Will All the Wild Fish Be Gone by 2048?

Posted by Peter Smith


Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, talks about including fish in discussions of sustainable food.

Fish are not like bison or farm-raised cattle. They're out of sight—in floating net pens, spawning on coastal shelves, or swimming through unregulated offshore waters. So when you hear about collapsing tuna stocks, underwater feedlots, or certified sustainable salmon, it’s hard to appreciate what’s actually going on with the world’s fisheries because because fish are found in unseeable reaches of the world.

In his book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, the journalist Paul Greenberg combs the ocean to examine the fish that most frequently end up on our dinner table: salmon, bass, cod, and tuna. He argues that wild-caught fish should be thought of as game with a specific place of origin rather than a fish stick—and that smart aquaculture should raise the pork, beef, goat, and mutton of the seas without replicating the ecological messiness created by agriculture.

The book’s been out two weeks and already it’s being received as the a must-read food politics book to read of the year. I spoke with Greenberg from New York.

GOOD: When it comes to sustainable food, why do fish tend to get overlooked?

PAUL GREENBERG: Fish has been excluded from the food reform movement because most people just don’t know how to deal with it. Fish and fishing are very complicated and most people don’t have a visceral feel for these wild animals. In the back of my mind and the minds of many fishermen, we know that cod are in bad shape. At the same time, we know American striped bass have been doing better of late.

G: So you can’t generalize and say that all wild fish are going to be gone by 2048?

PG: I get tired of the doom and gloom. Individual species are not in danger of extinction. What is in danger is abundance. We have a wild food system that yields 90 million tons annually—the equivalent of the human weight of China. You can say that’s egregious or you can say that’s kind of amazing that the world is capable of sustaining (at least on a slowly declining curve) that much wild food on an annual basis. These are not lions and tigers, where we’re down to individuals that we count on safari. As hunter-gatherers, we can still have a balanced relationship with fish.

G: In other words, there’s an incredible bounty but also an incredible, growing demand.

PG: Right. If you go by what some Western countries are saying, like the British Health Ministry, which recommend two servings of fish per person per week, we wouldn’t have much fish left. Certain reductions have to happen, especially with larger fish like bluefin tuna and swordfish. Since the end of World War II, niche fish have become everyday fish. The Atlantic salmon, a fish that never had the potential to become the everyday fish of the Western world, has done just that.

G: Why hasn’t aquaculture and the so-called Blue Revolution successfully farmed these fish ecologically in great quantity?

PG: It’s a huge financial investment to domesticate an animal—there are problems of reproduction, feed, juvenile rearing, and disease management. We tend to look at fish that yield a significant profit at the end of their research and development period, like Atlantic salmon. “If we tame this sucker, we can get our money back.” Same goes for branzino and bluefin tuna. Those fish tend to be raised in monoculture to get it to market as quickly as possible, so it tends to disregard the collateral problems associated with farming. That said, there are green-blue revolutionaries out there developing different ways of culturing fish, like integrated multi-tropic aquaculture.

G: You also point to other models for sustainable fishing, like Kwik’pak, which sells Fair Trade-certified fish.

PG: It’s a native owned and operated company that brands and sells premium King salmon. Unfortunately, there have been really terrible King salmon returns to the Yukon. It would be great if everyone was like Kwik’pak, but there’s tons of salmon fishing in Alaska. So if I were to point to a fishery that has some signs of a being a game-changer, it would be the Cape Cod Hook Fishermen’s Association. It’s a foot in the door for sustainable fishing for Georges Bank, where you have a damaged population of cod fish that is slowly coming back to life under the stewardship of a small fleet that tries to use hook and line —they’re trying to fish an entire fishing ground in a sustainable way. That’s the thing. You have to look at the entire fishery.

G: Do you think more fish should have this terroir of the sea?

PG: I do. Maybe it should be called merroir. People forget that fish are wild animals, and need to be treated as wild game and not industrial products. I’m not advocating for everyone to get out there with spears, but you have to tone down the industrial effort against wild animals. If you take cod and mash it up into a fish stick, who the heck going to respect that?

G: But salmon haven’t traditionally been valued over the human activities that destroy them, like logging. Is that true for all these fish archetypes?

PG: Salmon is really the one that suffers the most from environmental degradation, but fish have never been a valuable enough commodity to consider them before we do something. Just look at the oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the biggest pelagic spawning ground for bluefin and swordfish. Instead of food security, we went for energy security—just like we threw up dams in the Northwest to harvest hydropower. We’re heading headlong into development of coastal shelves for oil. And who knows if the Gulf will ever recover.

G: At one point in the book, you quote Daniel Pauly, who says the power of consumer choice is a pleasant notion, but it doesn’t really adequately address the problems.

PG: I applaud the Monterey Bay Aquarium for getting people to think about choices. Awareness is a first step and seafood guides are a good step. But people carry around the card, and say, “Check, chose the right fish, did my job for the ocean.” But they didn't. That one person didn’t eat a fish that someone else, somewhere else, with less ethics, is going to eat. In addition to choosing the right fish, people need to communicate with retailers directly. It’s the large aggregate that needs to change.

G: What are some of the other things that we can do?

PG: There are meta-level goals. The big one is the establishment of marine protected areas. Ninety-nine percent of the ocean is unprotected from fishing, whereas around 10 percent of land in the United States is protected. There needs to be equal protection for the oceans. As far as management of the high seas is concerned, scientific committees are often powerless; two years ago, the bluefin tuna quota was double what the scientists recommended.

An inversion has to take place, where the best available science dictates what nation-states can divvy up. If I were the czar of fisheries, I would urge nations to think about what they really need. How much should we get through aquaculture and wild capture? And the fish we choose for aquaculture shouldn’t be the ones we catch in the wild. Let farmed tilapia be the industrial fish. Let’s have wild cod, which is difficult to farm, and let’s not fish it so hard. I think we need to differentiate the wild world from the farmed world—to create mass produced fish and sensitively managed wild fish.

You can buy Greenberg's book here and follow him on Twitter @4fishgreenberg.