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.
- Bottomfeeder: A Seafood Lover's Journey to the End of the Food Chain, by Taras Grescoe, HarperCollins Canada, 326 pages, $29.95
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.