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Networking: Paul Greenberg

Author, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,” New York

By James Wright
March 05, 2012

Paul Greenberg’s 2010 book “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” has been widely lauded as an engaging and thoughtful analysis of the state of the world’s wild and farmed fish supply and what it may or may not become in the future. Besides being well known for his fiction writing (“Leaving Katya: A Novel”), essays and articles in the New York Times Magazine, GQ and Vogue, he is a guest and commentator on public radio programs like “All Things Considered.” Greenberg, 44, is passionate about fish and fishing and the New York resident spends as much time as possible with a rod and reel in hand. But it’s strictly catch and release.

“Four Fish,” which delves into the global issues facing cod, bass, tuna and salmon stocks, has earned the New York-born journalist the opportunity to weigh in on seafood-related issues far and wide. In December Greenberg was invited to testify at a U.S. Senate hearing about genetically engineered (GE) farmed salmon, an idea “whose time has passed, even if genetically engineered animals are perceived as belonging to the future,” he says. The next book for the father of two, “The Fish Next Door,” is about local fisheries and is tentatively scheduled for release in 2013.

What’s your take on the proposed switch of catfish inspection from the Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

It’s a big issue that so much of our seafood comes from abroad. My understanding of the FDA-versus-USDA issue is it’s just trying to throw up one more barrier to try to keep some sovereignty over our seafood system, even though I might quibble with some specifics of it. When I first [covered the story] I came at it from a liberal-global perspective, thinking maybe the Vietnamese were getting a bad shake. But when I look at it more globally, and at how our seafood system has been kind of undermined by imports, I have to say I’m with the catfish farmers in America trying to defend our food system. I would trust American-raised and caught fish much more than I would trust fish coming from Asia. 

Why do you feel GE fish is a bad idea?

The reason I think it’s an idea whose time has passed is that the fish was conceived of 15 to 20 years ago, and at that time there was no Marine Stewardship Council certifying wild Alaska salmon. So they were still working out the methodology of getting management structures in place in Alaska. There was a big issue about feed with [farmed] salmon, not that there still isn’t. The feed-conversion ratios were worse and the regulation of salmon farming wasn’t as good as it is now. There also weren’t the options to grow salmonids in containment like there are now. We now can grow non-modified Arctic char in containment rather quickly. We can now grow coho salmon in containment, like at Sweet Spring of Washington state. If you’ve got those options — and as far as I understand those fish can grow to market weight in about 12 months, which is similar to AquaBounty fish — why would you even do that?

I’m probably more receptive to aquaculture than a lot of writers out there, who take the easy route and say, “no fish farming, never ever.” If you run the numbers on the amount of food that we’re going to need as the population grows and the amount of fish that the ocean can produce, you have to face the fact that we’re going to have to grow fish.

Consumers’ favorite species rarely change. How can Americans broaden their preferences? 

Let’s remember that we send half of our wild salmon abroad; they could broaden their preferences by embracing, eating more wild salmon — and being prepared to pay for it. Of course, the infrastructure may not quite be there in Alaska to provide salmon in the form that we want to eat it; in other words, there may not be enough smoked salmon or fresh salmon. So let’s try and eat more of our own salmon. 

Roughly half of the world’s seafood supply is now farmed. Is the current rate of aquaculture growth sustainable? 

It’s hard for me to say. I think aquaculture is going to be a major part of the future. We’re running out of arable land and fisheries are maxed out. If we continue to grow, it does seem like aquaculture is the only place we’ll be able to grow into. We’re going to see two things: First, a move to species that are naturally herbivorous, or recyclers, rather than users of primary feed. And we’re more likely to embrace crustaceans more, bivalves more. That’s the general trend. It can be sustainably done.

Aquaculture has environmental impacts, but some argue that agriculture is more harmful. Are critics too quick to denigrate aquaculture, given this comparison?  

Generally speaking, yes. But on the other hand, there are a different set of problems that aquaculture represents. We’re not raising cows alongside wild cows. We have many thousands of years of practicing animal husbandry on land versus aquaculture, which is relatively new, so we still have a viable, large wild population surrounding our farms and it’s an anxiety of hunter-gatherers versus farmers. That to me is the big challenge going forward: Can we continue to maintain this wild system while developing this domesticated system? 

Are you encouraged by the growth that aquaculture has exhibited in just the past 40 years? 

Aquaculture is going gangbusters. American fisheries were in terrible shape in the ‘70s and ‘80s when we had the cod collapse. But really in the last 10 years in American fisheries, there have been a number of cases of rebuilding fisheries, catch shares implemented, the Sustainable Fisheries Act. Even things thought to be far-gone like red snapper have been rebuilt. And you can’t help but wonder if this is possible only because we have all this cheap aquaculture product from other places. In other words, it’s given us a bit of a cushion to rebuild our fisheries. If we hadn’t had that cushion, it might not have been as easy to do that.

Efforts to ban bluefin tuna trading have mostly failed, but numerous chefs and companies are leaving it alone. What will it take to save the species? 

The first thing is we have to know how much we’re actually catching and killing before we can establish any kind of meaningful management regime. There’s so much IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing going on. 

Beyond that, that [Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species] thing the other year got pretty close, about as close as it is going to get; it was a high water mark. Perhaps the better example is through looking at the example of Canadian and American hook-and-liners who are continuing to fish but who treat their catch well, hopefully getting top dollar for their fish. If that sort of artisanal practice can be recognized as a way of getting more dollars per pound and a better overall business model, maybe that’s another way a more rational fishery can come into play. If we’re going to continue to fish them, maybe the proper term is game; they have to be thought of as venison and not as this industrial product that you can scoop up with a purse seine.

What about awareness in Japan, where most of the bluefin catch goes? 

There is some rising awareness in Japan; there’s a Marine Stewardship Council office there now. But sure, the Japanese are totally driving that. It’s not so much about how much they love bluefin, but there’s a lot of politics involved. It’s an island nation, they have big food security concerns and the loss of access to high seas — Japan fishes less and buys more than it used to — gives the Japanese a huge amount of anxiety. The bluefin is really as much a metaphor as it is an actual hunk of flesh. 

As far as what to do about that, being confrontational with the Japanese never works. But I go back to this question of a code of conduct, whether or not we can come to a conclusion about what is a “civilized” way of behaving. If we deem it uncivilized to fish a fish beyond its ability to replace itself naturally, then that should be considered uncivilized. Japan is not my biggest concern as far as fisheries are going. It’s a relatively stable population that has deep ties to the West and I think the message is going to get through. What I’m worried about more is China and their ramping up of their fishing fleets and their potential impacts on the oceans without having that sensibility of sustainable fisheries management.

Catch shares are a fishery management tool of choice, yet many East Coast fishermen oppose them. What’s your take on catch shares? 

Hard to argue with them. I talk a lot with Tim Fitzgerald over at Environmental Defense Fund, a big catch-share advocate who’s been talking to me about the success of the Gulf grouper and red snapper fisheries. On paper those look good. The biggest complaints I hear about catch shares is in a bad situation the big guys can basically buy out all the small guys and you lose that sort of nice, fine-grain quality of an artisanal fishing fleet that a lot of us like to look at and idealize. I’m tentatively optimistic and I see the logic of them.

Of the four fish you studied for your book — cod, bass, salmon and tuna — which is in the most peril? 

Keep in mind that you write for a seafood publication so you appreciate this, but a lot of [the media] talked about the “four species” in my book. But they’re not four species, they’re four flesh archetypes that represent a very broad base of multiple species.

Given that, I think the biggest peril lies for that group we call tuna, mostly because there’s so many borders being crossed by these fish. They’re harder to stock-assess. If we can stop screwing up rivers, salmon are easy to manage because they always come back to where they came from so it’s much easier to figure out what’s out there. But I feel like we don’t really have a handle on it, with tuna. We’re going to see successive problems with tuna that are going to crop up again and again. Unless we get good vessel monitoring systems in place and stop fishing the high seas, I think there’s a lot of trouble ahead for tuna. 

March 2012 - SeaFood Business

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