Book Review: Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

Hillary Rosner reviews Paul Greenberg's new book, Four Fish in the July-August issue.

Paul Greenberg is a writer who loves fish. In Four Fish his immense appreciation for them is the current that propels the narrative forward, transforming the book from yet another environmental requiem into more of an ode to fish. It’s about fish as food, and how to reconcile the increasing human appetite with the biological realities of ocean ecosystems. But more important, it’s a persuasive argument for treating this precious protein source with more reverence.
The book examines four types of fish, chosen to represent “four discrete steps humanity has taken in its attempts to master the sea.” These animals are among the most compelling characters—no small feat beside the assortment of idiosyncratic, single-minded entrepreneurs and innovators we meet. Bluefin tuna as Greenberg conjures them are vaguely erotic in their vigor and wildness, “their slick, scaleless, hard-shell skins barely containing the surging muscle power within.”

Cod are like proletarian masses, able to create strength in numbers. As redwoods came to dominate forests by limiting other trees’ access to sunlight, so cod “form a kind of predatory canopy over the continental shelves,” keeping potential predators at bay by forming “marauding hordes . . . that monopolized the most productive swaths of current.”
Unlike many environmental books that overwhelm readers with dismaying news and then offer only a vague and unsatisfying prescription, Four Fish unfolds as an earnest quest for the right path forward. Ultimately, Greenberg concludes, we will have to rely on a mix of wild and farmed seafood—but not just any mix. Wild populations of commercially caught fish must be managed according to specific goals, including the protection of forage fish (those now used as feed for aquaculture as well as for traditional farm animals) and the designation of at least one percent of the world’s oceans as “no-catch areas.”
As for farmed fish, the message is even simpler: some, but not others. “Humans should purposefully select a handful of fish species that can stand up to industrial-sized husbandry,” Greenberg writes, “with the goal of compensating for the huge gap between wild supply and growing human demand.” Farmed kahala, yes. Farmed bluefin tuna, no.

What ultimately makes Four Fish so readable is that it’s not really about the plight of the world’s oceans. It’s about a serious problem and how, with integrity and foresight, we might be able to solve it. And what, after all, is more human than that?
Read the full review "For the Love of Fish" from the July-August issue.
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