What the Critics are Saying About Bottomfeeder
"There's an in-depth interview with Taras about Bottomfeeder in Salon.com. They even let him use the F-word. Check it out here."
No net gain from empty seas
Relentless over-fishing may cause fish stocks to run out altogether within decades. Two new books offer little cause for hope
The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Our Disappearing Fisheries
Jonathan Cape £16.99, pp268
Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on our Plates Is Killing the Planet
Macmillan £12.99, pp304
In the literature of humanity making a mess of the world - let's call it apocalypse studies - the overfishing theme is an old one. Only the weather has worried people for longer than the decline in fish stocks and the terms of the debate about commercial fishing have hardly changed. In 1376, Cornish fishermen petitioned Parliament to ban the wondrychoum, an early version of the beam trawl, which then, as now, involved dragging a net through the water or along the seabed with the aid of a heavy beam. The Cornish complained it swept fish up indiscriminately and they asked that Parliament increase the size of the net's mesh.
Three centuries later, Scots long-line fishermen petitioned Charles I to protect them from 'the great destruction made of fish by a net or engine now called the Trawle [sic]'. In 1883, a royal commission under the Earl of Dalhousie declared that, because of trawling under the new steam-powered vessels, the North Sea was 'exhausted'. Further commissions in 1902 and 1904 concluded the same. They had seen nothing yet.
Humankind got the technology after the Second World War that would make it genuinely possible to catch and eat all the fish. By any measure, we then set about doing just that. The greatest and most ancient of all the mass fisheries, the fantastic swarming of cod off Newfoundland that European fleets fished for at least 500 years, was finally closed in 1992. It shows no signs of recovery. The number of large fish in the world is down by 90 per cent, according to one well-credited report; a more controversial review of the research, published in Science in 2006, stated that there will be no commercially exploitable stocks of wild fish at all by 2048.
This squander seems so wilfully stupid that you have to ask whether the scientists have got it right. 'Nothing is certain in the ocean,' writes Mark Kurlansky in The Last Fish Tale. 'Fish that were said to be plentiful have suddenly disappeared. Fish that were said to be extinct have been discovered alive... [but] something huge - a massive shifting in the natural order of the planet - is occurring in the oceans.'
Even if you don't believe the figures on stock collapse, you only need to follow the world's biggest fishing fleets to realise that something major is going on. In 1950, more than 90 per cent of fish caught commercially were taken in the northern hemisphere, says Kurlansky. 'Today, Peru has one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world and the European Union is sending its ships away from its own tired waters to fish African waters, underpaying African countries to fish their finite resources.'
Kurlansky specialises in entertaining social history centred on human staples: he's done cod, oysters and salt brilliantly. But I'm not certain he's cut out for apocalypse literature, which favours the bold statement and the big metaphor. Here, for example, is Canadian writer Taras Grescoe in the conclusion to Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on our Plates Is Killing Our Planet - 'In the unilateral arms race against the fish, our neutron bombs have already been deployed: the bottom trawls that can devastate seamounts, the longlines that trail dozens of miles of hooks, the giant purse seine nets big enough easily to pull in half-a-dozen Trafalgar-class nuclear submarines.' Not only do we continue, he says, to subsidise the building of new boats and the acquisition of radar and sonar equipment to track down the very last schools of fish in their hiding places, but we even pay £17bn a year to fishermen in the rich West not to fish.
It's a big mess and Grescoe charts it with muscular prose and a well-stamped passport. One moment we're in Marseille, worrying about whether rascasse, the toxic scorpion fish that's key to bouillabaisse, is going to run out (it isn't, yet); next we're in Bangladesh, counting the flavour enhancers, pesticides and antibiotics that go into tiger prawn feed.
By the end of this decade, half the marine products we eat will be farmed. But there is no solace in aquaculture, which is ugly, dirty and wasteful. Grescoe documents the decline of the good fish - anchoveta, pilchard, sardine, blue whiting - that we, in our madness, hoover up and convert into fish meal for salmon in farms. It takes 3.9kgs of wild fish to produce 1kg of flabby, artificially coloured farmed salmon. These tend to escape their cages - they are, after all, genetically programmed to migrate thousands of miles - and contaminate wild salmon with sea lice and other diseases. There is now virtually no commercial wild salmon fishery in the North Atlantic. The North Sea stocks of herring, the world's most delicious pelagic fish, collapsed in the 1970s, not because we ate too many kippers but because of the demands of the pig feed industry.
What can we do to avert the fish doomsday? These two are the latest in half-a-dozen books on the subject published in the last five years; the first of them, Charles Clover's The End of the Line (Ebury), is being made into a big-budget documentary. There have been no signs yet of government leaping to action. In fact, the fish problem tells a clear story of the structural inability of government and industry to deal with potentially catastrophic problems, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Anyone hoping for decisive action on climate change should take note.
Marine biologist Callum Roberts shows in his sober and useful study of overfishing, The Unnatural History of the Sea (Gaia Books), that for more than a century governmental and international bodies have consistently ignored the science they commission on fish stock depletion. In recent times, quotas have always been set 15-30 per cent higher than is recommended. We're romantic about fishing and fishermen; paradoxically, that has fuelled the industry's suicidal dive towards oblivion. No one has dared tell them to stop.
None of these authors has any new big ideas. Marine reserves plainly do work but only if they are policed properly. Roberts wants a third of the world's oceans turned into 'no-take zones'. Grescoe spends time with 'artisanal' fishermen, dredging oysters by sail in Chesapeake Bay or standing on a beach in Kerala using their own muscle power to pull in the net. These 'slow' fisheries are an inspiring model. 'They would not produce vast fortunes but they would allow a large number of people to live very well. They would also keep coastal communities alive.'
This is idealistic. People fish 'slow' because they are made to, by poverty or legislation. Given the potential, most fishermen will succumb to the male tendency to go shopping for a better hook and a bigger engine or, indeed, a 144-metre supertrawler with a crew of 100 capable of catching 400 tonnes of fish a day (it's called the Atlantic Dawn, it was commissioned in Ireland and it catches blue whiting for fish meal).
Finger-wagging literature like this needs to be fun and Grescoe's book succeeds in this respect. I enjoyed his table-thumping, which is fired by a foodie's passion for the animals whose disappearance he mourns. Kurlansky, however, who just about invented the popular gastro-science-history genre, is the victim of an unbecoming sleight of hand by his British publishers. His book is chiefly a sentimental, meandering history of the fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the fish on which its fortunes have risen and fallen. It was sold as such in the States. Here, Jonathan Cape has chopped off the Gloucester part of its American subtitle and pitched it as 'the story of fishing at sea and the demise of an entire way of life'. Clearly, the Cape marketing department thinks we can't get enough apocalyptic gloom at the moment.
Alex Renton, winner of the 2006 Glenfiddich Trophy, is writing a book about the food industry. To order The Last Fish Tale for £15.99 or Bottomfeeder for £11.99 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885
Originally published in The Observer, July 13, 2008
The last survivors: jellyfish
The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Our Disappearing Fisheries
by Mark Kurlansky
304pp, Macmillan £12.99
Buy it here >> http://www.guardianbookshop.co.uk/BerteShopWeb/viewProduct.do?ISBN=9780224082457
Bottomfeeder: How the Fish on Our Plates Is Killing Our Planet
by Taras Grescoe
304pp, Macmillan £12.99
Buy it here >> http://www.guardianbookshop.co.uk/BerteShopWeb/viewProduct.do?ISBN=9781405091831
Prawns were once my favourite dish, but I haven't eaten them for more than 15 years. I have seen the destruction prawn farms in east Africa and Madagascar have brought to the mangrove ecosystems, and the havoc caused by trawling the ocean bed for shrimp. Many other species are on my forbidden list because, like many divers and naturalists, I have witnessed the decline in marine habitats that overfishing has wrought. Whenever mainstream authors delve into the oceans I am excited and encouraged, hoping the dire news about overfishing will spread.
Ten years ago, Mark Kurlansky catalogued the decline of the great cod fisheries of the north Atlantic, and virtually launched a publishing genre: writing that concentrates on a single commodity and extrapolates that material into wider geopolitical and historical issues. As well as producing other non-fiction titles, he followed Cod with Salt and Oyster. I hoped The Last Fish Tale would match Cod's bravura, bringing the plight of the Atlantic fisheries to a broad audience.
Kurlansky revisits the awful destruction commercial fishermen wreaked on the Grand Banks, where by 1992 cod had been reduced to less than 10% of its original biomass. Basing most of the narrative around the Massachusetts port of Gloucester, he describes the way fishermen adapted to dwindling catches by shifting their attention to dogfish as the cod declined, and then to hagfish.
Overfishing is not a new problem, Kurlansky reveals: as early as 1376 the English parliament banned the destructive practice of "beam trawling", and in the 17th century fishermen petitioned Charles I to protect fishing from "the great destruction made of fish by a net or engine called the Trawle".
The flaw of this book is that Kurlansky chooses to tell the story of the fish stocks of the north Atlantic by measuring the effects of their disappearance on a single town. Gloucester is one of New England's oldest fishing communities and the author spends much time depicting its character as the home of wave after wave of doughty immigrants: Welsh, English, Sicilian, Azorean. These rough but essentially noble men braved the seas while their steadfast women waited stoically on shore to see which boats would come home after a storm.
Cataloguing the decline of the fishing industry and the gentrifying of the coastline by commuters from nearby Boston, Kurlansky concludes: "Gloucester has become like Penzance or Cape Cod - a fishing town where fishermen can no longer afford to live."
This book is a muddle. The bare facts of the crisis in the north Atlantic are there - 60% of the world's fish species are fully exploited, and over a third of commercial fish stocks in the US are overfished. But Kurlansky buries too much of the shocking reality in the ephemera and trivia of the history of Gloucester. There are occasional forays to this side of the Atlantic, but unless you are a descendant of a Gloucester fisherman I suspect Kurlansky's attention to local detail will feel excruciatingly dull.
Taras Grescoe takes a more stimulating approach to the fisheries crisis in Bottomfeeder. His book combines solid background research with well written reportage that crisscrosses the globe, visiting Canadian lobstermen, London chip shops, Mediterranean marine reserves, Tokyo fish markets and Shanghai restaurants.
Grescoe lucidly explains how humankind has gradually been forced to target fish and crustacean species from lower and lower down the food chain. As large predatory fish disappear - swordfish, sea bass, cod, shark and tuna - the lower orders multiply. Fishermen in the Gulf of Maine have switched from pelagic species to lobster, which are now flourishing. This is not good news: the lobsters have multiplied because the kelp beds in which they breed have grown into rampant forests. Once upon a time the kelp was kept in check by sea urchins. The urchins multiplied when the cod disappeared, and were in turn wiped out by fishermen who sold them to the Japanese, who regard them as a delicacy. As the larger predators are removed so the bottom-feeders, the algae and the salps, proliferate. Grescoe's thesis is chilling: "The lobster boom may be a tiny blip on the slippery slope to oceans filled with jellyfish, bacteria and slime."
Wherever Grescoe focuses his lens, he reveals the gruesome truth about the fashion for fish in expensive restaurants. It makes grim reading. Monkfish, for example, live to be 150 years old, and do not reproduce until they are about 40. We catch and eat them long before they reach that age. Almost half of the Chilean sea bass on sale has been caught illegally. And cod, still allegedly fished sustainably in the Barents Sea, is being targeted during the spawning season and caught undersized.
Grescoe is a gourmet, not a crusading environmentalist who wants us all to be vegans. He is happy to make recommendations about the fish we can eat with a clearer conscience - for example, haddock rather than cod. Bottomfeeder also has a helpful appendix detailing websites where ethically minded diners can learn more about fishing and fish stocks, and which types of fishing are most environmentally damaging.
The crisis in the seas is visible everywhere. Last year Northern Ireland's only salmon farm was wiped out by "a 10sq-mile flotilla of mauve stingers", and fishermen are catching about half a million tonnes of jellyfish in the Med each year, twice the catch of 10 years ago.
Grescoe is not afraid to point the finger of blame. In China, demand for sharkfin has reduced global populations of the biggest species to 1% of natural levels. In Japan, bluefin tuna is more valuable than rhino horn, and one fish sold for a staggering £85,000. Once bluefin tuna were monsters of the deep - with mature individuals g rowing to 15ft long. Now, most are a third that size, juveniles caught at two years old and "farmed" in pens until fat enough to sell. But wild tuna only breed at around 11 years old, so the massed juveniles kept in cages never get the chance to breed and have to be fed huge quantities of other fish.
Every page of this book had me reaching for pen and paper to record yet another horrifying statistic about the way humanity is plundering the seas. This is not merely an entertaining treatment of a vital issue, it is an important book that anyone who thinks they care about the environment must read.
Tim Ecott's Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World is published by Penguin
Originally published in The Guardian, August 2, 2008
The ones that got away
Globe and Mail April 26, 2008
About 100,000 years ago, right around the time people started eating lots of fish, a huge growth spurt appears to have occurred in the size of the human brain. Recent research shows that countries with low rates of fish consumption exhibit high rates of depression and suicide, while people who eat a lot of fish tend to be happier and healthier.
Your granny was right. Fish is good for you.
But nowadays, if you eat a lot of fish, you might be slowly poisoning yourself with mercury and dioxins, or eating fish from the last of their kind on Earth. Chances are good that the bargain-priced shrimp you bought at the supermarket was treated with caustic soda and borax, and it came from a shrimp farm that's ruined a mangrove ecosystem and runs on slave labour.
Roughly 90 per cent of the world's big fish - the sharks, halibut, tunas, swordfish, cod and so on - have already disappeared down humanity's collective gullet. Global fish consumption has doubled since 1980, and vast stretches of the planet's oceans are now so weirdly barren of fish that unchecked algae growth has created huge, toxic dead zones.
Paradoxically, but sensibly, none of this has convinced Bottomfeeder author Taras Grescoe to stop eating fish. Grescoe says he's actually eating more fish now than when he started work on the book.
Grescoe is a meticulous reporter and an accomplished travel writer with a bit of a preoccupation with the things people eat. A Vancouverite now based in Montreal, Grescoe is a recipient of the Mavis Gallant Prize for non-fiction. His last book was The Devil's Picnic: Around The World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit.
Here's the paradox in Bottomfeeder: More than a billion people rely mostly on seafood for their protein; another 2.6 billion people get 20 per cent of their protein from seafood; and the rest aren't eating enough fish. The world's human population is growing. We're not going to stop eating things that come out of the water, but as Grescoe has happily discovered, we don't need to, because the big question isn't whether or not to eat fish.
The question is what fish to eat, from which fishing fleets, from what kind of species, and which niche those species occupy in marine ecosystems. The species closest to the bottom of the food chain are usually the best, Grescoe observes. This is true not just from an "ethical" and ecologically correct point of view. It's also because there's such glorious variety down there, and it's so tasty.
It's not that all fish down there are wise to eat, or pleasurable to eat. Some of the predators up near the apex are actually quite all right to eat. Not all farmed fish are bad - China has made astonishing progress with such herbivorous species as tilapia, for instance - and you have try really, really hard to make oyster farming a bad thing.
It's complicated, and if we're going to get off the suicidal treadmill of overfishing, habitat destruction and impoverishment, we're going to have to use those big fish-fed brains of ours. We're going to have to get a lot smarter and sophisticated as consumers, Grescoe argues, and we'll need to be a lot more assertive and insistent as citizens as well.
But there is no hectoring in Bottomfeeder. Instead, Grescoe relies on engaging reportage, a healthy sense of humour and a knack for old-fashioned storytelling.
Grescoe's inquiries take him out into the North Atlantic on a Portuguese sardine seiner and to a table with the gluttonous nouveau riche at Shanghai's decadent Yu Chi restaurant. He puts in a shift as an assistant chef at the famous Miramar bistro in Marseilles, does a stint as a deckhand on a sail-powered oyster skipjack in Chesapeake Bay and tours the macabre Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
Tsukiji is a 13-hectare abattoir-palace of 50,000 workers, with its own post office, banks, liquor stores and library. Tsukiji's fish brokers auction off more than $5-billion worth of fish from around the world every year.
Perhaps the most melancholy passage in Bottomfeeder is Grescoe's encounter with the remnant fishing cultures of Tamil Nadu, in southern India, where huge shrimp farms have ravaged coastal ecosystems, devastated local economies and bulldozed ancient ways of life. But then it's rarely a pretty picture, wherever Grescoe travels.
Much of the trouble has to do with globalization, but there's a paradox there, too. Without globalized trade, a lot of fishermen would be without good-paying work, and a lot of other people would be forced to go without nutritious and wholesome fish. But sometimes, the globalized trade in seafood is just dizzying in its absurdity.
It's gotten so that most of us have no idea where the fish we eat comes from, or what it really is. Farmed fish is routinely passed off as wild, pollock is frequently marketed as crab, and if you buy something called snapper, it could be any one of several dozen species. An Atlantic salmon might be raised in a farm in Chile, filleted in Dalian, China, shipped to Vancouver, trucked right across the continent for processing and packaging in Nova Scotia, where its ancestors came from, then trucked back across the continent again to San Diego, where it ends up on a supermarket shelf. That's an extreme case, but on average, it still takes 23.5 litres of diesel fuel just to get a single farmed salmon into your fridge.
You don't need a degree in economics to see that no good can come of this.
Grescoe concludes with a handy guide to help consumers make the best seafood choices, from an ethical, economic and culinary point of view (mackerel, always; grouper, never), and a helpful survey of the emerging consensus among economists, fisheries scientists and marine ecologists about what it's going to take to turn things around.
The point is there are choices. There are things we can do that could make all the difference in the world.
Despairing isn't one of them.
Terry Glavin is an adjunct professor in the creative writing department at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions.
Taras Grescoe writes about the environmental impact of sea lice and B.C.'s fish farms in today's Focus.
- Globe and Mail, TERRY GLAVIN, April 26, 2008
In this whirlwind, worldwide tour of fisheries, Grescoe (The Devil's Picnic) whiplashes readers from ecological devastation to edible ecstasy and back again. In disturbing detail, he depicts the "turbid and murky" Chesapeake Bay, where, with over harvested oysters too few to do their filtering job, fish are infested with the "cell from hell," a micro-organism that eats their flesh and exposes their guts. He describes how Indian shrimp farms treated with pesticides, antibiotics and diesel oil are destroying protective mangroves, ecosystems and villages, and portrays the fate of sharks- a collapsing fishery- finned for the Chinese delicacy shark-fin soup: "living sharks have their pectoral and dorsal fins cut from their bodies with heated metalblades.... The sharks are kicked back into the ocean, alive and bleeding; it can take them days to die." But these horrific scenes are interspersed with delectable meals of succulent Portuguese sardines with "fat jeweled juices" or a luscious breakfast of bluefin tuna sashimi, "cool and moist... halfway between a demi-sel Breton butter and an unctuous steak tartare"; the latter is a dish that, due to the fish's endangered status, Grescoe decides he won't enjoy again. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note: scientists know what steps are needed to save the fisheries and the ocean; we just need the political will to follow through. Grescoe provides a helpful list of which fish to eat: "no, never," "depends, sometimes" and "absolutely, always." (May)
-Publishers Weekly (US), March 2008
Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood Taras Grescoe; $32.95 cloth 978-0-00-200781-8, 256 pp., 51³2 x 81³4, HarperCollins Canada, March Reviewed from bound galleys
For Taras Grescoe, the decline of the oceans is personally distressing. A self-described "piscavore" (fish eater) for 10 years running, the Montreal-based food and travel writer is nothing if not adventurous: over the course of his new book, Bottomfeeder, he samples everything from Belon oysters to whale meat to the Chinese delicacy "drunken shrimp," in which the crustaceans are served while still alive - and able to bite back. But Grescoe believes that global warming, massive overfishing, and the threat of invasive species may limit his future diet to kelp salad and "peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches." His concern is that with great application, we are eating our way to the end of the food chain.
Bottomfeeder is an indispensable guide to the global fishing industry that doubles as a maritime travelogue. As in his previous book, The Devil's Picnic, Grescoe couples meticulous research with the wry wit of a flâneur, detailing his encounters with everyone from a guerilla marine biologist to a lugubrious Portuguese sardine fisherman. Short of donning scuba gear, Grescoe also goes to great lengths to acquaint his readers with the more bizarre (but still edible) creatures of the deep, such as the lamprey-like hagfish and the hideous goblin-faced monkfish, now ubiquitous on the menus of high-end seafood restaurants.
What Grescoe proposes is nothing less than a rethinking of our relationship to seafood, from the "fork back to the hook," and Bottomfeeder could do for sustainable seafood what Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma has done for pasture-raised meat...
Quill and Quire (Canada) March 2008
| About Bottomfeeder Excerpt Op-Eds and Articles What the Critics are Saying How to Eat Ethically |
| What the Critics are Saying |
>> No net gain from empty seas (The Observer)
>> The last survivors: jellyfish (The Guardian)
>> The ones that got away (Globe and Mail)
>> Publishers Weekly
>> Quill and Quire
There's an in-depth interview with Taras about Bottomfeeder in Salon.com. They even let him use the F-word. Check it out here.