Book review: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

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      Published by Penguin, 277 pp, $32.50, hardcover

      Journalist Paul Greenberg spent the better part of a decade during his youth pursuing fishy interests. He plumbed ponds, rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean off New York state’s Long Island for fish of all species and sizes, and he exulted in the feeling of freedom this brought. Fishing as an almost daily pursuit in the spring and summer, however, disappeared with the onset of adolescence, higher education, and a move away from Connecticut.

      Greenberg returned to the East Coast after his mother’s death, and, in his early 30s, reconnected with his childhood passion, travelling and fishing the coast from Maine to Florida. He noticed a reduction in the variety of seafood then being sold in the markets of the Eastern Seaboard (and far fewer blackfish, flounder, and mackerel in his own old saltwater haunts). He also saw that salmon, tuna, sea bass, and cod were the consistent and dominant species to be found for sale everywhere he looked, no matter if they were sourced locally or not. Ultimately, this funnelling of fishery efforts into offshore fleets—and the depletion of inshore species formerly considered by many people to be almost limitless—led to Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.

      This book is a happy publishing event, one where even readers not all that concerned about international ocean policy or what Greenberg calls “the collision of wildness and domestication” can breeze through its four main essays and still learn a hell of a lot about the state of the world’s fisheries today. The author loves fish and fishing, and it really shows. He mixes history, scientific research, and accounts of his own piscatorial pursuits in the best traditions of personable feature journalism.

      A slight quibble: when not interviewing experts or fishers in Greece, Norway, or Vietnam, Greenberg devotes most of his reporting to the U.S. Except for a side trip to the Bay of Fundy, Canada is only mentioned in passing during discussions about salmon farming and the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery.

      This ultimately optimistic book ends with five principles of fish farming to be used in association with four priorities for restoring and protecting wild populations. But it is the passages where Greenberg picks up his fishing rod or jumps in a boat to see things for himself that constitute some of Four Fish’s best writing.

      It’s too bad there aren’t more of them.