The ones that got away
Author and fisher Paul Greenberg thinks we might be able to turn back the tide of overfishing. But we better act fast
Venture down to Pike Place Market, just beyond the brass pig sculpture, and you’ll see them: the crowds, with their videocameras and cell phones, aimed at a certain fishmonger’s stand. They’ve come to see—and film—the mongers, in their orange rubber aprons, haul a huge salmon off the display tables of ice and toss it, with a “Whhoooo,” to a woman with her hands open, palms up, a human cradle for a piscine wonder. Between the crowd and the mongers, massive amounts of seafood—Copper River salmon, Alaskan king crab legs, jumbo pink shrimp, tails of rock lobster and more—glisten like manna from the sea. The seafood looks so bounteous—not just here, but in practically every fish stand and seafood section of a supermarket you cross—you can tell yourself there’s a lot more out there, in the oceans and streams, for our dining pleasure.
But deep down, we know that’s not true: overfishing and advances in fishing have changed the oceanscape. Forever, you wonder? Maybe not, not if things change now. That’s what Paul Greenberg has come to believe.
A fisher who grew up on the East Coast trying to catch largemouth bass with Gaines-Burgers, a dog food shaped like a burger—it didn’t work—Greenberg the adult set out on an expedition a while back to answer a question: How are fish doing these days? This quest took him to the ancestral rivers of the Yupik Eskimos and to a farm-fishing facility in Norway, and on many boats hither and yon. What he discovered can be found in “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,” [Penguin Press, $25.95], a troubling, though ultimately hopeful, account of how we’ve reached a critical point in the viability of the fishing industry. By focusing on four finned wonders—salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna—he describes, with a narrative flair, the state of wild fisheries, the rise in farmed fish, and how mercury, and even human-made chemicals such as PCBs, find their ways into the fish we eat. And that we can find a sustainable balance.
The book has gotten some good play—it spawned a New York Times Magazine cover article, “The End of Tuna”—and sent him on a jam packed book tour. In Seattle for a reading at University Books in mid-July, he made time for us to have a little chat. Ensconced in a small room of the bookstore’s third floor, we spoke, right before his reading, about the narrative of overfishing, salmon in the streets and a seafood dinner.
When’s the last time you’ve been fishing?
The last time was in June with a very interesting guy named Bruce Franklin. Bruce was a professor at Stanford and very anti-Vietnam War and eventually was fired from Stanford and he ended up working at Rutgers [University]. He wrote a book called “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” about menhaden [a nearly extinct Atlantic Ocean fish]. He invited me to go fluke fishing.
What is a fluke?
Fluke is a flatfish, more similar to halibut than, say, to a flounder in the sense that it has teeth. Fluke can get up to about 10 or 15 pounds, or up to 20, but they recently raised the size limit in New Jersey and throughout New England. We caught, like, 40 fluke, but they were all undersized, by about half an inch, so we had to put them all back. But at the same time, I’ve never caught so many fluke in all my life. In a way it’s a small, little lesson on fishery regulation: There might not be as many keepers, but there are more overall fish, which is cheering in the end.
Cheering in the end, but the general tenor about our oceans is—Well, I told someone I was coming to speak to you and told him what the book was about, and he said, “Just one more example of how we’re screwed.” So. Are we screwed?
I don’t actually think we’re screwed. I actually think that the narrative of overfishing has been a little bit overplayed. While I talk a lot about overfishing and how we’ve lost certain species—commercially, at least—there are still quite a lot of fish out there. We take between 80 and 90 million tons out of the oceans of wild seafood, and that’s equivalent to the human weight of China, taken out every year. On the one hand, you could say, “That’s horrible devastation of the seas.” On the other hand, you could say, “It’s kind of amazing, that in this day of extremely compromised nature, we’re still able to take that much.” Are we taking too much? Yes. Most people on the conservation side of marine biology would like to see the world catch be half of what it is today: 45 million tons or something like that. This is backed up to some degree: The World Bank, the United Nations did a joint report called “The Sunken Billions,” where they found that fishing is overcapacity. A lot of that is because of subsidies: Governments can continue to pump money into fishing, even though it’s not profitable. So I think, in a way, if we were to let the market dictate and take away fishery subsidies, we’d actually see a lot fewer fishing efforts going on and maybe bring it back into scale with what is sustainable.
Your book’s called “Four Fish,” so let’s break ‘em down. Let’s start with salmon.
Well, the fish that I profile go from closest to humans to furthest away, in terms of where they exist. So salmon literally swim up into our back doors. When I was working in Eugene, in Oregon, back in the ‘80s, counting salmon for the Bureau of Land Management, I remember people telling me stories that sometimes when the Willamette slipped its banks, it wasn’t uncommon to see salmon swimming up the streets and trying to spawn in the streets. But because salmon are closest to us, we’ve done the most damage to them. People in the Northwest are very conscious of how we’re physically losing our salmon before our eyes.
The Atlantic salmon are commercially extinct. There are no more really viable Atlantic salmon fisheries anymore. And if you plotted it on a graph, you’d see wild Atlantic salmon going like this [his finger goes diagonally from upper left to lower right], starting like this is 1940 going down to the present, and then if you graphed, in 1940, farmed Atlantic salmon, they go in the opposite direction. And where they cross is about the mid-‘60s.
How about the situation for sea bass?
There are of course many, many fish called sea bass. I’ve counted seven or eight taxonomic families that have fish in them called bass or sea bass and the situation for each of them is a little different. But the word “bass” turns out to be a kind of useful way to look at what’s happened to coastal waters in the last 30 years. In the eastern and western U.S. and in Europe three different fish called “bass” became expensive “white tablecloth” menu items in the ‘70s and ‘80s when fisherman started catching them with greater frequency.
Greenberg mentions that among the flukes he caught, all were about a half-inch too small. I often wonder about the impact that size limits will have on all kinds of wild animals, and this is a great example of it. I mean, doesn’t it make sense that finfish and shellfish will simply evolve to stop growing larger than the size limits? Finfish like the flukes he caught, or shellfish—with lobster as perhaps the best example—will just not grow larger than the limit, and they’ll be constantly caught and tossed back.
What impact will that have on the marine environment?
bullshit reporting.. why cant you talk to an actual fisherman and not someone who read other books from other activists… stop trying to overreach your inability to do a report on something other than homelessness.. unless that is beneath you…
you cant even decide if your a man or a woman…
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.