgress.

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The need for sound science to guide national and international policymaking exists in almost every sphere of public policy, from climate change to drug regulation to mercury pollution. But perhaps nowhere do policymakers need to hear the voice of science more urgently than in the case of our collapsing fisheries. The precipitous decline of some of the oceans’ most magnificent creatures, such the bluefin tuna, shows us that we are at risk of becoming the generation that consumes the world’s last wild food unless we take a drastic change in course and engage in unprecedented international cooperation.

In the new book Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food, author and lifelong fisherman Paul Greenberg tackles the changing relationship between human beings and the ocean by examining the history of four staple seafoods: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Each fish represents a different historical step in the human pursuit of fish: salmon were first fished from freshwater rivers, sea bass from shallow coastal waters, cod from continental shelves, and tuna from deepwater zones.

Greenberg explores the realities and implications of both wild and domestic sources of fish, and his adventures lead him across the globe to places such as a salmon megafarm in Norway, a fair trade fishing company in Alaska, and the endangered bluefin tuna habitat in the South Pacific.

The message of the book is simple: “Human beings have [ignored] the fundamental limits the laws of nature place on ecosystems and have consistently removed more fish than can be replaced by natural processes.” Greenberg’s assertion is carefully researched and reflects the work of major ocean stewardship organizations. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has stated, for example, that demand for fish continues to rise globally, yet “70 percent of the world’s fisheries are now exploited, overexploited, or have collapsed.”

Wealthy human appetites have outgrown the oceans’ finite bounty, and we have begun to fill the gap in recent decades with the industrial-scale domestication of fish, or aquaculture. Yet this shift in fishing practices has created its own environmental problems, from overuse of antibiotics to help fish survive in incredibly high densities, to nutrient pollution, to the escape of domesticated fish. Escaped fish cause significant damage to local ecosystems and to their wild neighbors because domesticated fish are often not native to the places in which they are farmed.

Greenberg lays out the issue clearly, saying, “the fish we have chosen to tame are by and large animals that satisfy whimsical gustatory predilections rather than the requirements of sound ecologically based husbandry.” In other words, we are not wisely choosing the fish we are farming and may be harming more than we are helping in our attempts to support the demand for fish.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Greenberg advances a positive vision for what an “equitable and long-lasting peace between man and fish” might look like.

Our wild fisheries can be saved with better communication between ocean scientists and policymakers. We can reduce our overall fishing effort, convert a significant portion of ocean ecosystems to protected no-catch areas, put international protections in place for unmanageable species such as bluefin tuna that cross many national boundaries or live in unregulated international waters, and prioritize protecting the bottom of the food chain.

This will inevitably lead to fewer wild fish on people’s dinner plates, so aquaculture must be part of the solution to fill the gap and provide for the billions of people rising out of poverty in Asia and Africa who are increasing their consumption of fish. The world will need to produce an additional 37 million tons of farmed fish each year by 2030 just to maintain current levels of consumption, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Greenberg suggests that we can make aquaculture more sustainable by focusing on the types of fish we choose to farm. The fish we choose to domesticate should be herbivores rather than carnivores, nondestructive to a wild system, limited in number, adaptable, and functional in a polyculture with other useful marine organisms. Taking steps to reduce escape of domestic fish is also critical to minimizing the harmful impact of this practice on wild populations.

Four Fish explores fishing from the multiple perspectives of the fisherman, the environment, and the consumer. Recent national attempts to address the fishing crisis include President Barack Obama’s executive order establishing a national ocean policy, but Greenberg notes that, “In fact, there is no “ocean policy” as such, at least none that looks at wild and domesticated fish as two components of a common future.”

It’s time for us to step up and start planning for the future. The question we have to answer, Greenberg says, is whether we have to “eliminate all wildness from the sea and replace it with some kind of human controlled system, or can wildness be understood and managed well enough to keep humanity and the marine world in balance?”

The interview was conducted by Andrew Light, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. The article was written by Sean Pool, Special Assistant for Energy, Science, and Technology policy, and Laurel Hunt, an intern for the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress.

Paul Greenberg is the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food and has been fishing since he was a young child. He has written for various publications including the New York Times Magazine, Book Review, and Opinion Page, as well as National Geographic and GQ. Mr. Greenberg is also a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow. 

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2 Responses to A conversation with Paul Greenberg about his new book Four Fish

  1. Michael Tucker says:

    Domesticating nature is how humans have managed to survive over roughly the past 10,000 years. That is how we have managed to support a world of 7 billion people. Now, in order to continue to feed all those hungry folks, we find that we must farm wild fish. Even now enterprising entrepreneurs are attempting to farm blue fin tuna. The market has spoken! The demand is too high and the profit is too tempting to ignore. Of course, our experience with food production on land should give us some idea of the kinds of unintended negative consequences that might result if the fish are farmed in the ocean. The blue fin tuna experiment I saw was an aquarium based enterprise.

    It isn’t just managing the wild fish populations though. How will they survive if we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere and run nitrogen and phosphorous into our oceans? How will the wild fish survive in oceans that suffer ever expanding dead zones and are becoming increasingly hotter and more acidic?

    The loss of these wild fish populations are part of the wider loss of species world wide. We lose a tremendous number of species each year but there is very little we can do about it as long as the land they live on is needed by humans to survive. It is all about trying to support a population of 7 billion people that will become 8 billion in another 20 years or so and is headed to 9 billion. What we have in mind is food (water and energy too) for 9 billion people but Wavy Gravy will not be able to come to the rescue.

  2. Raul M. says:

    On one lone lane, land and sand, sang gnats.
    Gnats stang, “Sting sing” sang gnats.

    Any ideas on how the paragraph should go?