Archive for November, 2010

Four Fish

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg, published this past year, is an outstanding commentary on the problems faced by global fisheries and what we could do to solve some of them.

Paul Greenberg's Four Fish is the best of recent environmental books.

Greenberg is an excellent journalist and a very experienced fisherman. Although he features salmon, cod, sea bass and tunafish, he includes a diversity of other often, but not always, related fish, as he explores our attitudes to fishing out the remaining wild stocks, and the challenges of aquaculture alternatives.

He condemns efforts to farm carnivorous species, especially tuna, which will eat at least 20 times their weight before they are harvested, but also salmon, which still eat 3-6 times their weight before harvest: this is simply not a sustainable way to feed us.

Bluefin tuna, fattened in pens in the Mediterranean, harvested for shipment to Japan. (

He encourages the farming of fish that eat at lower trophic levels, eating less than two times their harvest weight, and where possible eating plants, or plant meal, instead of fish meal. Fish such as the sea bass, barramundi; kahala (or Kona Kampachi) which could easily be used as an alternative in sushi which is currently killing all the remaining bluefin tuna; a fish call tra, catfish-like, popular in Asia; and of course tilapia.

Barramundi hatchery in Queensland, Australia (

This leads him to propose something very simple and potentially effective. Let’s market two kinds of fish. One consists of the wild stocks of fish we love to eat because of their extraordinary taste and texture. Their fisheries need to be reduced to long-term sustainable levels; the fishing should be local, artisanal, and not industrial; and the fish should be sold for their real cost to those who can afford to eat them: they should not be subsidized.

The other kind of fish are species selected for rapid growth, vegetarians if possible, that can be easily raised under non-polluting aquaculture conditions: responsible aquaculture. Barramundi and tilapia are excellent examples. They may lack some of the special features of wild fish species, but they taste fine, can be sold relatively cheaply, and provide us with needed protein source. If subsidies are necessary, they should get them.

Another easily farmed species: Tra fish harvest in the Mekong River (

Greenberg is also critical of our desire to be told which fish are the ones we ought to eat, and then thinking we have done our bit to protect other overfished wild stocks. As he points out, although the public education that is involved is important, there really isn’t any evidence that our eating preferences have had much impact on either wild stocks or farmed populations.

Instead, we need to make much larger changes. For example, the hunting of bluefin tuna needs to stop completely, now, or there just won’t be any left. We need to stop farming species that eat 5-20 times their weight before harvest. We need to find more successful ways to market much more appropriate but less well known farmed species. We need to reduce global industrial fishing, and to fish far more sustainably. We need to protect coastal and oceanic areas that are critical for the survival – and sustainable harvest – of the wild stocks.

These are practical, realistic proposals, and if they were implemented, fish could still have a future in the oceans of this planet. Some of them already occur in very limited ways. Four Fish is a thoughtful, interesting, well-researched, and very reasonable book. It is not strident or extreme, but it is very concerned for, as always, time is short.

It is more than worth just reading it yourself, if you haven’t already: it is worth trying to get our politicians to read it. An excellent Christmas present.

The G20 leaders meet next week. This is a picture of those who met in 2009. Some are still in power. They deserve a chance to read Four Fish (