I was never that fond of seafood to begin with, but after finish Taras Grescoe’s terrific book Bottomfeeder, I am even less into it. The reasons are multiple.
Grescoe is an avowed seafood lover, and it shows in his gourmand descriptions of seafood dishes from around the world. But once he started hearing about the effects of the global fisheries, he started doing some investigating. What he discovered was that the fish we have available in our supermarkets and restaurants (seafood, sushi or otherwise) are part of a destructive and toxic supply global chain. Each species of seafood has its own problems.
Take, for example, shrimp. 90% of the shrimp available in North America is produced in South and Southeast Asia in farms. These farms draw resources away from the subsistence fishing that provides a livelihood to local people, for the benefit of multinational corporations. Now, that’s a problem of globalization, and that’s bad enough, though it’s practically unavoidable for the large majority of the consumer products we buy. So Grescoe digs a bit deeper. The reason local subsistence fishing is destroyed is because the shrimp farms are basically holes in the ground that are full of unregulated veterinary antibiotics and growth hormones, industrial waste, human and animal fecal bacteria, and colorants and chemicals that mask the discoloration and rot of dead and diseased shrimp. When you eat shrimp in North America, you are basically eating carcinogens. It’s like eating cigarettes that have been soaked in the feces of HIV-infected, dysenteric baboons. And it’s that toxicity that spreads around the farms and infects the entire ecosystem.
The problem is more widespread than shrimp. Farmed salmon has largely supplanted wild salmon, but farmed salmon, like shrimp, is full of toxins. These animals are packed into underwater pens that are part of the larger marine ecosystem, but salmon were never meant to be packed so tightly. As a result, they are susceptible to deadly plague epidemics. To combat this, farmers drown the fish in antibiotics, which we end up eating. The fish are covered in boils and pus, and those that escape the pens swim out into the wild, and spread these diseases to the last remaining stocks of wild fish. Even more absurd is the fact that these carnivorous fish are fed up to four times their body weight in protein consisting of other dead or processed fish bits. Think about that. For the salmon to grow one pound of flesh in these conditions, we have to feed it four pounds of other fish and filler—sometimes even large quantities of low-in-the-food-chain species like krill, which are vital to the health of the oceans. And you wonder why we can’t solve global hunger or global warming.
Those are two of the examples that really sickened me, but there are many, many others. Farmed, herbivore tilapia are treated with hormones that induce a sex change—because males reach marketable size faster than females. Huge, billion-dollar fishing ships drag metal-toothed nets across the ocean floor, leveling coral reefs to catch overfished species. Those reefs won’t grow back for hundreds of years. How about pouring cyanide over reefs to stun the organisms living there, then dynamiting entire reefs, then scooping up the remains to serve to you and I? Not to mention the global pirate trade of nearly extinct apex predators like some species of tuna—which by the way are so loaded with mercury that they aren’t worth eating anyway. It’s not just the endangered species of tuna that are loaded with mercury, and the problem is not restricted to tuna, either. Species after species of carnivorous fish, who eat other fish who in turn eat things like plankton, suck up the mercury from all the lower levels of the food chain, all the heavy metals we’ve dumped into the oceans and that are carcinogenic and lethal for human consumption–yet we continue to eat these fish because of the industry’s omertà on the origins of the fish or their habitat. We don’t know and, when we do, we don’t care.
At one point, Grescoe mentions that all the fish farms and all the oceans together produce about 140 million tons of seafood annually. China alone will consume 37 million tons by 2020. It’s not just China, though. Imagine if we’re eating 60 millions tons of fish each year. That leaves only 80 million tons of fish left to reproduce. Year over year, we keep eating more, and year over year, there are fewer fish left to reproduce and replenish the stocks. That’s why fish stocks across the globe have plummeted, down to between 1% and 10% of their levels prior to the Industrial Revolution. We are eating our way through the oceans, and it’s predicted that the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048. That’s only 37 years from now.
There are species that he encourages us to eat, though, like sardines, jellyfish and oysters. Sardines are full of healthy oils and proteins, and are fished in largely sustainable and non-destructive ways. Jellyfish are becoming so prevalent that if we don’t eat them, they will take over the oceans and kill everything else. Oysters are able to filter out toxins and bacteria that are otherwise turning large bodies of water into ecological dead zones; we should encourage a robust oyster industry by creating demand for them. There are others, of course.
As for me, I’m done with sushi and other seafood. Seafood is often compared to the meat of land animals favorably, as if it’s a lean, healthy choice. Some mythical fish that exists outside of the environmental effects that the book documents might actually be a healthy alternative. The problem is that there is no such fish.
I have to wonder if our above-the-water sources of meat are any better. In fact, I know they aren’t. But that’s something I’ll investigate in turn. For now, I think it’s safer to start by swearing off fish. “Fish are friends, not food!”
Go pick up a copy of Bottomfeeder, please. The writing is lyrical and eloquent, the research is deep and persuasive, and the imagery and ideas will disturb you for a long time to come. They should.