The Beacon

The Underwater Michael Pollan

As promised on Monday, a post devoted to Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder, which I just finished reading.

I’ve heard Grescoe called the “Michael Pollan for the oceans,” and I think that designation is pretty accurate. They are both compelling writers -- Pollan deals with the land and how it feeds us (and how we treat it in return), and Grescoe does the same for the oceans.

In case you haven’t heard of the book, this is the premise: Grescoe takes an Anthony Bourdain-style gastronomic voyage around the world. With one big difference – he examines the environmental and social impacts of all the fish he eats.

The result is a fascinating and sometimes horrifying look at the last globalized form of hunting and gathering, and at the hunters themselves – fishermen -- or what one of his sources calls “the last great adventurers of daily life.”

Each chapter focuses on a place and its specific kind of seafood. The chapter about shrimp farms in India, for example, is heartwrenching; reading about the destruction of ecologically crucial mangroves in favor of shrimp farms -- which are treated with pesticides and antibiotics that sicken the locals -- is enough to make me quit imported shrimp forever.

Despite many depressing statistics and scenarios, Grescoe maintains an intelligently optimistic tone throughout, his bottom line being that these are solvable problems. He refuses to swear off seafood, insisting that the key to eating sustainably is not eliminating seafood from your diet but choosing very, very carefully what to eat.

There's a handy run-down of his conclusions the end, with categories for seafood that's never okay to eat (bluefin tuna, atlantic cod, chilean sea bass), a sometimes choice, depending (crab, lobster, salmon), and always OK (herring, mackerel, sardines).

I particularly like his point that part of getting things to change is for consumers to ask more questions. When ordering seafood at a restaurant, along with looking over your pocket seafood guide, he suggests you ask these questions:

1. Do you know if the fish was wild-caught or farmed?

If it was wild-caught:
-Do you know which ocean it came from, and if so, which country and port it was landed in? How was it caught?

And if it was farmed:
-Was the fish farmed domestically or imported? Which country was it imported from?

But, as he points out – many seafood vendors and waiters are ignorant about the source of their seafood, which could make these questions fairly useless. Thus, he argues, increased labeling is crucial.

In the book's conclusion, there’s a thought-provoking quote from fisheries scientist/guru and Oceana board member Daniel Pauly:

“On land we say that you cannot hunt anywhere except those areas that are designated for hunting. That is what we need for the fisheries: as a default mode, the oceans have to be closed to exploitation, with only a few areas open to fishing.” It may sound radical and far-fetched to some, but is it really? It certainly makes sense to me.

I also particularly like one of the quotes from marine ecologist Boris Worm, who told Grescoe, “…You should eat fish with a consciousness that it’s wildlife, knowing where it comes from. But look at this can: they call tuna ‘Chicken of the Sea.’ It couldn’t be farther from that: they are actually the wolves of the sea…”

Fish as wildlife -- imagine that.

(Look for a Q&A with Grescoe in the fall issue of the Oceana newsletter, which is scheduled to come out in October.)

[Book cover image via www.tarasgrescoe.com]


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