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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block, out on an urban adventure - on the water.

A fast boat trip before dawn in the rain out, on to New York City's Jamaica Bay. The A train rumbles by on a bridge overhead. We've come out in pursuit of striped bass.

Captain VINNIE CALABRO: Let me tell you a little something about striped bass. They're pretty much a mirror of our society.

BLOCK: This is the captain, Vinnie Calabro.

Capt. CALABRO: Striped bass are a hardy, vibrant fish that can endure a lot of crap.

BLOCK: And you figure, if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.

We are right next to Kennedy Airport right now. We can walk under the runway, I think.

Mr. PAUL GREENBERG (Author, "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food"): I think.

Capt. CALABRO: Oh, yeah.

Mr. GREENBERG: If the striped bass wanted to meet their cousin, the European sea bass, they could hop on an Air France flight.

BLOCK: That's writer Paul Greenberg. We've come out fishing with him to talk about his new book, titled "Four Fish." It's a passionate indictment of overfishing and the collapse of wild populations. It's also a defense of farmed fishing, if done right.

The striped bass we're pursuing today are a recent success story, showing how wild populations can be protected. Striper numbers plunged through the 1970s -by some estimates, down to fewer than 5 million - due to overfishing and pollution. So some states closed their waters to striper fishing altogether. Others restricted fishing, Congress passed laws, and the striped bass did rebound, up to a high of 70 million.

Paul Greenberg says with commercial fishing pressures reduced, these fish are in remarkably good shape - which means that now, catching a striper by a busy, international New York airport isn't a farfetched idea.

(Soundbite of airplanes)

Mr. GREENBERG: I like being in a situation where this is like this living ecosystem, that 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.

BLOCK: So a primeval prairie was a control tower and 747s.

Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah. Sure, but the striped bass can't see the control tower. And that there can even exist striped bass in this kind of environment makes you feel like we're not necessarily the boss of everything. We might have gotten the shore, but we haven't gotten the water yet.

BLOCK: Not yet. But still, watermen like Vinnie Calabro will tell you about obvious declines in fish stocks.

Mr. GREENBERG: And you've been fishing here since you were a kid, right? So...

Capt. CALABRO: I've been on this bay since I'm 8 or 9. I'm 53, so - and it's every day. You're talking about thousands and thousands of hours a year.

Mr. GREENBERG: So did you - I mean, you actually could totally see when it was going down in the late '70s, early...

Capt. CALABRO: Well, yeah. See where you are right now?

Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah.

Capt. CALABRO: Look north. Look south. Look west and east. Everywhere you can see - everywhere - would be schools of bunker right now, everywhere.

BLOCK: Bunker is menhaden, the bait fish they'll use to catch the bass. Their numbers are way down. But the menhaden are still all around the boat. You can spot them churning the water.

Capt. CALABRO: Easy on its fins.

BLOCK: Vinnie Calabro throws out the circular cast net and soon hauls it in, filled with hundreds of glistening, silver menhaden. So with a barrel full of bait, they start fishing for stripers.

And yes, Paul Greenberg does recognize the ethical thorns here: the author of a book about overfishing, going out fishing.

Mr. GREENBERG: The older I get, there's part of me that kind of enjoys not catching something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREENBERG: If you talked to me before I wrote this book, definitely want to catch something. Definitely want to put something in the pail. Definitely want to bring something home to my family.

BLOCK: Not so much now?

Mr. GREENBERG: Less so. I mean, I still go fishing. I still keep some fish that I catch. But I definitely, viscerally feel it is a deduction that I'm making from nature, and there must be some karmic price to pay for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: You think?

Mr. GREENBERG: I think a little bit.

BLOCK: Well, you talk about that tension in the book. You talk about fish being seen as food, but also needing to be seen as wildlife.

Mr. GREENBERG: Exactly. I mean, even the word seafood is a - kind of a remarkably cruel word. And with...

BLOCK: It is a strange word, when you think about that.

Mr. GREENBERG: It is. I mean, do we call everything that we eat from land, do we call it landfood? You know what I mean? And what's interesting is that you go across cultures, it's consistent. Romance language speakers, speakers of Italian and German, choose to call it sea fruit. Slavs call them gifts of the sea. And it's as if it's this sort of arbitrary thing.

I mean, people should understand that every time they eat a fish that wasn't raised on a farm, that they're eating wild animals.

BLOCK: We now harvest about 90 million tons of wild fish and shellfish from the ocean every year.

Mr. GREENBERG: Ooh, there's a fish.

BLOCK: Out on the bay, suddenly, one of the rods has curved toward the water. It's a striper about 14 pounds, 32 inches long.

Mr. GREENBERG: There it is. Oh, yeah, it's a keeper.

(Soundbite of splashing)

Capt. CALABRO: Nice fish, congratulations.

BLOCK: Soon after that, the rain becomes a downpour, and we head for shore. I pick up my conversation with Paul Greenberg later, along the Hudson River. And his point is this: That wild fishing we just did? Well, on a commercial industrial scale, that's unsustainable. The world has doubled its per-capita fish consumption in the last 50 years. The oceans can't keep up with our growing appetite, and that means - like it or not - the future lies with fish farming, or aquaculture.

Mr. GREENBERG: Aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world right now. And it's sure to equal and overtake wild catch in the next few years.

BLOCK: So the trick is how to do it right, how to farm fish with a small environmental footprint. Well, for one, it means choosing fish that are well adapted to aquaculture - fish that are efficient feeders, that don't need to eat huge amounts of fish meal to produce a pound of flesh. Think tilapia, or an Asian fish he likes called the barramundi.

It also means keeping these farmed fish away from wild populations so they don't spread disease, which could mean that fish gracing your plate spent its life in the inner city.

Mr. GREENBERG: What's interesting, and kind of cool, is they now have systems that you can plug right into the middle of a city. Like in Baltimore, not far from your offices, they have this - in the center of Baltimore, they have an above-ground 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.

These are modules that are being developed, and that can be put in place.

BLOCK: Think back to those striped bass in Jamaica Bay. Paul Greenberg points out that today, 60 percent of the striped bass we eat are farm-raised hybrids. For sea bass, there are now nearly 10 times as many grown in aquaculture as are caught in the wild. Forty years ago, the farmed sea bass didn't even exist.

But Greenberg says we have ignored the reality of what we're eating, and what's gone. When it comes to fish, he says, we're engaged in a wave of psychological denial of staggering scope.

Mr. GREENBERG: 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 just - no, those are wild fish from Ireland or Scotland. No, that is a practically extinct species. There's no more wild Atlantic salmon in the marketplace. That's a tragedy.

It should be farmed Irish salmon. You know, 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.

BLOCK: As for wild fish, Paul Greenberg says we must hunt them with care, and eat them with the fullness of our appreciation - and understand them, above all, as wildlife.

You can read an excerpt from "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" at npr.org.

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