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Review: Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg

A worker transfers tuna from a boat to the land at the Maruha Nichiro Holdings Inc. tuna farm in Kumano, Japan.

Itsuo Inouye

On a wall of an inn in western Cape Breton Island hangs a photograph of two fly fishermen holding a fish. The fish weighed 33 pounds when caught, not a record for the world-famous salmon runs on the Margaree River, but an impressive fish nonetheless. It is an Atlantic salmon. It was never a wild fish - there hasn't been a wild Atlantic salmon in the Margaree or anywhere else for decades - but had been released as a fingerling from a hatchery located a mile upstream from the inn. It was, in other words, a domesticated fish. If it had pink flesh, as wild salmon do from eating crustaceans, it was because at the hatchery it had been given food pellets laced with artificial colouring.

But at least it was an Atlantic salmon. As Paul Greenberg, a writer who grew up catching largemouth bass in Connecticut, writes in Four Fish, the latest in a spate of new books about the decline of the world's great commercial fisheries, all the salmon in the Salmon River, which flows through upstate New York into Lake Ontario, are hatchery-released Pacific salmon. In fact, all the salmon in the Great Lakes are Pacific salmon, either chinook, coho, sockeye, pink or kokanee. Each year, in order to maintain the lucrative sports fishery in the Great Lakes, the U.S. and Ontario governments release hundreds of thousands of hatchery-raised salmon into the lakes.

Greenberg's thesis is a compelling one. We are doing the same thing to fish that we have done in the past to mammals and birds: selecting a handful of desirable species for domestication and abandoning the rest to gradual extinction. We have domesticated goats, sheep, pigs and cattle; we have domesticated chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys. And we are now "dewilding," to use Greenberg's phrase, the four species of fish that dominate the marketplace: salmon, cod, sea bass and tuna.

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He starts with Atlantic salmon, which has been farmed since the early 1960s, at "around the same time as wild Atlantic salmon were being fished to oblivion off the coast of Greenland." Two Norwegian brothers began collecting salmon juveniles and raising them in suspended nets, then selling them when they were sufficiently fattened. It wasn't long before fish farming took off to become the huge industry it is today. In a strange reversal of the oddity of Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes, most of the Atlantic salmon eaten today come from fish farms in Chile, which is on the Pacific Ocean.

The case of bluefin tuna is so similar to the early efforts to farm salmon that warning bells should be sounding

The case of sea bass is similar. Greenberg focuses on European sea bass, a near-shore, shallow-water fish that humans have been exploiting in vast numbers since biblical times. When massive declines were recorded in the 1950s, sea bass became part of Israel's "food sovereignty" program, especially when Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula and access to a saltwater coastline. The wild populations of the European species, as well as of California white sea bass, crashed in 1983: now, virtually all the sea bass sold in the world is descended from 2,153 fingerlings raised in a fish farm in Greece in 1982.

As Mark Kurlansky noted in his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), Norwegians experimented in cod farming until the wild stocks seemed to be returning, then abandoned it. Greenberg has little to add to that, since cod farming still has a long way to go before catching up with salmon. He does note that small organic farms in Norway and the Shetland Islands produce a few marketable fish, but most of the cod appearing in markets today are the result of lax regulations controlling the exploitation of the few remaining natural cod stocks worldwide.

The case of bluefin tuna is so similar to the early efforts to farm salmon that warning bells should be sounding. Bluefin is fast becoming one of the rarest large food fishes in the oceans. Even so, Greenberg writes, "from the period when non-profits began listing bluefin in their various 'do not eat' columns, global consumption of bluefin has only increased." Elizabeth Colbert recently reported in The New Yorker that a 500-pound bluefin sold on a wharf in Japan for $37.50 a pound. Fishers in the Mediterranean are beginning to corral juvenile bluefin in suspended nets, fatten them up and sell them as "farmed" fish - the appellation "farmed" having evolved in the public consciousness from a negative to a positive: by eating only farmed fish, we think we are somehow taking pressure off the wild populations.

We are not. Fish farms are monocultural operations that remove genetic biodiversity from a species. In the wild, up to 99 per cent of salmon young do not make it to maturity; in a fish farm, that figure is reversed. Genetic flaws and susceptibility to disease are perpetuated and passed on to wild populations when farmed fish escape or are released. The answer to the world's fish crisis, Greenberg writes, is not to be found in the industrial model: The collapse of fish populations in the wild "was something we needed to address and fix, not something we could merely replace with a farmed product."

We in North America live in an illusion of food abundance. Fish farming has made that illusion a lot more sustainable than the world's wild fish stocks.

Wayne Grady's next book, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, co-written with his wife, Merilyn Simonds, will appear in September.

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