Friday, January 21, 2011

Four Fish a chronicle of the poisoning and plundering of the seas

Book Seven: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Despite its Seussian title, there is nothing whimsical about Paul Greenberg's 2010 book. Four Fish is a grim reckoning of the world's dwindling fish population.

Four fish that commonly find their way to our dinner table and that have been especially mis-managed -- salmon, tuna, bass and cod -- provide the framework for Greenberg's chronicle of the poisoning and plunder of the seas. It's all here: the destruction of native habitat, the overfishing, the decimation of forage fish at the bottom of the food chain, the self-interest and greed.

Not that Four Fish is a screed.  A passionate fisherman, Greenberg provides a balanced account, relating valiant efforts to pull us back from the brink.  Most of those efforts entail some sort of fish farming. Sadly, even here, Greenberg believes we've gotten it wrong; attempting to farm salmon or sea bass, for example, while more suitable and sustainable fish such as barramundi or tilapia have been largely ignored.

Yet the most sobering observation Greenberg makes is how little impact the informed and conscientious consumer may have: "Choosing a fish that is well managed or grown on a farm that uses sound husbandry practices is most definitely personally satisfying. One feels 'good' when one eats 'well' . . . But the public's choosing of 'good' fish in the marketplace has little effect on the actual management of wild fish or the practices of growing farmed ones."

Greenberg writes that consumer awareness campaigns that lead us to leave certain fish off the menu have not significiantly reduced fishing pressure on those species.

But there are steps we can take. In his thoughtful conclusion, Greenberg offers a set of priorities to protect the world's remaining wild fish. Those priorities include "a profound reduction" in worldwide fishing. According to Greenberg, the United Nation estimates the world fishing fleet is twice as large as the oceans can support. He advocates that we move from heavily extractive fishing vessels to an artisanal sector of "respectful fishermen-herders that will steward the species, as well as catch them."

Other suggestions include establishing significiant no-catch areas, global protection of unmanageable species and protection of the bottom of the food chain. He also offers thoughtful principles to guide us as we continue to domesticate fish for human consumption.

Anyone who cares about the food they eat or the state of the world's wild animals will find Four Fish a thoughtful and important book. The challenge is to put the books into the hands of politicians and industry leaders throughout the world who can effect the changes enumerated here and pull us back from the brink of destruction.

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