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Four Fish

Cover of Four Fish

Four Fish

The Future of the Last Wild Food
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"A necessary book for anyone truly interested in what we take from the sea to eat, and how, and why." -Sam Sifton, The New York Times Book Review.
Writer and life-long fisherman Paul Greenberg takes us on a journey, examining the four fish that dominate our menus: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Investigating the forces that get fish to our dinner tables, Greenberg reveals our damaged relationship with the ocean and its inhabitants. Just three decades ago, nearly everything we ate from the sea was wild. Today, rampant overfishing and an unprecedented biotech revolution have brought us to a point where wild and farmed fish occupy equal parts of a complex marketplace. Four Fish offers a way for us to move toward a future in which healthy and sustainable seafood is the rule rather than the exception.
"A necessary book for anyone truly interested in what we take from the sea to eat, and how, and why." -Sam Sifton, The New York Times Book Review.
Writer and life-long fisherman Paul Greenberg takes us on a journey, examining the four fish that dominate our menus: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Investigating the forces that get fish to our dinner tables, Greenberg reveals our damaged relationship with the ocean and its inhabitants. Just three decades ago, nearly everything we ate from the sea was wild. Today, rampant overfishing and an unprecedented biotech revolution have brought us to a point where wild and farmed fish occupy equal parts of a complex marketplace. Four Fish offers a way for us to move toward a future in which healthy and sustainable seafood is the rule rather than the exception.
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  • From the book Introduction

    In 1978 all the fish I cared about died. They were the biggest largemouth bass I had ever seen, and they lived in a pond ten minutes' walk from my house on a large estate in the backwoods of Greenwich, Connecticut, perhaps the most famously wealthy town in America. We did not own the house, the estate, the pond, or the largemouth bass, but I still thought of the fish as my fish. I had found them, and the pond was my rightful hunting ground.

    My mother had rented the house as she would three other homes in Greenwich, because it gave the illusion of magnificent proprietorship. She tended toward small cottages on large estates— converted stables, liverymen's accommodations that were the unclaimed, declining appendages of older, fading wealth, unsold because of divorces or other family complications, rented out to us for a reasonable fee that would become unreasonable and impel our moving on to other cottages on other collapsing estates.

    Fishing was the one constant during these years. Sensing in it a masculine, character-building quality, my mother arranged it so that the cottages we rented always had access to streams and lakes or abutted other properties we could trespass upon that had such resources. She trusted my instincts for spotting fishy water and used me as a kind of divining rod before signing a lease. And for most of my childhood, we were within a short walk of a potentially fruitful cast. Our longest residence was in the aforementioned house near the giant largemouth bass. In the first two years we lived there, I spent all my summer evenings and weekend mornings pursuing them.

    In the winter of 1978, though, a fierce blizzard hit southern Connecticut. Temperatures were often below zero and at one point it snowed for thirty-three hours straight. Perhaps it was the cold that killed the fish, or the copper sulfate I helped the caretaker drag through the pond the previous summer to manage the algal blooms, or maybe even the fishermen I'd noticed trespassing on the estate one day, scoping out my grounds. But whatever caused it, after that winter never again did I spot a living fish. Of course I tried. I trolled pretty much every square foot after school the following year, often with a neighbor who had moved in after the era of the great fish. When two months of dragging lures up and down the shoreline produced not even a strike, my neighbor finally stuck a pin in my irrational bubble of hope.

    "I don't care what you say about what was," I remember him shouting. "There is not a fucking fish in this whole goddamn lake, and I'm never fishing here again."

    Like any hunter whose grounds have gone bad, I set out looking for new territory. I followed the outflow of the pond down a series of cascades that in turn flattened out into a low, swampy meadow of deep oxbows. Only minuscule shiners, crawfish, and escaped goldfish swam here. Farther and farther I went, until the stream joined a larger river and passage was blocked by a fence that a wealthy landowner had erected. Inspecting a map at the library, I found that this was a significant juncture for my stream (as with "my" pond, I had annexed the stream and referred to it now as "mine"). The point at which it was no longer my stream was where it entered the Byram River, a flow that during the times of Native American sovereignty was called the Armonck, or "fishing place," but which, according to one local legend, the English renamed because of the native tendency to pester white men with armfuls of shad and herring for trade and the endlessly repeated entreaty "Buy rum? Buy rum?" The Byram continued south for another ten miles after the juncture before widening and...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 17, 2010
    In this unusually entertaining and nuanced investigation into global fisheries, New York Times seafood writer Greenberg examines our historical relationship with wild fish. In the early 2000s, Greenberg, reviving his childhood fishing habit, discovered that four fish—salmon, tuna, bass, and cod—"dominate the modern seafood market" and that "each is an archive of a particular, epochal shift": e.g., cod, fished farther offshore, "herald the era of industrial fishing"; and tuna, "the stateless fish, difficult to regulate and subject to the last great gold rush of wild food... challeng us to reevaluate whether fish are at their root expendable seafood or wildlife desperately in need of our compassion." He found that as wild fisheries are overexploited, prospective fish farmers are likely to ignore practical criteria for domestication—hardiness, freely breeding, and needing minimal care—instead picking traditionally eaten wild-caught species like sea bass "a failure in every category." Greenberg contends that ocean life is essential to feeding a growing human population and that rational humans should seek to sustainably farm fish that can "stand up to industrial-sized husbandry" while maintaining functioning wild food systems.

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The Future of the Last Wild Food
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