Vancouver Aquarium Book Club

This month’s book: Four Fish by Paul Greenberg.

Similar to our last book, The Ocean of Life, Paul Greenberg begins Four Fish by sharing how he became interested in fish and nature, and how the aquatic ecosystems he remembers enjoying—and exploiting — when he was a kid have changed. Upon returning as an adult to his hometown in Connecticut, Greenberg observed that the species he used to catch are no longer plentiful. In talking with fishers along the coast, he notes similar concerns. One of his most profound observations is that regardless of their location, fish markets across the United States were selling fewer locally-caught species in favour of four primary varieties that had little to do with the fish market in question. Thus begins a story of how the North American relationship with seafood can be explained through four ubiquitous fish archetypes: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna.

Through each of these fish, Greenberg shows how humans have become disconnected from seafood. Instead of appreciating marine biodiversity through our palettes, we are regularly turning to the same few species with little — if any — appreciation for the culture or history of local waters and traditional fishing practices. We are losing the identity of many fish without even realizing it. Until reading this book, I didn’t know that salmon used to migrate up streams on the east coast of the United States. I realize now that I live in one of the few places in the world where these fish continue to undertake migrations that have existed for millennia. With regard to sea bass, Greenberg shows how we often use generic names to describe a variety of species. This is the same reason that Atlantic cod, which was heavily overexploited, can now be easily replaced by similar species of white fish (e.g., haddock, pollock, hake, hoki). Of course, we fail to appreciate the future challenges that will come with this type of substitution.

Salmon spawing.

Salmon return to where they were born to spawn each year.

Even with so many good anecdotes and discussion points, the part of this book that really hit home for me was when Greenberg talks about his experience eating bluefin tuna, because I’ve been there too. I was in Japan a couple of years ago attending a workshop on Pacific bluefin tuna conservation. Even after going to see the 6 a.m. tuna auction at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo (the largest fish market in the world), and spending three days in discussion about ways in which fishing management measures for bluefin were lacking, I made the decision to eat this fish; my favourite fish. I tried it because I had to know what I was up against; I had to understand the hype. And, now that I’ve had it once, delicious as it was, I have decided not to eat it again. We all make choices, trade-offs, with regard to where and how we tread on the planet and what footprints we leave. Yet all it took was one bite to know that I value these fish in the ocean so much more than I value them on a plate.

Bluefin tuna

Laurenne looks at pieces of bluefin tuna in the world’s largest fish market in Japan.

For a long time now, I’ve had a personal philosophy of making sure I know what the fish I’m eating actually looks like whole (i.e., as an actual fish not a fillet). The theme of Four Fish reinforced this approach to dining because I realize that, albeit a small effort on my part, this is one easy way in which I am staying connected to what I’m putting in my mouth and what swims in the sea.

Sustainable fish Ocean Wise

Fish tacos (left), juxtaposed with the real fish (right) mahi mahi.

Make sure you grab a copy of Greenberg’s Four Fish this month and get reading! As you go, we would love to hear your thoughts on his observations, or any general experiences or ideas you have about the seafood you eat. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Learn more about the Vancouver Aquarium Book Club.

Blog post by Laurenne Schiller, Ocean Wise research analyst and book club curator. 

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2 Responses

  1. Dasheng C.

    Thanks for recommending this book and your commentary. I’m glad to see that neither the author and you demand that we stop eating seafood all together but simply request that we become more informed about the choices that we make. I noticed that Four Fish did not specifically address the notion of eating lower on the food chain (e.g. mackerel and sardines). Would you be able to comment on this…why is this something we should consider? What fish would be considered good “lower on the food chain” options in British Columbia?

    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You’re right in that none of the “four fish” would be considered a low food web species. Still, I think this quote from the tuna chapter demonstrates your point perfectly: “Dining on a 500-pound bluefin tuna is the seafood equivalent of driving a Hummer”. Paul has also written an article on eating under-utilized and lower trophic level fish that I’d highly recommend. ( ). Personally, I think that eating a diversity of species—the majority of which are lower on the food chain—is the best thing any seafood eater can do. As you might already know, smaller fish generally tend to mature faster and be more resilient to fishing than larger fish. That said, just because something is from a lower trophic level, doesn’t automatically make it an ecologically sustainable option. A lot of invertebrates like sea cucumbers and urchins are susceptible to overfishing too, largely because they are immobile (and make for easy targets). As well, many industrial gears (such as dredges and bottom trawls) that harvest shellfish species can also be environmentally damaging. So yes, it’s absolutely something I think we should do but it still requires a bit of homework! There’s never an easy answer  As far as our local species goes, Ocean Wise currently recommends quite a few, including: sardines (purse-seined), sea urchin (diver-caught), trap-caught sidestripe shrimp (and spot prawns when they come into season again!) and suspension-farmed clams, mussels, and oysters. Thanks again for your feedback! Laurenne.


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