I love seafood. However, I live in arid West Texas, a place where good seafood is nonexistent, for both geographic and cultural reasons. What passes for a seafood restaurant here is (shudder) Red Lobster, and the fishmongers at local grocery stores just give you a blank stare when you ask about wild-caught Copper River salmon. Despite these difficulties, I am very (perhaps perversely) interested in the natural history of the seafood that is impossible for me to get, and Paul Greenberg's "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" is appetizer, main dish and dessert for curious pescetarians.
The four fish of the title are salmon, bass, tuna and cod, which are today the world's dominant wild-caught and farmed fish. Mr. Greenberg devotes a long chapter to each of these finned culinary staples. He ties their stories together by showing how each represents one discrete step that humanity has taken, sometimes over hundreds or thousands of years, to increase and control the tasty, nutritious largess of the sea. Salmon, for example, depend on clean, cold, free-flowing freshwater rivers, and was likely the first fish that early northern-hemisphere humans exploited. Sea bass, which inhabit shallow waters close to shore, were the catch of choice when Europeans first learned how to fish in the ocean. Cod live further out, off the continental shelves many miles offshore, and were the first fish subject to industrial-scale fishing by mammoth factory ships. Tuna live yet further out, in the deep oceans between the continents, and represent the last food fish that has not yet been "domesticated."
Mr. Greenberg uses footnoted historical and scientific information from academic reports and other sources, as well as his personal experiences and interviews with some colorful fishing industry characters, to build detailed and informative pictures of the state of these four fish in the world today. These are factual, balanced treatments of subjects that are practically guaranteed to set environmentalists, government regulators, fishermen and consumers at each others' throats in the dynamic, complicated world of modern large-scale aquaculture. He shows how issues such as sustainability, wild-caught vs. farmed fish, the environmental effects of fish farms, growth in consumer demand, concentrations of harmful pollutants in fish, etc., are all interrelated in an incredibly complex web of dependencies. Easing one problem invariably worsens others, and there are really no easy answers to the question of how we can best manage our production and consumption of these four fish to assure their safety, availability and future viability.
It's not a hopeless future. Mr. Greenberg offers some things we can do to mend our troubled relationship with the oceans and the life within them. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, you should still find "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" to be an interesting and informative read. I recommend it highly if you have the slightest interest in finding out more about the fish on your plate.