Four Fish: An interview with Paul Greenberg about the future of seafood

Q: Why did you decide to focus on these four varieties of fish--salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna?

A: Like a lot of people who think about our changing relationship with food, I was influenced by Michael Pollan. I was struck by the way that he broke down the plant world into four plants in Botany of Desire and the food system into four meals in Omnivore's Dilemma and I realized that "four" is kind of a magic number when it comes to humans and food. In prehistoric times, humans ate dozens of wild mammals and birds. Out of that huge, wild confusion we chose to domesticate four of each to be our principle meats: cattle, pigs, sheep and goats in the case of mammals, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese in the case of birds.

When, during the course of my research, I learned that farmed seafood is now just as prevalent as wild seafood in the marketplace, I realized that the interplay of domestication and wildness is one of the most important issues going on with fish today. Choosing which fish will be our domesticated "seafood" will have huge ramifications for our species and for the planet. In fact, we are right now zeroing in on our cattle, pigs, sheep and goats of the sea. Across menus and markets, we are starting to come to a consensus on what we're looking for in fish: something pink and succulent like a salmon; something white and meaty, the category that's usually filled by a number of near shore fish that are often called "bass" or "snapper"; something white and flakey that you can deep fry, i.e. codfish; and something that's steak-like and dense for grilling and sushi, like tuna. So we have roughly those four "fish-flesh" types on our menus. The most important ecological question facing the oceans today is how we can sustainably meet this demand using different methods of capturing and farming fish.

As I researched Four Fish, I followed these four flesh types around the world--from the Yukon River of Alaska, to the Mediterranean Sea, the fjords of Norway, the bays of Long Island Sound, and way beyond. What I found was that in almost every case, there was a better, more sustainable choice to fill our need for each type of fish flesh. African tilapia works great as "cod" at least for mass market products like fish sticks. Farmed Australian barramundi is an excellent substitute for all those many wild fish we call "bass." We have at our disposal the entire world to choose from in choosing the best fish for farming. Why not really look for what actually works best on the farm? I should add here that I'm not averse to eating wild fish. But I think wild fish should have higher standing in the marketplace and be recognized as precious.

Q: What is our current relationship with the ocean like and how is it changing?

A: We often still hunt fish in it the same way people hunted game on the primordial prairie--that is, without a real investment over whether there will be game in the same spot next year. There are of course fantastic fishermen out there who really understand marine ecology and try to find a balance, but often times fishermen's first instincts are to look for new, untapped stocks of wild fish when their original grounds go bad.

In the past when fishing was still a small-scale endeavor, this kind of moving on to the next thing was not a huge problem. But with the transformation of fishing into a huge, multinational industry over the last fifty years this practice has become untenable. This dramatic shift occurred largely as an unintended result of World War II. When the War ended, terrestrial agriculture was in a state of devastation and we needed to find something to eat, and quick. Fish filled the gap. The war also drove technology in a way that allowed fishing to ramp up drastically. Sonar for finding fish, plastics for creating fishing lines and nets--these things came largely from war-time technological advancements and have proved to be key elements in the arms race against fish.

In all, the world's fish catch has quintupled since the end of WWII to the present day. We now remove more wild seafood from the oceans every year than the weight of the entire human population of China. And we're turning to domestication to keep pace with demand. My essential concern is this: do we have to destroy the sea at the same time as we are taming it or can we strike a balance?

Q: In March, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) failed to pass a global ban on the trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna. What are the implications of this decision?

A: It's a very controversial question. The Pew Foundation and other wildlife advocacy groups who were pushing the CITES option felt that it was the Atlantic bluefin's last chance. A CITES listing would have redefined bluefin as wildlife rather than "seafood" and moved the management of the fish over to the people who manage giant pandas, white rhinos and tigers. Fishermen generally feel that the CITES option is a bad route. They feel fish should be managed by trained fisheries biologists and managers and that calling bluefin wildlife will lead to further mismanagement and even poaching.

What is clear is that the Atlantic bluefin is in trouble. Atlantic bluefin have two known spawning grounds in the world--the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico and the two populations or "stocks" of Atlantic bluefin cross the ocean and often intermix. The Western stock is down by 95% according some estimates. The larger Mediterranean spawned stock may be down by as much as 80% off historical numbers. With the CITES failure, the bluefin season opened as per usual in 2010 and a fleet of industrial fishing boats were let loose to hunt the fish in the Mediterranean just as they were about to spawn. With the BP spill, the remaining giant bluefin in the Western Atlantic were hit by toxic oil and oil dispersants just as they were beginning their courtship rituals. Can a fish whose population is so diminished and threatened by pollution stand up to any more fishing pressure. I fear not.

But there's a larger question here. Nearly all tuna spend time in what's called the "high seas"--international waters that are owned by nobody and everybody. Currently, sustainable management of the high seas, and the highly migratory fish that travel them, just isn't working. The Atlantic bluefin's decline is proof of that. And there are many more economically important fish out there--swordfish, other important tunas like yellowfin, big eye, and albacore--all of them fall under the aegis of similar management institutions that are stewarding over the collapse of the Atlantic bluefin. We need to start seeing the big fish of the world for what they are: sensitive wildlife that can only be harvested in very limited numbers. And we need to let scientists, not politicians, set fishing quotas.

Q: You traveled around the globe to research wild fish hunting and fish farming. What is the most interesting thing you learned?

A: I've been surprised to find there are some fish farmers out there who come at their discipline from a place of environmental awareness and deep ecology. Over the years, fish farming has gotten a bad rap and some of it is deserved. Big industrial salmon farming interests can be pretty harmful. But the folks on the cutting edge of taming fish and figuring out husbandry systems--people like Josh Goldman who grows barramundi in closed containment facilities in the Berkshires--those people have as great, if not a greater concern about sustainability than anyone in the organic food movement. I think we need to get past that knee jerk dismissal of all farmed fish and start to see what works and what doesn't.

Q: Is it all doom and gloom out there for fish?

A: No, it most assuredly is not doom and gloom. The thing about fish is that most of them produce millions of eggs and sperm and if conditions are right, they can stage a recovery quite quickly. If a network of marine reserves were put in place and industrial-scale fishing were curtailed, we could see, at least in the United States, rebuilt populations of most commercial species within a decade. In fact the US has been pretty good with its fisheries management and we have indeed seen improvement in a bunch of stocks over the years. American striped bass, Atlantic mackerel, bluefish, haddock have all shown some signs of improvement.

It's trickier with fish like tuna that roam international waters. No one owns the high seas and so it's hard to get people to agree, internationally, that fishing should be cut back. I honestly couldn't make any predictions about the long term future of the tunas.

Q: What organizations are doing the most for fish today?

A: The Monterey Bay Aquarium has done heroic work identifying good and bad practices. Their Seafood Watch program is top notch and I encourage people to download their Seafood Watch iPhone app, which helps users make smart, healthy decisions about purchasing fish at their local markets. That said, there are limitations to the "choose the right fish" approach to ocean conservation. We need a dedicated and proactive oceans movement to change harmful dynamics. One consumer choosing tilapia over codfish just isn't enough.

In line with that, I think the establishment of marine reserves is the most important thing that's going on right now with fisheries. Greenpeace has the most ambitious goal--make 40% of the oceans off limits to fishing. I like the scale of that ambition. Here in the U.S., a federal advisory committee has been laying the groundwork for a system of marine protected areas (M.P.A.'s in ocean-speak) throughout American waters for years now, but it keeps getting stuck in bureaucracy. We need reserves now, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico. We may have just lost an entire year of spawning for bluefin tuna in the Gulf due to the oil spill. We might lose a year of spawning for swordfish and yellowfin tuna there, too. We should be setting aside reserves in the Gulf right now, so that we can protect spawning of what will be significantly damaged populations of high value species. That said marine preserves are not a cure all. They need to be designed carefully with input from fishermen as well as biologists.

On the fish farming front, the World Wildlife Fund is doing interesting and positive things with their Aquaculture Dialogues. The Dialogues are trying to get the industry to agree upon a set of standards for farming fish that would minimize environmental impacts.

Q: In the book you underline what fishermen and fish farmers can learn from land-based farming. What are your suggestions?

A: Fishermen need to start seeing themselves more as herders than hunters. The open-ended nature of fishing has to change. Highly damaging fishing methods like the most destructive forms of bottom trawling, purse seining (encircling entire schools of fish with a large net), and certain kinds of long-lining need to be taken off the table. To paraphrase the UK-based writer and conservationist, Charles Clover, you wouldn't just drag a net along the Serengeti knocking down all the trees and killing all the birds, zebras, lions and elephants, just so you could extract the wildebeest. That, in effect, is what some of the worst industrial fishing practices do. That sort of behavior shouldn't be allowed.

On the fish farming front, well, we need to look at what the organic land-farming movement has found--that monocultures and feedlots are not the answer. Polycultures are the way to go. I'm reminded of the "three sisters" culture that native Americans used. Corn, squash and beans were often grown together. Corn provides the pole structure for bean plants, beans fix nitrogen for the corn and squash provide ground cover and weed suppression for all three. In Canada they are just starting to polyculture salmon together with mussels, commercial brown algae and sea cucumbers. Tilapia, likewise, can work well with hydroponic crops like tomatoes. With fish farming we have an opportunity to make polyculture our starting point rather than our desperate attempt later on to fix a taxed and broken system.

We should also be careful not to start farming a fish if it causes the decline of wild fish. There's some evidence around salmon farms that they negatively impact fragile wild populations of salmon. I think there's a very strong argument for not allowing salmon farming to take place in waters where wild salmon migrate. Indeed there's a big move afoot to try to get salmon farms out of the water entirely and up on land in bio-secure facilities.

Finally, on the fish farming front, we shouldn't let ourselves be married to the fish we know as wild animals. There are fish out there like Arctic char, barramundi, tilapia and Hawaiian kahala that are better farm animals than our go-to fish, i.e. Atlantic salmon, branzino, codfish and tuna. The wild animals we know best are not necessarily the ones that work well on the farm.

Q: What should I know before I go to a fish market to pick up something for dinner? How can I make a difference?

A: Generally speaking, fish that don't live long or grow to great sizes are better toxicologically and ecologically. With wild fish, shorter-lived fish breed faster, are generally more abundant and don't accumulate toxins as quickly. They can also stand up to fishing pressure better than the older longer-lived fish. Mackerel, anchovies and sardines are all excellent examples of this kind of fish. With farmed fish, you're looking for a creature that doesn't eat a lot of fish meal, grows fast and is grown in a way where it doesn't interact with the wild. Hybrid farmed striped bass, US raised tilapia, US raised catfish, Arctic char, and US raised barramundi are all good choices.

On a more philosophical note, it's worth getting to know the fish you eat, the actual animals not just the flesh. Take some time to understand their lives, their abundance in the world. I would refer readers to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's species-by-species assessments available in PDF form free of charge on their website.

To make a real difference, though, making good choices as a consumer, while personally edifying, are not enough. Writing to the marketing departments of large supermarket chains is a good start. Food conglomerates are obsessed with what "the average" consumer thinks and sometimes it's better to express this in words rather than in just buying choices. Target just took farmed salmon off their shelves, but they didn't do that because consumers stopped buying salmon. They did it because Greenpeace spoke directly to their marketing department and convinced them of all the negatives. I would hope this pressure would in turn convince the salmon farming industry to change their ways--use more polyculture, fewer open water netcages, and lower their use of wild fish in their salmon feed.

Beyond that, I'm a big proponent for actually doing something--there are small efforts around the country that are helping fish that could use an actual physical hand or two. Many states and organizations including Trout Unlimited have programs to remove small-scale dams and improving spawning habitat. Consumers should consider using their physical presence to protest bad practices. In the aftermath of the BP spill there should be people in the streets demanding that we protect fish species in the Gulf.

I'd also like to see more proactive programs arise that would allow communities more of a hand in the control of their local waters. Perhaps it might be possible to take a Nature Conservancy type approach where coastal communities could actually buy out some of the fishing rights and keep at least some of the oceans off-limits to industrial fishing. Fishing interests generally bridle at these kinds of suggestions but I think with good science we could strike a balance where, much like our National Forest Service we could keep some of our ocean territory in reserve and help rebuild fish stocks for everybody.

Q: How do you reconcile your love of fishing and eating fish with your impulse to help sustain fish populations?

A: Well, full disclosure, I pretty much never buy fish. I only eat fish that I catch myself. And my fishing practices have changed since I finished the research on this book. I try to fish stocks that are in decent shape according to the best possible science I can find. The other thing I do is try to make use of an entire fish when I catch it. Whereas once I got one or two meals for my family out of a fish, I can often squeeze out three by being a little more thoughtful. When I fish on "party" boats (pay per fair day boats that leave from many American ports) I stand at the back next to the mates when they clean fish and work over the carcasses they've filleted to get meat for fish cakes. And whatever I can't eat--skin, guts, etc.--I put in my garden, so I guess you could say I get a fourth meal out every fish in the form of well-fertilized tomatoes. Overall, I fish less and try to maximize what I kill.

Q: What do you hope that readers take away from Four Fish?

A: That the ocean is miraculous. That fish are diverse, enchanting, and sometimes just plain weird. That humans are doing good as well as bad things with the sea. That there's a fighting chance to have a stable, logical, and productive relationship with the ocean. I hope that, like me, they will walk away wanting to see a restoration of small-scale, artisanal fishing to our daily lives. Why is it that the locavore movement has been only a terrestrial movement to date? Why doesn't my hometown of New York City, a city situated on what was once an incredibly productive estuary, have an abundant supply of local wild seafood? Every coastal city could have its own local fish again, we just have make it a priority to bring fish back into our lives.