The future of four fish

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Paul Greenberg as a 12-year-old in Menemsha with a weakfish. Remember them? — File photo by Photo by Harvey Greenberg

“I’ve been fishing on the Vineyard for years and years,” said the author Paul Greenberg in a telephone conversation late last week. “My Dad first took us there when I was about ten years old. We stayed up at Mannings in Gay Head for about three years, and then we rented houses in Chilmark.”

Next Monday, August 23, at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven at 7:30 pm, Mr. Greenberg will return to the Island to speak about his latest book, “Four Fish, The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin Press, New York, 2010, 284 pages).

Mr. Greenberg taught himself to fish as a boy in the late 1970s, first in freshwater ponds in Connecticut and then in western Long Island Sound. And there were plenty of fish to be caught — flounder in the early spring, then mackerel, followed by striped bass and bluefish. “I thought of the sea as a vessel of desires and mystery, a place of abundance I did not need to question,” he writes.

“Remember the huge run of weakfish we used to get in the 1970s?” Mr. Greenberg said on the phone. “There used to be tinker pollock around the Menemsha jetty, and those huge silver eels that people would catch and just leave on the jetty. And there were more bonito then.”

Girls and college diverted his attention a few years later, followed by building a career, and it wasn’t until 2000 that he refocused on fishing as a full-time writer specializing on seafood and the oceans. And what he found was shocking. Not only was it much harder to catch the fish he had counted on 20 years earlier, but he also noticed that fish markets up and down the Atlantic coast consistently offered, and were often dominated by, four fish that rarely appeared in local waters — salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. With local fish populations largely fished out, the fishing industry had moved farther and farther offshore to find profitable grounds — aided enormously by new high-tech fish-finding and navigation equipment — and turned the marketplace into a global showcase in the process.

Intrigued by the disturbing shift, Mr. Greenberg decided to study these four fish, “which humanity is trying to master in one way or another, either through the management of the wild system, through the domestication and farming of individual species, or through the outright substitution of one species for another,” he writes.

With the popularity of fish increasing dramatically in the last 40 years, the pressure on stocks increased to the point of near collapse for many species. Aquaculture seemed to offer an ideal solution, first with salmon, which were raised in pens on both sides of the North Atlantic and then introduced to similar restricted waterways in Chile. The supply increased, prices dropped, and salmon became a staple in supermarkets, no longer a rare, expensive commodity. As fish farms proliferated, standards dropped, and problems arose — disease, genetic intermingling with wild fish, and a PCB scare. There was also a damning ecological equation: it takes up to six pounds of wild fish, processed into pellets, to produce one pound of salmon fillet.

The popularity of farmed salmon fell off for a few years and the pressure on wild stocks went back up. Demand for farmed fish rebounded, however, and salmon once again became widely available. And there have been some notable advancements in rearing and raising salmon in captivity — for example there’s now a healthy salmon run in the river Tyne, the once foul river that runs through Newcastle in England, and a fish farm in New Brunswick is successfully applying “integrated multitrophic aquaculture,” where the salmon rely on the local ecosystem for much of their sustenance.

Farming salmon continues to be a difficult, challenging process, however, and the relationship between wild and farmed fish, as much in the public’s mind as in fact, is unresolved. It also raises the essential question that Mr. Greenberg poses in his book: “Must we eliminate all wildness in the sea and replace it with some kind of human-controlled system, or can wilderness be understood and managed well enough to keep humanity and the marine world in balance?”

Before hundreds of rivers in New England were dammed in the 19th century, disrupting runs of herring, codfish swarmed at the mouths of these rivers to feast on these “alewives” as they headed to sea. With that buffet ended, fishermen pursued codfish offshore where they were apparently limitless and definitely huge. For nearly 100 years, the population held relatively steady, as did fishing effort. But with the arrival of foreign factory trawlers in the 1960s and the advance in fishing gear, cod stocks fell off precipitously. The U.S passed a 200-mile limit in 1976, excluding foreign vessels, but fishing effort continued to grow, abetted by scientists and managers who claimed that the stock could not be overfished. Finally in 1994, in the face of indisputable evidence, Georges Bank was closed to commercial cod fishing. Since then, federal managers have struggled to find ways to rebuild the stocks while allowing limited fishing.

In the meantime, efforts to farm cod arose, but with the possible exception of an ongoing effort in Norway, they have not been successful. The challenge, then, as it has always been, is to manage the wild stock so it can first rebuild and then sustain itself. But resistance by fishermen to top-down management is often crippling, which prompted Mr. Greenberg to investigate other possibilities. One such is a proposal by Ted Ames, a former commercial cod fishermen in Maine, who would have fishermen become directly involved in the management process, “allowing fishermen themselves a voice in managing the fish their livelihood depends on, giving a voice to the small-scale, diverse, artisanal fishermen who are deeply invested in the area and the fish they catch,” Mr. Greenberg writes.

European sea bass and bluefin tuna are also examined in “Four Fish” with an equally critical but objective eye. Sea bass, plate-sized fish also known as branzino that are served whole, were effectively wiped out in the wild throughout the Mediterranean, and the market has had to rely exclusively on fish farms, which are delivering an acceptable alternative. A welcome if unintended benefit is that smaller wild fish are starting to reappear in increasing numbers. On this side of the ocean, meanwhile, more than half the striped bass supply is farmed in fresh water. “It’s a different fish, it’s a hybrid, which fits that culinary niche, a smallish plate-sized fish,” Mr. Greenberg writes. “I see them a lot in Greek and Asian markets, and I see them in trendy bistros in New York.”

With tunas, which know no international, nor even continental boundaries, management is problematic at best. While consumption in the U.S. has declined a bit as the public has become more aware of the collapse of bluefin tuna stocks, consumption in Japan has increased. In the Mediterranean, the few remaining giant bluefin are harvested and sold as wild fish while juveniles are netted, fattened in pens, and sold — neither get the chance to reproduce. We should re-aim our appetite toward smaller, more numerous tunas, Mr. Greenberg suggests, and leave the bluefin to regain its mastery of the seas. “The albacore is a much better tuna to target, because they breed quicker, they have lower toxins, and there are more of them,” he writes.

As much as salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna have in common in terms of popularity, they also share a disturbing attribute — they are not well suited to aquaculture. But some species are well adapted to farming — like barramundi, tilapia, and tra. “The people who have always been doing aquaculture are starting to realize that if you want a fish that’s profitable, you can’t necessarily choose the fish that the market knows, but you have to chose a fish that works in a contained environment,” Mr. Greenberg writes. Barramundi, an Australian species, are now being successfully raised in Turners Falls, Massachuetts, of all places. “They are super feed-efficient and can be grown in out-of-ocean facilities.”

“Four Fish” is very well-written and loaded with interesting information, lively anecdotes, and sharp, short portraits of scientists and fish farmers from Alaska to Israel, New Brunswick to Hawaii. The book should interest all fishermen — commercial or recreational — and anyone else who cares about the wilderness, wild creatures, and what we eat in the future.

Mr. Greenberg’s research is impressive, and he has a great ear. He can distill a complicated genetic phenomenon into a couple of concise, intelligible sentences. And he is fair, presenting points of view from all sides on the costs and benefits of fish farming and various management regimes. In the end, it’s clear that he favors strong measures to protect and replenish wild stocks, while also supporting careful, conscientious aquaculture of species that are best suited to it.

Mr. Greenberg is also an optimist — essential for someone who is writing about an ecosystem that’s wobbling toward who knows what end. “It’s not a doom scenario out there,” he writes. “I think there are still lots and lots of fish, and there’s still a chance to develop some sort of balanced relationship.”

What is and always has been out of balance for Mr. Greenberg is his love of fish and fishing. “I remember very clearly the last striped bass I caught before everything went to pot,” he said last week, looking back some 25 years. “We were fishing off Gay Head, and the sunset was beautiful, and I got a hit and I pulled it up and just as it came alongside, it raised its dorsal, and it was like the Ancient Mariner hoisting the sail. And the color of the sunset, that pink iridescence that the fish have when they are alive, that stayed with me for years and years and years.”

Next Monday, August 23, at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven at 7:30 pm, Mr. Greenberg will return to the Island to speak about his latest book, “Four Fish, The Future of the Last Wild Food” (Penguin Press, New York, 2010, 284 pages).