On a rainy morning in New York City's Jamaica Bay, fishing boat captain Vinnie Calabro reflects on his game.
"Striped bass are a hearty, vibrant fish that can endure a lot of crap," he says. "They're pretty much a mirror of our society."
You figure if they can make it here — right next to New York's Kennedy International Airport — they can probably make it anywhere.
But writer Paul Greenberg, who has joined Calabro on this pre-dawn fishing trip, isn't so sure. He's been an avid fisher since childhood, when he would regularly take his boat and fishing pole out onto the Long Island Sound. In his new book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Greenberg delivers a powerful indictment of the rampant overfishing that has led to the collapse of wild fish populations, and a defense of farmed fishing when done right.
A 'Primeval Prairie' Next To JFK
The striped bass Greenberg and Calabro are pursuing on this Jamaica Bay morning are a recent success story when it comes to protecting wild fish populations.
According to a study by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, striped bass numbers plunged during the 1970s — to fewer than 5 million by some estimates — because of overfishing and pollution. But then Congress passed legislation, some states restricted striped bass fishing and others banned it altogether. As a result, the striped bass rebounded up to a high of approximately 70 million in 2004.
Greenberg says that with commercial fishing pressures reduced, striped bass — or stripers — are in remarkably good shape today, which means that catching a striper by a busy international New York airport isn't such a far-fetched idea.
"This is like this living ecosystem," Greenberg says. "You can see the osprey around; you can see the menhaden in the water; big striped bass are around. It's like this kind of primeval prairie in the shadow, if you will, of Kennedy Airport."
He says the fact that striped bass can even exist in Jamaica Bay serves as a reminder of where humans really stand in the grand scheme of things. "It makes you feel like we're not necessarily the boss of everything," he says. "We might have gotten the shore but we haven't gotten the water yet."
Maybe not yet, but watermen like Calabro — who's been fishing in Jamaica Bay since he was 8 years old — will tell you about the obvious declines he's seen in fish stocks. "Look north; look south; look west and east," he says. "Everywhere you can see — everywhere — would be schools of bunker right now. Everywhere."
Bunker, or menhaden, is the bait fish they’ll use to catch the stripers. Their numbers are way down from what they used to be, but you wouldn't know it by the view from Calabro's boat, which the fish have surrounded.
Calabro throws out the circular cast net and soon hauls it in filled with hundreds of glistening silver menhaden. With a barrel full of bait, he and Greenberg start fishing for stripers.
Greenberg says he recognizes the ethical thorns of the author of a book about overfishing going out ... fishing. He says if you'd asked him about fishing before he wrote the book, he'd say he definitely wanted to catch something to bring home to the family. Not so much anymore.
"The older I get, there's part of me that kind of enjoys not catching something," he says. "I still go fishing. I still keep fish that I catch but I definitely viscerally feel it is a deduction I'm making from nature and there must be some karmic price to pay for it."
'A Wave Of Psychological Denial'
In his book, Greenberg tackles the tension of fish being seen as food rather than wildlife and takes issue with the way people refer to fish as "seafood."
"The word seafood is kind of a remarkably cruel word," he says. "Everything that we eat from land, do we call it 'landfood'?"
Out on the bay, one of the rods has curved toward the water. They've caught something — a 14-pound, 32-inch striper — and it's a keeper.
Soon after, the rain picks up and the boat heads for shore. Later, sitting by the Hudson River where stripers swim and spawn, Greenberg drives his point home.
He says people need to understand that every time they eat a fish that wasn't farmed, they are eating a wild animal, and the problem with wild fishing is that it isn't sustainable on a large, commercial scale. And things are only getting worse.
A study by the World Health Organization found that the world has doubled its per capita fish consumption over the past 50 years and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we now harvest about 90 million tons of wild fish and shellfish from the ocean every year.
The oceans simply can't compete with our growing appetites, and that means — like it or not — the future lies in fish farming, or aquaculture.
"Aquaculture is the fastest-growing form of food production in the world right now," Greenberg says. "It's sure to equal and overtake wild catch in the next few years."
The trick, he says, is figuring how to do it with a small environmental footprint. That means choosing fish that are well adapted to aquaculture — efficient feeders that don't need a lot of food to produce a pound of flesh — like tilapia or the Asian fish barramundi.
It also means keeping farmed fish away from wild populations so they don't spread disease. So far away, in fact, that in some cases your next fish dinner could have spent its entire life in the inner city.
"What's interesting and kind of cool is they now have systems you can plug right into the middle of the city," Greenberg says. "In the center of Baltimore they have an aboveground aquaculture operation where everything is recycled, where even methane gas is generated from the culture of fish and used to create energy to continue to power the system."
Greenberg points out that today, 60 percent of the striped bass we eat are farm-raised hybrids. His research shows that for sea bass, there are now nearly 10 times as many grown in aquaculture as are caught in the wild. Not bad considering that 40 years ago, farmed sea bass didn't even exist.
The problem, he says, is that when it comes to fish, we're engaged in "a wave of psychological denial" in which we ignore the reality of what we're eating and what's actually gone.
"The denial is that we see these things in the marketplace — we see Irish salmon, we see Scottish salmon, we see Nova Scotia salmon — and the default assumption of the consumer is that those are wild fish from Ireland or Scotland. No — [those are] practically extinct species," he says. "It should be farmed Irish salmon. We should know that. But I think a lot of consumers aren't realizing what's happening. This extinction followed by replacement with a domesticated variant is very much happening."
As for the wild fish that remain, Greenberg says, "We must hunt them with care and eat them with the fullness of our appreciation."
And understand them, above all, as wildlife — not just food.
Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food By Paul Greenberg Hardcover, 304 pages The Penguin Press HC List price: $25.95
The more I thought of it, the more I realized that the four fish that are coming to dominate the modern seafood market are visible footprints, marking four discrete steps humanity has taken in its attempts to master the sea. Each fish is an archive of a particular, epochal shift. Salmon, a beautiful silvery animal with succulent pink flesh, is dependent upon clean, free-flowing freshwater rivers. It is representative of the first wave of human exploitation, the species that marks the point at which humans and fish first had large-scale environmental problems and where domestication had to be launched to head off extinction. Sea bass, a name applied to many fish but which increasingly refers to a single white, meaty-fleshed animal called the European sea bass, represents the near-shore shallow waters of our coasts, the place where Europeans first learned how to fish in the sea and where we also found ourselves outstripping the resources of nature and turning to an even more sophisticated form of domestication to maintain fish supplies. Cod, a white, flaky-fleshed animal that once congregated in astronomical numbers around the slopes of the continental shelves many miles offshore, heralded the era of industrial fishing, an era where mammoth factory ships were created to match cod's seemingly irrepressible abundance and turn its easily processed flesh into a cheap commoner's staple. And finally tuna, a family of lightning-fast, sometimes thousand-pound animals with red, steaklike flesh that frequent the distant deepwater zones beyond the continental slope. Some tuna cross the breadth of the oceans, and nearly all tuna species range across waters that belong to multiple nations or no nation at all. Tuna are thus stateless fish, difficult to regulate and subject to the last great gold rush of wild food — a sushi binge that is now pushing us into a realm of science-fiction-level fish-farming research and challenging us to reevaluate whether fish are at their root expendable seafood or wildlife desperately in need of our compassion.
Four fish, then. Or rather four archetypes of fish flesh, 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 the outright substitution of one species for another.
This is not the first time humanity has glanced across the disorderly range of untamed nature and selected a handful of species to exploit and propagate. Out of all of the many mammals that roamed the earth before the last ice age, our forebears selected four — cows, pigs, sheep, and goats — to be their principal meats. Out of all the many birds that darkened the primeval skies, humans chose four — chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese — to be their poultry. But today, as we evaluate and parse fish in this next great selection and try to figure out which ones will be our principals, we find ourselves with a more complex set of decisions before us. Early man put very little thought into preserving his wild food. He was in the minority in nature, and the creatures he chose to domesticate for his table were a subset of a much greater, wilder whole. He had no idea of his destructive potential or of his abilities to remake the world.
Modern man is a different animal, one who is fully aware of his capability to skew the rules of nature in his favor. Up until the mid-twentieth century, humans tended to see their transformative abilities as not only positive but inevitable. Francis Galton, a leading Victorian intellectual, infamously known as the founder of eugenics but also a prolific writer on a wide range of subjects including animal domestication, wrote at the dawn of the industrialization of the world's food system, "It would appear that every wild animal has had its chance of being domesticated." Of the undomesticated animals left behind, Galton had this depressing prediction: "As civilization extends they are doomed to be gradually destroyed off the face of the earth as useless consumers of cultivated produce."
And that brings us to the present day, the crucial point at which we stand in our current relationship with the ocean. Must we eliminate all wildness from the sea and replace it with some kind of human controlled system, or can wildness be understood and managed well enough to keep humanity and the marine world in balance?
Excerpted from Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg. Copyright 2010 by Paul Greenberg. Excerpted by permission of The Penguin Press HC.