Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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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.

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. Kate
    November 12, 2008

    This is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. He is single-handedly responsible for turning me into a kipper aficionado. Although I really don’t care for shellfish (except shrimp–curses!), so that particular tip bummed me out.

  2. #2 scottb
    November 12, 2008

    I wasn’t aware that sailfish were being overfished. Aren’t they mainly just a sport fish or are they another one of the “lucky” byproducts of the long-liners?

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    November 12, 2008

    they’re being long-lined, as you mentioned, but i don’t think they are bycatch (well, not always). however, the author suggests that marlin are a good substitute because they are very fast growing and also are prolific breeders.

  4. #4 scottb
    November 12, 2008

    Disclaimer – I’m not a fisheries expert but I was a marine biology major and used to work in the sport fishing industry during college summers.

    I think it would be difficult to have a commercial marlin fishery without affecting sailfish as they reside in almost the exact same locations. Sport fishermen certainly don’t restrict one vs. the other.

    Living near Ocean City MD (promoted as The White Marlin Capital of the World!), I know that they have gone to great lengths to promote catch and release of all the local billfish species (mostly white and blue marlin and some sailfish). Swordfish are rarely caught there by sportfishing anymore.

    I’ve tasted marlin several times and I didn’t think it was very good except once when it was smoked.

  5. #5 Emily
    November 13, 2008

    I also really enjoyed Grescoe’s book — it was eye-opening and entertaining, and I’ll never think about the seafood I eat the same way again. In our most recent Oceana newsletter, we did a Q&A with Grescoe, and I put an excerpt of the interview on our blog. Check it out, his answers are as thoughtful as you’d expect.

    Q&A: http://community.oceana.org/blog/2008/11/q-taras-grescoe

  6. #6 Stevec
    November 13, 2008

    Haven’t read the book but your comment about his oyster farm struck a sour note. I live on a beautiful island in BC right on Baynes Sound which is apparently a perfect place to farm oysters. The shores of the island are mostly taken up with foreshore leases that restict access to the water. The floats that the farmers use for their deep water endeavors are incredibly ugly and lose plastic trays and trash into the water constantly. Last year, on our annual “beach cleanup day” over 1 TON of trash just from the oyster farms was recovered. That was just on our island – think of the debris piling up downstream. I guess it is a matter of degree, too much of anything can be detrimental. Don’t even get me started on the geoduck farming!

  7. #7 Stevec
    November 13, 2008

    Forgot something – Not to belabor the issue but transient Orcas and harbour porpoises get caught in the anchor chains also. Will read the book though ’cause I do love seafood – thanks for the tip!

  8. #8 Bob
    November 13, 2008

    By not eating Orange Roughy you don’t save it from being eaten, you just make it a teensy bit cheaper for gazillions of Chinese to eat it. They thank you!

  9. #9 biosparite
    November 13, 2008

    Geoducks taste good (or have good taste): See “Fallen Angels Used Books,” June 27, 2003. Geoducks were abundant on the East Coast in the Miocene. I collected one as a Middle Miocene fossil from the Choptank formation exposed just downstream from Jones Wharf along the Patuxent River in Maryland when I was a kid.

  10. #10 Phil
    November 13, 2008

    On the plus side farmed oysters can be bought cheap for about 75 cents each in bulk just from the market. If you have a resellers license I bet you can bet them for 50 cents or less. Yummy roasted oysters. Oysters Rockefeller.

  11. #11 chemniste
    November 14, 2008

    But killing any sea kitten is cruel!

    My favourite are tinned mackerel fillets, am I going to have to stop eating those too?

  12. #12 Scott D.
    November 14, 2008

    There’s a simple way to get fresh fish without relying on commercial fishing practices. Fish for yourself!

    Last week I caught 4 nice Spanish mackerel for the cost of $3- for a parking pass. We netted the bait and caught more than we could handle, only keeping the 4 for dinner. The bait was scaled and spanish sardines, which we could have kept and eaten had the mackerel not been in a biting mood.

  13. #13 Spine
    November 17, 2008

    The popularity of seafood seems to be rising along with awareness of the health problems associated with meat consumption, not to mention the horrors of livestock production gradually.

    But commercial fishing, as you and others note, is horrible in its own ways. I’m glad more people are coming around to a hands-off attitude toward endangered ocean species. Hopefully it’s not too late. I hope more people also begin to realize that for all the attention seafood has received as a health-promoting food that offers a lower-cholesterol source of protein, it still packs plenty of cholesterol as well as other stuff people don’t want, like heavy metals and other pollutants.

    If Omega 3 fatty acids are what you’re after, there’s no better and cleaner source than flaxseed.

  14. #14 Keith
    November 17, 2008

    “If Omega 3 fatty acids are what you’re after, there’s no better and cleaner source than flaxseed.”
    I disagree on that point, as not all Omega-3s are created equally. Flax contains ALA, which requires the human body to process it into the more usable DHA, whereas oily fish contain DHA already.
    That being said, ALA is very, very good (and sustainable); just not as good as DHA per se.

  15. #15 Katrina
    November 18, 2008

    Fabulous review. I’m glad to see you have this book as your must read book of the year. I had a hint the oceans were being depleted but I was primarily clueless until reading Bottomfeeder. I know TG lists numerous types of seafood that can be eaten lavishly but I don’t have the stomach for it thinking of the destruction to the ocean. A couple of notes: The Monterey Bay Aquarium has also recently produced a pocket size sushi guide for eating sustainable fish. An interesting little twist. And in regards to the Omega 3 fatty acids in fish, especially salmon, it’s important to note that farmed salmon (which are hell on the environment) don’t have the same quality of Omega 3 as wild salmon. A fact that seems largely overlooked. Thanks again for a great post.

  16. #16 Fat Knowledge
    November 18, 2008

    I enjoyed Bottomfeeder as well. Another thing you should try and do is to eat lower on the food chain to reduce the fishprint of the fish you eat.

    It takes 100 times as much resources/plankton/ocean acreage to produce 1 lb of tuna as it does to produce 1 lb of scallops. If we ate lower on the food chain, there would be lots more seafood for all of us to eat. Switch from eating tuna fish to sardines and you cut your footprint by 86%.

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