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Oceana Magazine Fall 2008: Q&A Taras Grescoe

In Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, author Taras Grescoe circles the globe on a twofold mission: to consume exotic seafood and to explore why fish, crustaceans and marine mammals are disappearing. Drawing on the research of renowned fisheries scientist and Oceana board member Dr. Daniel Pauly, Grescoe explains the overexploitation of the seas and how we might restore the abundance of seafood for future generations. Along the way, Grescoe ate some of the world's most unusual cuisine. Oceana editor Suzannah Evans asked Grescoe about his discoveries.

How's the response been to Bottomfeeder?

Very good. It's already been published in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and it's going to be published in Germany and Chinese Taipei and Japan and France, so the message is getting out there. The reviews have all been good. I haven't had that much criticism, and there's been a lot of national media for it. It was reviewed in the New Yorker in the U.S. and I've been on national Canadian TV a week after Ted Danson was on The Hour. 

He's one of our founding board members. 

Yeah, so it's been nice that I've been able to talk about a variety of issues associated with the book, whether it's the problems associated with farmed salmon or invasive species. I did an NPR interview about Asian carp heading toward the Great Lakes. There's so many different issues addressed in the book. It's been a great opportunity to bring some of these to light. 

What's the hot button topic that most people seem interested in? 

Definitely because of the news this year, the cancellation of the [salmon] fishery in California and Oregon, that was a real flashpoint for discussion. My chapter on farmed salmon in particular interested people, and I did an op-ed for the New York Times. I talked about my swearing off wild and farmed salmon until the runs in British Columbia recovered. I grew up in Vancouver. 

Was there anything you couldn't bring yourself to eat? Because of the issues or you just didn't want to? 

There were so many things I did eat, and my M.O. was to be an adventurous eater, but to have a list of seafood, things I wanted to try, things I hadn't yet tried. And as I became educated, [I would] cross things off the list. I was taking the reader through this process. 

In Japan, there are 450 kinds of seafood on the market, I didn't eat gooey duck - not too many issues associated with it. Pufferfish, I ate. I regret eating whale. I'll never do it again, but it was interesting to figure out how to fit into Japanese culture. There are things I'm still interested in trying, particularly when it comes to mollusks and crustaceans. The one thing that was really problematic was live shrimp in Shanghai. 

Oh yeah, I guess there is one thing: san nak-ji. That's live octopus served in Korea. They chop them up and you get a plate full of writhing fusilli or spaghetti or whatever. I never got around to eating that, and I don't regret it. It's a cultural thing and I'm not willing to take that extra step. There's a great film called Old Boy, a Korean film, which shows the main character, the actor actually ate an octopus at the sushi bar. You can see it clenching to his lips, it's pretty intense. There's this whole thing in Asia about embracing the fact that humans are the top of the food chain. For westerners it can be a little hard to take. 

I traveled to Spain with Oceana, and the most adventurous thing I was boiled pulpo [octopus]. It was chewy.

It's very chewy. I like the way they grill it or barbecue it. They serve this thing in Spain called percebes. We had it in Madrid. These are gooseneck barnacles, they're kind of cool. 

Did you eat shark fin soup? 

No, I definitely didn't. I went to the market, I went to some of the shark fin soup restaurants. Some things I was trying to make up my mind about, like bluefin tuna. I concluded that it's in such rough shape that you should never be eating it. But I knew that shark fin soup was sort of a crime against the oceans and there was no way I was going to eat it. I was in a lot of restaurants where they served it and I went to the shark fin market, in Tongchuan Lu market in Shanghai. They've got these shark fins of all kinds of species on display. No, I drew the line there. 

The book starts off kind of adventurous and gets less and less so. There's a line between drawing the reader in, being an exemplary eater, someone who is trying to educate the reader, and you have to provide vivid scenes. It's good to have vivid writing and if you shy off from having certain experiences then you disappoint the reader. But in the end, by becoming an exemplary eater you can actually steer people away from things that are terrible for the oceans. 

Some people accuse me of having my cake and eating it too. ‘Oh he gets to try these things and then he condemns them.' I don't see it that way. It's important to see where these things fit in culturally. Where a whale meat restaurant fits in. And the interesting thing is that it's not very popular in Japan, whale meat in particular. It's more a question of nationalist politicians clinging to this thing that they see as defining their national identity, whereas young people aren't interested in it at all. When I went to the restaurant it was all guys in their 50s and 60s who had eaten whale meat as children. 

We're quick to condemn the Asians, but there was a huge movement among Chinese around the world, including the president of Chinese Taipei, the basketball player Yao Ming, [film director] Ang Lee, they all participated in the campaign to ban shark fin soup. They said, ‘I'm not gonna eat this stuff.' By going there and seeing the complexity of the society, you realize there's a diversity of opinion just as there is here. 

One of the concepts you mention in the book is the tragedy of the commons. People often use it as an illustrative technique when discussing ecology. So my question is, why haven't we gotten it yet? 

Garrett Hardin's article was a fascinating logical, environmental and cultural study. When you think about it, it's a huge challenge to the free market paradigm that governs our world right now. It's been spread by the industry around the world. Why people don't get it? Because it challenges their basic values, the idea that we live on a finite globe, where we are going to have to make intelligent choices. Where the free market, if left untethered, will lead us to eating the last sturgeon caviar, the last bluefin tuna, the last Chilean sea bass, the last swordfish. 

Because perversely, as these things become more and more scarce, the value goes up. The free market can't regulate itself that way. Hardin's tragedy of the commons said that if we pursue individual self interest, adding another animal to the commons, we'll deplete the value of the commons, the future of the commons. When you apply that to the oceans, that's abundantly clear. 

The amazing thing is that as a species, we've only been fishing industrially for 150 years, and we've depleted 97 percent of the biosphere. 97 percent of the life-supporting capacity of the earth is the oceans, and that's because the oceans are so bloody deep. There was this Victorian hyperbole, among guys like Huxley in the 19th century - the cod lay so many eggs, nine million per fish, there's no way we could possibly get rid of them all, it's an endless resource. It's turning out not to be an endless resource. 

We are draining the oceans, changing them into very different places, places that might be more propitious to cyanobacteria and jellyfish and other things that we may have trouble exploiting to say the least. Jellyfish have been eaten for a long time in Asian cultures, I don't feel bad about eating jellyfish. They are part of the cuisine of China and Korea. 

Have you read Callum Roberts' book, The Unnatural History of the Sea? 

Yes. 

I thought it was a nice complement to your book. You're focused on the present, while he explains how human exploitation of the oceans is not a modern phenomenon. 

When you take the longview, it's really astonishing to what an extent we've drained the oceans and coastlines. He charts the process back to the 12th century, the U.K., where they basically did in all the river fish. If you go back even farther, to proto humans, there were massive fishkills. They were eating lots of catfish and shellfish in east Africa two million years ago. So it's always been this readily available protein. 

You talk about buying a tin of sardines in the book in France, and the name of the boat's printed on the can. Is it realistic that we will have that kind of labeling as common practice? Does the public care? 

I don't know if it will get that detailed. I think it's going to be an artisanal, slow-food type approach to fish. We're already seeing some high quality, very expensive canned tuna which is pole or troll caught, it's only cooked once so you don't lose the omega 3s, and it comes from a specific fishery. 

I think that in the same way that people, through Michael Pollan, are getting interested in pasture fed beef, raw milk, going out of their way for good cheese, they're getting baskets of produce from local farmers. It's not going to be the hard-pressed working families who can't afford to devote that time and effort. If people realize fish have the potential to be the best and healthiest kind of protein that we can get in our bodies they'll start paying more attention to where it comes from. 

There's a coincidence that the healthiest type of fish also come from the middle of the food chain. And that's the message I've been trying to get out there, that these are the fish that are sort of neglected but are actually really tasty - mackerel, herring, sardines, Peruvian anchoveta, that stuff is being made into feed for salmon and pigs right now. I think that there's going to be a shift when people realize that by getting a can of filleted sardines and using that as lunchmeat instead of albacore tuna, they'll be doing themselves and their children a big favor. They'll be avoiding the mercury, they'll be avoiding persistent organic pollutants, that kind of thing. I think there's potential.It's not going to be one book that's gonna do it. 

Chefs are gonna get interested. I've been reading books about sustainable sushi. There's a guy called Casson Trenor who's just done a fantastic job, something you can take to the sushi bar. You start persistently asking questions, is this a farmed salmon, which ocean is this from, any idea how this was caught? We've seen a gastronomic revolution in North America over the last ten or fifteen years. It's just catching up to where things are in Europe, in terms of sourcing locally, which is a deep tradition in places like France and Spain. 

[Oceana board member and fisheries scientist] Daniel Pauly is big on why we're turning anchoveta into fish meal instead of eating it ourselves. 

I was talking to him the other day. He's really good on asking the question about what we are doing with these forage fish that are a fantastic source of protein that could be going to feeding a hungry world but we're just feeding them to bluefin tuna in Croatia and salmon farms and pig farms. 

We've already demonstrated that we can decimate a species within a generation, like orange roughy. What is it about forage fish that makes us think they will be more resilient? 

We like to think they're resilient but they go through periodic cycles of rise and collapse. The anchoveta fishery collapsed in the 1970s off the coast of Peru. It's often linked to El Niño and La Niña. The sardines collapsed in the late '40s, early '50s off the coast of California. They seem to go in sixty year cycles, so there has to be really close monitoring by the best scientists. We don't want to overfish this stock. Pollock is a big one off Alaska right now, a medium sized fish. That's susceptible to overfishing too.
We like to think it's a huge biomass but you have to careful. 

What is it about these fish? They're plankton filter feeders. They rise and fall in relation to the amount of plankton in the ocean. Since we are changing the oceans so significantly, because of global warming for one thing, and also the incredible amount of pollutants in the ocean. 

After all this, do you feel hopeful for the oceans?

Hmm...I feel hopeful for the oceans for a couple reasons. I think we've permanently altered ecosystems. I don't think the cod off the Grand Banks are going to come back. Everybody I talk to think that we've really done them in. The smaller species that they used to prey on, like capelin, have taken their place in the food chain. I am hopeful for a couple reasons. 

One terrible reason is that the price of gas is going up, making it uneconomical to chase fish like Chilean sea bass and orange roughy. That's a negative reason that we might be able to give the fish a break. During WWII, when half the fishing boats in Europe were commandeered for the war, the oceans, the big fish underwent a significant recovery. 

Privately, people like Daniel Pauly and Boris Worm will say we're going be wrapped up in conflicts over water and things like that, and we might not get to the point where we fish everything to commercial extinction. So that's a terrible reason to be optimistic but it might have a positive impact on the oceans. 

The other thing is that I do believe that marine reserves, marine protected areas work. I think the optics of them are fantastic, as was demonstrated by [marine biologist and activist] Bill Ballantine in New Zealand. I know they're doing it, not as thoroughly, but they're starting it in California, to set up marine reserves, there's one off one of the northern islands off Hawaii. 

I think marine reserves actually have a significant impact. If we can set aside a certain percentage of the oceans as no-take zones, we could see a recovery of some of the big fish. I'm cynical enough about politics to think that it might not happen. But I also know the optics are quite good, it makes a politician look good to set up the legacy of national marine parks. So that's one way positive change might happen. 

Anything else we should know? 

Remember, it's not just sustainable fishing. Forty-five percent of the fish we eat now come from fish farms. A lot of emphasis goes on overfishing, and wild fisheries, but I've been reading books like Who Killed the Grand Banks, Mark Kurlansky's latest book about Gloucester, The End of the Line by Charles Clover, and they've put the emphasis on how the big fish were taken from the oceans. But you can't ignore aquaculture. 

There are sensible ways of farming fish, there are sensible species to farm, there are herbivorous species, tilapia and carp, catfish. So I think a lot of the emphasis has to be on choosing species intelligently for aquaculture, whether its mussels or oysters, which have a tendency to clean the ocean of excess algae. As people who are trying to get the message out, we can't ignore aquaculture. 

There should be a strong effort to convince big companies like Marine Harvest that closed-containment systems make sense, that they will give them a great amount of control and they will prevent the spreading of parasites and disease to wild species, which is currently a huge problem, especially with salmon.