There’s plenty of fish in the sea, as the old addage goes — but are there, really? I experienced a rude awakening at the peak popularity of Orange Roughy, which I loved. I learned that Orange Roughy, Hoplostethus atlanticus, an extremely long-lived benthic species in the Western Pacific Ocean that doesn’t even reach sexual maturity until 40 years of age, was being eaten out of existence by people like me. After I learned that, I never touched Orange Roughy again. But after I discovered Japanese sushi, especially Toro (chutoro, otoro) — the melt-in-your-mouth fatty belly meat from the giant bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus — I learned this lesson once more. Based on these experiences, I concluded that it was not possible to eat seafood without either causing extinctions and massive habitat destruction or poisoning myself, so I have not eaten seafood since. Until now, that is. Thanks to Taras Grescoe’s book, Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (NYC: Bloomsbury; 2008), everyone can make environmentally friendly seafood choices — choices I am already pursuing.
My desire to consume seafood and fish as my primary source of animal protein was initially a “green” decision that was supported by my growing fondness for seafood. Despite the fact that seafood and fish are widely perceived to be affordable “green” foods, I learned this is not the case. Further, I learned that consuming most seafood is in direct conflict with my desire to live as lightly as possible on this earth (well, “lightly” for an American), and that I was contributing to the extinction of many species of marine fishes.
But unlike other food items, making ethical and healthy seafood choices were impossible because of the veil of secrecy enshrouding it. I could rarely learn the method used to “harvest” the seafood I was contemplating purchasing, nor where the animals were captured, and sometimes, I could not even learn which species of fish or shellfish I was eating. In short, the more that I learned about the commercial fisheries and fish farming industries, the less I wanted to support either of them. In the end, I gave up eating seafood — all animal protein, in fact, except for occasional dairy products — for many years. According to what I read, I am not alone.
In this well-researched and powerful expose of the seafood industry, Taras Grescoe documents the commercial fishing industry’s rapacious and wasteful practices and shows how these technologies place them on a collision course with disaster. For example, massive bottom-trawlers are scraping the ocean floor clean of all visible life in pursuit of fewer and smaller fishes, while discarding hundreds of tons of dead and dying “bycatch” overboard (bycatch are fish that are either too small or the wrong species to sell, and other animals, such as seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles, that are caught in the giant nets along with the targeted fish) [this is a topic I've written about before; Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Loving Our Oceans to Death].
Fish farming, which had once been widely touted as “the answer” to the environmental damages caused by commercial fishing, causes quite a few serious, and often interrelated, problems. For example, the habitat destruction of coastal mangroves is complicated by increased local poverty due to farming so-called “jumbo shrimp” for consumption in Japan, America and Europe — an issue I’ve written about several times before [for example; Tsunamis and Mangroves: The Shrimp Connection]. To make things even worse, the commercial fish foods sold to the local shrimp and fish farmers poison the earth with pollutants and antibiotics, which triggers the development multiply-drug resistant bacteria that cause dangerous contageous diseases in humans.
Another serious problem associated with fish and shrimp farming is the introduction of farmed species into waterways where they are alien, such as Atlantic salmon into the Pacific Northwest, where they are competing with — and hybridizing with — dwindling native salmon populations for limited resources. But fish farming is not the only mechanism whereby alien species find their way into new waters: dumping of ballast water by large cargo ships near coasts also transplants alien species, and even local aquariums are causing problems. For example, Jacques Cousteau, the world’s greatest populizer of oceaonography, inadvertently dumped the invasive Australian “assassin algae”, Caulerpa taxifolia, into the Mediterranean Sea when he was director of the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.
Given these snippets of information, it would be easy to assume this book would read like a rant, but instead, it is an unexpectedly tasty combination of investigative journalism, travel writing and scientific research. Grescoe talks with fishermen and shellfish farmers, chefs, scientists and government officials as he follows many species of fish and marine animals as they make the journey from their ocean home to the most celebrated (and often controversial) dishes in the world; from Bouillabaisse in Marseilles and sharkfin soup in Shanghai to Otoro in Tokyo and monkfish tail in New York City.
In ten chapters, Grescoe’s conversations and experiences reveal, fish by fish, how our thoughtless and irresponsible eating habits are unsustainable; how we are preferentially consuming the top predators in the marine food web; tuna, sailfish and swordfish, shark, salmon and seabass, which poisons our bodies with mercury and other accumulated toxins and disrupts the entire marine ecosystem, leading to the massive over-proliferation of the so-called bottomfishes, such as jellyfishes.
Grescoe’s book is not a one-sided endictment of everyone involved with seafood. For example, in this book, Grescoe introduces us to Chesapeake Bay waterman, Tommy Leggett, whose goal has always been to “grow things” [pp. 57-59]. Leggett ended up turning his hobby — oyster farming — into an income source that rivals that of his full-time job. And the best thing is that oysters are unusual among farmed seafood because they happily filter toxins and pollution out of waterways, thereby making their environment cleaner than before. (Leggett is very knowledgeable about oysters and their role in the ecosystem, and as you read this interview, you’ll quickly realize he is quite fond of his oysters as more than just a source of revenue — a detail that I found to be amusingly endearing).
My favorite story in the book occurred when Grescoe elected to participate in the annual Pufferfish Memorial Service by releasing a poisonous fugu into Tokyo’s Sumida River — after consuming a potentially fatal meal of fugu sashimi. In this ceremony, which is presided over by a Shinto priest in a golden headdress, the wholesalers at the world-famous Tsujiki Market gather to pay tribute to the souls of all the fish they have dispatched. The author writes;
Picking up a mid-sized fugu, I cupped its slippery belly in my palms. It was surprisingly heavy. Looking up at me with its round, dark eyes, it was as cute as a Pokemon, minus the annoying squeeks. I walked to the river, watching my fugu gasp through its rectangular mouth. [ ... ] Giving my fugu a final pat, I let it slip into the slate-colored water as smoothly as I could. It quickly disappeared beneath the surface of the Sumida River. When I last glimpsed it, it was heading in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. [pp. 219-220]
After detailing the myriad and often complex problems with seafood, Grescoe then goes on to suggest how we can do something beneficial for the world’s oceans without giving up seafood entirely. As suggested by the title of his book, the author advises us to become bottomfeeders ourselves, to eat pelagic fishes, such as blue whiting and Atlantic herring; schooling fishes, such as sardines, pollock and mackerel; shellfish such as crabs, lobsters, oysters and mussels; and he points out that we will be doing the oceans a big favor if we especially focus our culinary energies upon jellyfish. (He even mentions peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches at one point.)
This book is meticulously-researched, passionate and very useful. At the end, it has a 14-page citation list and a 12-page reader-friendly index as well as an informative and useful index that lists tools for choosing seafood — the index alone is worth the price of the book. I was so impressed with this book that I will go one step further and recommend Bottomfeeder as my “must read” book of the year. It will especially be appreciated by environmentalists, chefs, and especially by everyone who loves to eat any type of seafood.
If you wish to carry a guide to ethical seafood choices in your pocket or wallet, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s printable seafood “avoid” pocket guide.
Taras Grescoe is the author of The Devil’s Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink and Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, which was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Award and was a national bestseller in Canada. His work appears in major publications all over the U.S., the UK, and Canada, including the Times, National Geographic, Independent, Condé Nast Traveller (UK), National Geographic Traveler, and the New York Times. He picnics on bottomfish in Montreal.