A Must-Read Book on the Future of Fish

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I have the cover story this week on the state of global seafood, examining the rapid growth in aquaculture—and looking at the challenges facing the fish farming industry as it begins to provide an ever larger proportion of our seafood. It’s a massive subject, as you can imagine, and I wasn’t able to go into depth on everything I wanted. (So strange, after the boundless space of the Internet, to be confined once again in the nutshell of print.) So I’ll be adding a few posts over the next couple of days on fish farming—think of them as B-sides—including items about the controversy over a genetically modified salmon and the barriers facing domestic aquaculture here in the U.S.

But I wanted to first highlight a book that helped inform the ideas behind this cover. Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food is one of the best environmental or food books I’ve read in recent years, and it tells the story of how we’ve come to strip the oceans clean—and how aquaculture, the right kind of aquaculture, might be the only way to save them. The subject alone is worth your attention if you’ve ever had a salmon steak or a shrimp cocktail, but it helps that Greenberg is an excellent writer. Here’s an excerpt from a 2010 New York Times Magazine story that was adapted from Four Fish, where Greenberg describes the act of tagging a bluefin tuna—a species that is fast being eaten to extinction:

Applying more pressure, I felt the needle slide into the flank, felt the resistance of the dense sushi flesh, raw and red and most certainly delicious. But for the first time in my life I felt tuna flesh for what it was: a living, perfect expression of a miraculous adaptation. An adaptation that allows bluefin to cross oceans at the speed of a battleship. An adaptation that should be savored in its own right as the most miraculous engine of a most miraculous animal, not as food.

Perhaps people will never come to feel about a tuna the way they have come to feel about whales. Whales are, after all, mammals: they have large brains; they nurse their young and breed slowly. All of that ensconces them in a kind of empathic cocoon, the warmth of which even the warmest-blooded tuna may never occupy. But what we can perhaps be persuaded to feel, viscerally, is that industrial fishing as it is practiced today against the bluefin and indeed against all the world’s great fish, the very tigers and lions of our era, is an act unbefitting our sentience. An act as pointless, small-minded and shortsighted as launching a harpoon into the flank of a whale.

Good stuff. And, hey, Four Fish just came out in paperback. Buy it here—after you buy Time magazine, of course.