Review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Wednesday, 18 May 2011
I have never had complicated relationships with most kinds of meat. I gave up poultry, beef, pork, and most others when I was fifteen without ever looking back. My reasons for giving up meat were murky back then, but since, I have cultivated a firm belief that giant agribusiness is harmful to both the environment and our health.

I avoid the word vegetarian as much as possible for two reasons. Firstly, I see the ways in which labels hurt movements. Constant struggles exist within many activist circles, where we point fingers and pass judgement for not being vegetarian enough, not being feminist enough, not being progressive enough. This fighting within movements doesn’t help any cause.

Secondly, I avoid the word vegetarian, because simply, I’m a fraud. I eat fish. If I were to label myself, technically, I would be a pescatarian, which is a person who abstains from eating all meat with the exception of fish. Unlike my relationship with all other kinds of meat (And yes, fish is a meat! People often I assume I still eat poultry and fish), my relationship with seafood has been a complicated one. At fifteen, I gave it up entirely, but was lured (pun intended) back by crabmeat soaking in warm butter. For years, I ate shellfish, but resisted salmon, trout, and all other fish, eventually caving completely when my Dad took a cooking class and I felt guilty not trying the fish he cooked at a fancy restaurant in downtown Hamilton. It was a slippery slope. Since then, fish has re-entered my diet about once a week.

I was reluctant to pick up Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, worried it would fuel the guilt that has already been propelling forward since watching a documentary at last year’s Hamilton ECO Film and Arts Festival, which made me cut down my consumption of all kinds of tuna to almost nothing. While I did feel twinges of guilt at times as I read Greenberg’s 2010 bestseller, I am so glad I picked it up. Greenberg’s book is a thoughtful and careful exploration of four archetypes of fish flesh — salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna — “which humanity is trying to master in one way or another, either through the management of a wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through outright substitution of one species for another.” 

Greenberg, himself a life-long angler, takes a different approach than many food activists and environmentalists who urge consumers to stay away from farm-raised fish, instead arguing that wild catches simply can’t support the world’s immense appetite for fish. “If we take as a given that humankind will keep eating fish, more and more of it every year, then we need to come up with a way to direct that appetite away from sensitive, unmanageable wildlife and usher it toward sustainable, productive domesticated fish,” he writes.

If some nutritionists had their way, health-conscious consumers would be eating far more than the world’s wild catch of “170 billion pounds — the equivalent in weight to the entire human population of China, scooped up and sliced, sautéed, poached, baked, and deep-fried.” With countless health benefits, many consider it a necessary part of a balanced diet, so it’s unlikely that humans will stop eating it any time soon. Greenberg’s suggests that “A small-scale, artisanal, wild-fish fishery would be a great thing that could inevitably lead to better protection of wild fish.” Definite food for thought.

Greenberg attaches personal stories to these large issues, introducing readers to the people who fish salmon in Alaska and the scientists who first made fish farming a reality. He also brings readers face-to-face with troublesome truths, noting how whales have become considered “wildlife,” ferociously protected, while “no one has yet motored a Greenpeace Zodiac between a school of breaching bluefin tuna and the boat that would haul them in to a market.”

Four Fish is an excellent read not only for those — like me — who struggle with their own food-related choices, but for anyone who wants to be a better consumer or caring citizen of the world.

I see no better way to end this review than to include the words of wisdom that Greenberg used to end his important and thoughtful book:

“Wild fish did not come into this world just to be our food. They came into this world to pursue their own individual destinies. If we hunt them and eat them, we must hunt them with care and eat them with the fullness of our appreciation. We must come to understand that eating the last wild food is, above all, a privilege.”

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