Four Fish: A bleak future for the world's last wild food

Can aquaculture save the world’s last wild food? That’s the question posed by the cover story of the July 18 issue of Time, which takes a look at the continuing collapse of the world’s fisheries. Fish seems so superabundant on our dinner plates that one can hardly fathom how we could possibly run out. After all, the ocean is so BIG.

Well, the deep blue sea is getting emptier and emptier, and even if the shoreline seems far away, the fisheries crisis is going to start hitting close to home—soon.

That’s the outlook, grim as it is, forecast by author Paul Greenberg in his recent book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Greenberg dives into the topic with gusto—in part, one has to imagine, because the oceanic crisis is so catastrophic.

The four fish Greenberg highlights—salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna—mark “four discreet steps humanity has taken in its attempts to master the sea.”

“[E]arly human fishers first overexploited their freshwater fish and then moved down the streams to their coasts to find more game,” Greenberg explains. “[H]umans marshaled the resources of industry into building offshore fishing fleets when they found their near-shore waters incapable of bearing humankind’s growing burden.”

Each fish, then, symbolizes a step in the evolution of fishing practices. Each fish symbolizes, too, an ecosystem plundered by those same practices.

Salmon, which live their adult lives in the sea but travel into freshwater to spawn, are “the species that marks the point at which humans and fish had large-scale environmental problems and where domestication had to be launched to head off extinction,” he says.

Sea bass, a close-to-shore species, represent the point where people “first learned how to fish in the sea and where we also found ourselves outstripping the resources of nature and turning to an even more sophisticated form of domestication to maintain fish supplies.”

Cod, an off-shore species that existed in “seemingly irrepressible abundance,” heralded “the era of industrial fishing.”

Tuna, finally, a giant deep-water species, is “the stateless fish, difficult to regulate” because it migrates through the territorial waters of a number of countries and, where it’s most vulnerable, through the largely unregulated waters of the open sea.

Greenberg contends that “the world fishing fleet is roughly twice as large as the oceans can support.” That overcapacity, he says, is maintained through government subsidies, which also make wild fish “unreasonably cheap” at the market.

Worldwide, seafood consumption continues to rise—sixty percent since 1974, according to the Time article. In America alone, some seven million tons of seafood gets eaten each year.

“So,” Greenberg says, “if we take as a given that humankind will keep eating fish, more and more of it every year, then we need to come up with a way to direct that appetite away from sensitive, unmanageable wildlife and usher it toward sustainable, productive domesticated fish.”

Greenberg’s book explores several key suggestions:

• A profound reduction in fishing
• A move away from heavily extractive (and heavily subsidized) vessels that employ very few individuals
• The conversion of significant portions of ocean ecosystems to no-catch areas
• The global protection of unmanageable species—that is, species that swim from one country’s waters to another’s to another’s or that populate international waters
• The protection of the bottom of the food chain

“What is needed above all,” he says, “is a standard for boosting fish supplies in as sustainable a manner as possible.” Fish farming seems obvious, perhaps, but it does come with its own challenges. Selective breeding—the same way farmers breed sheep or cows for certain features—can help overcome some of those difficulties, Greenberg says. Critics worry about “Frankenfish” that might contaminate wild populations, a legitimate concern that aquaculturists must be prepared to address.

Greenburg also advocates the “smarter use of subsidies” to promote polycultural, rather than monocultural, aquaculture practices. Instead of just raising salmon, for instance, a farm would also raise muscles to filter the salmons’ waste from the water.

The world’s last wild food, then, might not remain wild, but farmed fish is far better than no fish. “Or we can run roughshod over the wild ocean,” Greenberg says.

In that case, the world’s last food will have no future at all.

2 replies »

  1. Nice post, thanks–I don’t know Greenberg’s book but I’ll check it out. But my bookshelf is starting to groan under the weight of any number of books chronicling not just the end of fishing (both as a livelihood and as a source of food), but also the imminent end of pretty much most forms of traditional agriculture. The problem wirth agriculture, of course, is that you dont’t really run out of crops, even in periods of drought like the one we’re in–it’s that there’s too much demand now for the system that has evolved. The seas, on the other hand–once the fish are gone, it’s likely tol be decades before stocks can recover–if, indeed, they ever do.

    And I have mixed feelings about fish farming–one the one hand, it sounds great, and the polycultural approach may work. On the other hand, it’s so easy for stuff go go wrong. The problem isn’t really Frankenfish–it’s simple diesase control. Then there’s the food miles issue–when I go to my local market and look at the prawns, they all seem to come from fish farms in Thailand. Is this a good or bad thing? I’m not sure.

    As in everything else, we’ve gotten so used to resources being cheap and plentiful that we’re just unprepared for a scenario where they’re no longer cheap and plentiful. And it’s all coming to a head at the same time–food and enrgy in particular.