Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mariners in Review: Bottom Feeder

In his first book The Devil's Picnic, writer Taras Grescoe travelled the world researching and eating nine different foods that, for one reason or another, were forbidden. In Bottom Feeder: How To Eat Ethically In A World Of Vanishing Seafood, Grescoe looks at the state of ten different fish and their fisheries from around the world, how humans have become so good at fishing that we threaten to wipe out any species we find palatable, and ends with looking at ways we can save those fisheries from extinction.

Grescoe examines every link in the fishing supply chain from the fishermen themselves to the chefs at seafood restaurants. He starts in Nova Scotia, once home to swordfish, bluefin tuna, and especially cod. All these were overfished, to the point where the whole balance of nature in the area changed. Now, it's in the middle of a lobster boom and the cod are largely gone. It's the same story all over the world: miles-long nets (that often destroy sea-bottom ecologies), huge factory processors, a business model that thrives on economies of scale (the more fish you catch, the bigger your profit per fish), and consumer fads for a particular seafood (ironically, often because that fishery is perceived as "sustainable") all contribute to the decline of certain species.

Grescoe notes that fishermen are sometimes victims of their own success. He quotes French fisherman Simon Allain:
"Fishermen are hunters," he said. "Some people would even say they are predators. I'd add that they are lords, and probably among the last adventurers of daily life. They belong to the economy of the hunt, which goes back millenia. Except that three thousand years ago there were no echo sounders and GPS systems; obviously with all this technological sophistication, the fish have a little trouble escaping. The difference between a fisherman and a farmer is that a fisherman has never sown a fish in the water. He's not responsible for the paternity of what he's caught. Fishermen are always subject to what I call the lottery-day syndrome, the hope that with the next set of the net they'll haul up the jackpot."
Not only fisherman have a way of life invested in certain fish or ways of fishing, entire cultures do. Grescoe examines British fish and chips, Japanese sashimi, and British Columbia salmon. He even takes a trip to a Tokyo whale meat restaurant. Grescoe is not a hypocrite (one of the first sentences in the book is "I love seafood"), but he is conflicted:
Whale was not what I expected. I had imagined myself chewing a hunk of gummy blubber, but the cut was lean, and the taste was closer to rare bloody beef than fish. Whale was dense meat, reminiscent of venison, but with a slight aftertaste of liver. Frankly, though, it was nothing special -- tuna tartare was tastier -- and mine was still a little frozen in the middle.

As I chewed, I found I was already trying to rationalize my meal. After all, compared to ordering overfished bluefin, the caviar from sturgeon, or any of the endangered delicacies served in Michelin-starred restaurants of the West every night of the week, ordering minke whale from the vast stocks in Japan is no more than a minor transgression. Surely it is a venial rather than a mortal sin, the moral equivalent of buying a second-hand fur coat.

But I failed to convince myself. Pushing the plate away, I wondered if hell has a special media room for the overly curious writer.
Grescoe ends with a number of ways to be a smart consumer of seafood, including some specific species not to eat at all, while recommending that others be either wild or farmed (not all farmed fish are evil in Grescoe's view). Marine biologist Boris Worm has predicted that the world's seafood supply will run out by 2048, but Grescoe shows this need not happen.


  1. Great review.

    For more in depth research on this subject, check out:

    A great resource for up to date worldwide fisheries information.

  2. An interesting book, but awfully one-sided in terms of the scientific evidence cited, in my opinion. And citing the Worm study is a big risk- it's been largely discredited, which is symptomatic of my principle beef with the evidence presented within in support of the author's view: the media impact of sloppy research is the goal of publication, and not the expansion and refinement of the body of knowledge.

  3. Worm's November 2006 paper, "Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services" was published in the journal Science. Grescoe cites it in his bibliography. The statement that garnered media attention at the time comes from the paper's conclusion:

    "Our data highlight the societal consequences of an ongoing erosion of diversity that appears to be accelerating on a global scale (Fig. 3A). This trend is of serious concern because it projects the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by the mid–21st century (based on the extrapolation of regression in Fig. 3A to 100% in the year 2048). Our findings further suggest that the elimination of locally adapted populations and species not only impairs the ability of marine ecosystems to feed a growing human population but also sabotages their stability and recovery potential in a rapidly changing marine environment."

    While I don't necessarily believe there are two equal sides to every story, I found a contemporary criticism of Worm's paper from a consulting firm hired by the seafood industry worth reading here:

    For Worms's latest work on the subject, find his paper from last July's Nature here (viewing the whole thing will cost you $32)

    For an easier and cheaper read, Wired did a report on the study here: