Author Paul Greenberg

Award-winning writer talks about his latest book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food<.em>.

Paul Greenberg is an award-winning writer, whose essays, articles and humor have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ and Vogue, among others. He's also a fiction writer, whose ‘02 novel, Leaving Katya, was compared to the work of Henry James. Before writing full-time, he ran international media production and training programs for the nonprofit Internews Network and worked in Russia, Central Asia, Sarajevo, Belgrade and Kosovo. Greenberg is a graduate in Russian Studies from Brown University and speaks Russian and French.


Tavis: Paul Greenberg is a contributor to “The New York Times Magazine” whose latest book was recently excerpted in a cover story for the “Magazine.” The new book in stores today is called “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” He joins us tonight from New York. Paul Greenberg, good to have you on the program, sir.
Paul Greenberg: Thank you, Tavis. Great to be here.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious, at least for me. Given all that we are hearing about the oil spill and what it’s doing to the lives of the fish that we love to eat, why a book called “Four Fish?” Why these four fish?
Greenberg: Well, when you look around at all the land animals that we eat, we’ve chosen four mammals. Out of all the different mammals that we used to eat as cavemen, we ended up with four that we domesticated: cows, pigs, sheep and goats. If you look at all the birds that we used to eat from the skies, we domesticated four: turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese.
Where we’re at with fish right now, we’ve got huge problems with overfishing. At the same time, fish farming is the fastest form of food production in the world right now. So I looked at the four fish we eat the most and looked at them both as wild animals and fish that we’re gradually bringing into our underwater pastures.
Tavis:They are?
Greenberg: They are salmon, sea bass, but that’s a word that’s applied to a lot of fish, but in this case it’s the European sea bass or branzino, codfish and tuna.
Tavis:You used a phrase, a word, a moment ago, “overfishing.” Define that for me.
Greenberg: Well, overfishing is a relatively new concept that’s come out, but it means that you’re catching more fish than the ecosystem can replace over time. Generally, a lot of scientists consider that when you go over 40 percent of the historical – or excuse me, over 60 percent of the historical population of any one species of fish or any one stock of fish, then you’re into an overfished situation and you risk the long-term viability of that particular population of fish.
Tavis: I would assume, then, that overfishing means that we’re overeating – put another way, that we are eating too much fish?
Greenberg: Well, fish consumption has doubled per capita in the last 50 years and it’s quintupled just overall pounds around the world. We take more fish from the oceans right now in terms of raw weight, like around 90 million tons every year. If you compared that to humans, it’s more than the weight of the human population of China that we take out of the sea every year. So when you think about it, that’s quite a lot of fish to take out of the sea.
Tavis: So what’s the end game here? If we keep overfishing, to your point, what happens long-term?
Greenberg: Well, if we keep overfishing and overfishing we’re going to reach a point where we’re going to get stock collapse of fish all around the world. They’re going to lose their genetic variability to the point where they’re not able to rebuild themselves, even if we stop fishing.
I should point out, though, that we’re not talking about extinction right now. There are still a lot of fish in the sea. What we need to do right now is to preserve their abundance. That’s the critical point we’re at right now.
If you look at tuna, around the world all species of tuna have declined by about 25 percent. So on the one hand that’s pretty shocking; 25 percent of all the world, we’ve eaten. On the other hand, 75 percent are still left. What I’m saying right now is we need to rethink the way we fish and really focus on trying to save that abundance so we don’t go down any further.
Tavis:That means what, exactly? Help me juxtapose the notion of overfishing and protecting their abundance.
Greenberg: Sure. Well, in the last 50 years what we’ve seen is the development of what I call industrial fishing, and that really came after World War II where all these huge, very damaging technologies like the use of sonar, of huge, huge bottom-trawling nets that destroy the bottom ecology, just huge, massive ways of taking a lot of fish all at once from the sea.
What I propose is that we need to turn fishing much more into an artisanal, local thing where to get back to maybe a level of take that we had 20, 30 even 50 years ago to let the oceans rebuild. So what I’m proposing is let’s try and make the fishing center more artisanal and to meet the demand that we’ll still have, let’s try and farm some fish but let’s try and farm them as ecologically, as soundly as possible.
Tavis:I hate to break this news to you, but there’s obviously a whole lot of money being made by overfishing. If we’re eating all these fish in restaurants and our homes and et cetera, there’s a whole lot of money being made with the overfishing. So how do you put that genie back in the bottle? You just can’t tell folk to stop fishing and stop making money.
Greenberg: Well, that’s true, but I think that what we need to do is to re-imagine fish. Think about it – we wouldn’t drag a net over the Serengeti plain and haul up all the zebras and the lions and whatever and then pick out the wildebeest. Well, that’s in effect what we’re doing to ocean ecologies around the world.
We’re dragging these huge nets along the bottom, ripping up the coral, the bottom structure, and just taking out what we want to eat. So long-term, that’s not a good solution for anybody.
What I’m proposing is that we selectively, more carefully take fewer fish but that we charge more per fish in the marketplace. In order to do that, I think there has to be a sort of ethical realignment that when people sit down at the table and they eat a fish, they understand that they are eating a wild animal. How many times have you heard a vegetarian say, “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish.” That’s kind of crazy, right? (Laughter) They won’t eat a farmed cow, they won’t eat a farmed pig, but, “Hey, pass that wild animal fish over to me, I’ll eat it.”
Tavis:What about the notion, though – and I’m sure I’ll get mail about this – but the notion that eating fish is healthier than some of the other meats that we eat, and that a lot of people eat fish to try – I hear your joke about being a vegetarian. I’m not a vegetarian but I eat fish on the regular, and one of the reasons why is I’m trying to be healthy; I’m trying to watch my weight.
So I’m told, at least, that eating certain types of fish is better for me, so when people are doing it for the right reasons but now you’re saying I should have a come to Jesus moment every time I sit down at my plate and there’s some salmon in front of me. I’m lost, Paul, you’ve got to help me here.
Greenberg: I’m going to help you out, Tavis.
Tavis:All right.
Greenberg: First of all, the thing is you’re right – fish is healthier. It’s lower in fat and some of the oilier fish have high levels of what are called omega-3 fatty acids that have been shown to improve vascular health as well as they’re very good for young children to have for neural development.
There are a couple of solutions. First of all, we need to start eating smaller fish instead of eating these big, long-lived, rare fish. Like blue fin tuna lives a long time, it breeds late in life; it’s very, very susceptible to fishing pressure. At the same time you can get the same health benefits by eating a smaller fish, like say a mackerel. Maybe not as tasty, but I think, Tavis, you can get used to it.
Tavis:Okay. (Laughs)
Greenberg: And it’s very – (laughter) come on, give it a try. Especially smoked, it’s really good.
Tavis:All right.
Greenberg: There’s also some great fish out there, farmed fish, that don’t have a huge ecological impact. Things like tilapia, also catfish. American farm-raised catfish is one of the greatest fishes out there in that the farming of it actually creates wildlife habitat. All those little catfish ponds you see all over the South turn out to be great habitat for wading birds and things like that, and it’s low-fat, fed on really good feed and it’s delicious fish.
Tavis:So catfish and tilapia, more than the salmon that I eat?
Greenberg: Well, thing is catfish and tilapia don’t necessarily have those great omega-3 fish oils that are so good to eat, so if you’re looking for something with the omega-3s then I would try mackerel’s a great fish.
A really good farm fish that doesn’t get a lot of play but it’s a fish that’s coming onto the market – it’s called an arctic char. It’s very closely related to a salmon, but unlike salmon arctic char, as you would guess, live in the Arctic, and a lot of times their ponds that they live in freeze almost solid, so these guys are really used to crowding and close to each other.
So it means that they’re great for a farm situation, where you have to cram a lot of fish into a small place.
The other thing is these arctic char; they get farmed in closed, contained, biosecure facilities, so they don’t interact with the wild. They’re really, really nicely raised, they have a nice taste, and they’ll give you those omega-3 fatty acids.
Tavis: No matter how successful this cap turns out to be, hopefully to be, in the Gulf, the damage done is going to take, I suspect, a long time to clean up. What’s the impact that’s going to have on the conversation we’re having tonight?
Greenberg: Well, the biggest fish that are going to be affected are the biggest fish. Blue fin tuna, yellow fin tuna, Atlantic swordfish, they all spawn in the Gulf and particularly blue fin tuna were spawning just when that darn oil spill hit.
So those fish are going to have a really hard time for the next few years. The smaller fish, the smaller creatures out there, shrimp, as I said before, the smaller the creature usually the quicker it breeds, the quicker it recovers. So there’s actual population declines on some of those smaller species might not be as bad, but then you’ve got the issues of toxicity which are causing a lot of concern down there as well.
Tavis: How concerned should we be that we’re hearing stories of them finding oil, at least remnants of it, inside clams and other things?
Greenberg: Yes. Well, it’s a concern. At the same time, I always say that we need to be protecting fish, but we also need to be protecting fishermen. NOAA and the FDA, they are doing some very careful monitoring of seafood that’s coming out and they’ve closed about 35 percent of federal waters and a lot of coastal areas to fishing.
I think they have a seven-person panel that examines seafood on a daily basis and they do kind of a smell test to see if it has an oily smell, but then they are also sending samples to Seattle to be tested for toxicity.
So far they’re saying that the seafood coming out of the Gulf is testing out okay. That’s on a short-term basis. Long-term, we don’t really quite know. But, I for one, as a grown man who doesn’t have specific issues around fish like children and women of childbearing age, I’ve decided to actually eat Gulf shrimp because I feel I want to support the fishermen down there.
Tavis: Paul Greenberg has given us our menus for the rest of the summer and maybe for the rest of our lives, until we can get this problem solved. His book is called “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” Paul Greenberg, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the text.
Greenberg: Thanks, Tavis, I appreciate it.             

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm