Wearing a borrowed pair of orange rubber overalls and thick wool socks, Paul Greenberg was an unwitting participant in a shady salmon deal on the Yukon River.
In an attempt to conserve the endangered Alaskan king salmon, the state had declared a “subsistence opening” — meaning that fish caught could only be used for personal consumption.
After Greenberg’s Yupik Eskimo hosts inadvertently caught a king salmon, they pulled their tiny metal skiff up to a black oil tanker and banged on the hull. Out came “a dude” who gave them 13.6kg of frozen chicken and beef from Safeway in exchange for their 13.6kg of freshly caught king salmon.
In Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Greenberg uses this unfair trade to illustrate the complicated plight of the king salmon, which are dependent on the Yupik people for conservation just as the Yupik economy relies on them.
He provides a detailed examination of the fishing industry in sections about salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. He travels the globe exploring not only what has been done wrong, but also where to go from here.
Greenberg, a freelance writer, tells a story that is full of historical and scientific information, yet reads like a combination of memoir, mystery and adventure novel with a dash of Greek drama and science fiction thrown in.
In a quest to find an alternative to the cod, which has a perilously declining population, Greenberg travels to the city of Can Tho in Vietnam. There he meets Vo Thanh Khon of the aquaculture company Bianfishco, who farms tra, a prospective replacement fish.
One of the most productive food fish, tra didn’t have the best reputation when they were introduced to European diners. Greenberg’s translator told him this joke:
Question: “How do you tell a farmed fish from a wild fish?”
Answer: “The farmed fish is cross-eyed from staring up at the hole in the outhouse.”
Tra eat poop, or more gently, “decaying organic matter.” They can also breathe air. Tra are fine for “not-so-discerning palates,” as Greenberg says, but they don’t measure up to cod in texture.
Tilapia, on the other hand, have the same “mouth feel” as cod and breed like rabbits, so they are an even better replacement. They are what humans should have chosen instead of cod as the everyday fish used in foods like the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.
Native to Africa, the increasingly popular and easily farmed tilapia spread to Latin America, where Greenberg is told they got caught up in the drug trade.
A fish farmer explains, “If you put a Gel-Pak of cocaine in a crate full of tilapia filets, can a drug-sniffing dog find it? Nope.”
When it comes to eating animals, people have focused mainly on four mammals — pigs, sheep, goats and cattle — and four birds — chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. According to anthropologists, even cavemen knew that when choosing animals to domesticate, they should pick varieties that met certain criteria such as hardiness and the ability to breed easily.
Yet in the 1960s, humans decided that “any species could and should be tamed,” Greenberg writes. Like cod, sea bass were a poor choice for farming, failing every one of the criteria for domestication.
Cue Israeli endocrinologist Yonathan Zohar, who tells Greenberg he is “like ob-gyn for fish.” Zohar is responsible for synthesizing a polymer-based sphere with a hormone that is slowly released into the bloodstream to make sea bass spawn in captivity, which they don’t normally do.
Zohar is just one of many quirky characters Greenberg uses in Four Fish to walk you through the modern seafood dilemma. He guides you toward commonsense food choices while entertaining you with stories of fish porn, Sea-Monkeys and dynamite.