The Fish on My PlateView film
A journey with Paul Greenberg
Old Harbor Books, Sitka, AK
BOOK STORE OWNER: Well, thank you everyone for coming. We’re honored to have Paul Greenberg in the town and all sorts of things, but thank you so much for making time for us here at the bookstore.
PAUL GREENBERG: My pleasure.
[voice-over] So I’m working on another book right now, tentatively titled The Omega Principle, and it’s a book about omega-3 fatty acids. And so as part of that grand experiment, on September 1st, 2015, I had my blood drawn, and then I stopped eating land food meat. And for the last year, I’ve been eating seafood every single day, sometimes for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a snack. So it’s just been─
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You look great!
PAUL GREENBERG: Well, thank you. I─ [laughter] I feel great!
[voice-over] So this is a passage from the third chapter of American Catch.
Passing up to a bluff, I looked down on the isolated settlement and thought that once upon a time, a little 17th century village called New Amsterdam must have looked quite a bit like this, a modest place with its face turned toward the sea where the fisherman and the fishmonger were an integral part of daily life and where seafood held its own with land food in nearly every regard.
What kind of society might we have formed had we not, as Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, “become landsmen, tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks”? What if instead, we had become what Melville called “a society fixed in ocean reveries”?
I’ve always loved this moment when the fish reveals itself out of the mystery of the ocean. It feels like you’ve been given something precious.
[on camera] I caught a King! After all these years! The skunk is off the boat. Triumphant moment. What a beautiful fish, right?
[voice-over] Some of the happiest days of my life have been these little celebrations that come after figuring out where a fish is, how it lives and how to catch it. And when you eat what you catch, you feel as if you’re eating the sea itself.
The Fish on My Plate By Paul Greenberg
The Biggest Little Fish in the Sea
PAUL GREENBERG: A fisherman is always on the hunt for the fishiest places, and few are fishier than here, on the coast of Peru. It was the middle of the night, in November ─ springtime in the southern hemisphere ─ when I boarded the Maricielo with Captain Juan Castro.
[on camera] Why is the nighttime better for the fish?
Captain JUAN CASTRO [subtitles] At night, you can see the fish more clearly. At night, the fish glisten in the water.
PAUL GREENBERG: Oh, so you’re, like, looking for the glitter on the surface of the water.
Captain JUAN CASTRO: Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] This is what I’d come to see, one of the world’s great explosions of life, the opening of the largest fishery in the world, Peruvian anchoveta. A little fish for sure, but some years, Peru’s anchovy catch is bigger than all the fish caught in U.S. waters combined. But almost no one eats them.
When I was a kid, the most sort of romantic thing in the world for me was going fishing in the early morning. And that moment, just as dawn was starting to break and you felt the excitement of the world coming alive again─ that’s really the feeling that I had on the boat
[on camera] I have never been in a place where I’ve seen so life in one place. I’m looking out, like, there’s one, two, three─ I don’t know, five dozen seals, sea lions, all schooling up around these anchoveta. You’ve got huge flocks of birds, terns, gannets, petrels, all kinds of birds diving in, doing their own thing.
And then you got this big net just full of anchoveta. I think the last pull, they had tons in a single pull. I think they’re going to have maybe a bigger one this time. I mean, all of this incredibly, like, nutritious fish that if people only ate it could probably be a very good way to use this resource. But unfortunately, like, 99 percent of it goes into fish meal and fish oil and gets sent to China.
[voice-over] This is called a reduction fishery. Altogether, around the world, as much as 25 percent or more of all fish caught are poured into processing plants to be ground up and boiled down, turned into oil and dried into fish meal.
Years ago, they were just used for fertilizer. Then they were fed to pigs and chickens and even your pet cat.
But now fish like these Peruvian anchovies are turned into feed for what’s called aquaculture, fish farming. They’re fed to America’s favorite fish, Atlantic salmon
PATRICIA MAJLUF, Former Vice Minister of Fisheries: I think that must have started in the ‘80s, and then, you know, the big salmon industry in Europe and in North America. Then it brought the salmon down to Chile, and then the whole thing started going up because people loved salmon. And then they realized fish meal was a really good feed for the salmon, and they started using and taking more and more and more of the supply. And that’s when all the industry went into fish meal producing for feed for aquaculture.
PAUL GREENBERG: I think of Patricia Majluf as the Anchovy Lady because at conferences, she’s always handing out little cans of anchovies.
[on camera] All right, so do we just scoop it up and eat it?
[voice-over] She says we should all be eating more anchovies instead of sending so many off to China or Norway to feed farmed salmon. But the aquaculture industry depends on these little fish.
[on camera] So do you think it’s fair to say that there wouldn’t even be this global aquaculture industry if it weren’t for the Peruvian anchoveta?
PATRICIA MAJLUF: We supply 30 percent of it, so a very large component of it. It probably wouldn’t be as big as it is.
PAUL GREENBERG: Right.
PATRICIA MAJLUF: ─because it’s the best food for aquaculture.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] But Peruvian anchoveta are also supposed to be great food for us. They’re unusually rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and that’s what I’m writing my latest book about.
So I wanted to see where all those little fish get pulverized, reduced and eventually poured into a capsule. Dave Matthews, a big Canadian who’s built 10 of these fish oil refineries around the world, has seen it become a very big business.
DAVE MATTHEWS: For Peru, it’s very big, and for the rest of the world, it’s even more important because 25 to 30 percent of the anchovy oil which is high in omega-3 content is really only located in Peru.
PAUL GREENBERG: It’s all built on the promise of a magical pill to cure the ailments middle age, and Big Dave is a big believer.
DAVE MATTHEWS: My cholesterol’s extremely low, lower than my wife’s, and she eats healthier than I do. And my blood pressure’s extremely low [unintelligible]
PAUL GREENBERG: And it does affect your blood pressure?
DAVE MATTHEWS: Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: Because I have slightly elevated blood pressure.
DAVE MATTHEWS: OK. So you need to be 2 to 3 grams of omega-3 a day.
PAUL GREENBERG: OK.
[voice-over] I did the arithmetic on Dave’s prescription. That’s as many as six giant pills of fish oil I’d have to swallow each and every day. Those are the capsules that up to 20 million Americans take as a supplement.
But I’m not a pill-popper, and I wanted to get right to the source. So I came to Pisco to see an anchovy canning factory. This is the essence of what I’m looking for. But the omega-3s in this oil are active compounds that spoil fast. So they have to get the anchovies in the can quickly.
The supplement industry has the same problem. A poorly processed fish oil capsule can rot just like a fish. And a rotten, oxidized capsule does nothing for your health, which is why I’m staying away from the capsules. I’d rather get my omega-3s from oily fish. That means, I was told in Peru, four fillets a day for my daily dose.
I can also just get it here. This is my kind of fish shack.
[on camera] That looks good. And then we have a flounder Milanaise. Oh!
[voice-over] Peruvians share my passion for seafood, but they aren’t worrying about omega-3s. They’re getting theirs from lots of other fishes, and it turns out they don’t care that much about anchoveta.
[on camera] [subtitles] Do you have anchovetas?
WAITRESS: [subtitles] We don’t work with anchovetas.
COOK: [subtitles] Anchovetas are too small, so we don’t deal with them.
PAUL GREENBERG: [subtitles] Do people like them, though?
COOK: [subtitles] Sure, because they have plenty of omega. The anchoveta has plenty of omega-3.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder if there’d be more and bigger local fish like these if this so-called “reduction” fishery wasn’t taking so many tons of forage fish out of the food chain all in order to feed farmed fish somewhere far away.
In fact, this particular year, the anchoveta season almost didn’t open. Even though this looks like a lot of fish, this is a year of scarcity. It’s an El Nino year. The water is warmer, less productive, and the estimates of available adult fish in the water are way down, well below the five metric tons needed to open the fishery..
[on camera] If it were up to you, would you have opened the fishery this year?
PATRICIA MAJLUF, Conservationist, Oceana Peru: Not at all. Not at all. The survey that was done to evaluate the population came back with only 3.38 million tons, and you normally need to have 5 million tons of adults to be able to fish. And of those 3.38, only 2 millions were spawning adults. The industry said, “Oh, that’s not right. That number must be wrong.”
PAUL GREENBERG: So they counted again.
PATRICIA MAJLUF: To count again, count it again until you find it.
PAUL GREENBERG: Counting it until you get the number that you want.
PATRICIA MAJLUF: Exactly. And we just got a copy of a report that was sent back kind of informing the ministry what they were going to do for the last count. And they said, “At the request of the industry, we did this. At the request of the industry, we did that.”
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] The biggest guy in the industry, however, says they didn’t put pressure on the government.
[on camera] And what about the sort of accusations that the quota is too high, that you shouldn’t have even opened the anchoveta season this year because we’re in an El Nino year, that we risk crashing the population like we did in the ‘70s if we fish. Do you agree with that?
HUMBERTO SPEZIANI, TASA Fishing Company: No. I was in the ‘70s. What happened in the ‘70s was during the military government, and they─ for economic reasons, they allow us to catch. And we over-catched.
PAUL GREENBERG: They let you catch whatever you wanted. And were you ever, like, “Hey, stop catching so many fish?” I mean, did you ever want to stop it?
HUMBERTO SPEZIANI: Yeah, we─ we didn’t know how much fish were in the ocean. This year, they found it 3.28─ 200─ 3.3 [unintelligible]
PAUL GREENBERG: 3.3 million metric tons.
HUMBERTO SPEZIANI: Millions. But we were not able to check the whole spectrum of the anchovy habitat. What the minister decided─ it’s not the industry. The minister decided to check it again.
PAUL GREENBERG: And you’re 100 percent confident that they have the right─
HUMBERTO SPEZIANI: Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: But within weeks the government agency that surveys the fishery decided to stop the season early because they were taking too many small juvenile fish. That’s why Peru has a reputation as a well-managed fishery. Still, over the years, the biomass has been reduced and it’s nothing like what it was before humans muscled their way into this ecosystem.
It’s too easy, though, to say that the fishing industry is bad and the conservationists are good. Everyone’s doing a job. Everyone has their point of view. The only point of reference I have is the past. And what the past tells me is that once upon a time, the same kind of fishery existed off California, Cannery Row in Monterey. And it got hit by an El Nino-like event, and the people kept fishing. And that fishery crashed in the 1950s, and it’s never really come back.
All the boats, all the factories disappeared. And a lot of them were bought and shipped here to Peru.
Saving The Sea, Saving Myself
I started writing my new book to explore the connection between the health of oceans and our own health, especially, I have to admit, my health.
The kid who loved to fish is now a middle-aged man. I’ve got slightly elevated blood pressure. I’ve got cholesterol issues. I have depression issues. I have sleep issues. And I don’t like it. In fact, I hate it. So I started to listen to the soft purr of the omega-3 industry. This is everything they’re supposed to fix.
They say it’s what makes your joints more youthful, your brain quicker, your heart more resilient, a kind of elixir, if you believe in that sort of thing. But I’m not sure what I believe.
So I thought, what if I did a study of one and eat only fish every meal every day for a year. What would happen?
[on camera] We’re Jewish, right? Somebody was asking me, like, do we believe in heaven? Not really, right?
RICHARD SHEPARD, M.D.: Well, yeah.
PAUL GREENBERG: We don’t have to go into it. But all I’m saying is, is that this omega thing to me feels a little bit like the promise of the afterlife, like you won’t know it ‘til you’re there.
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: Yeah.
PAUL GREENBERG: And we won’t know about the omega-3 thing ‘til we’re dead! [laughs]
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: Well, 50 percent of people don’t know they have heart disease until they suddenly die.
PAUL GREENBERG: Yeah. You want to hear the first line of the book?
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: Yeah.
PAUL GREENBERG: Yeah, I’ll tell you. “A little while back, I learned from an ancient”─ oh, sorry. “A little while back, I learned from an eminent cardiologist that half of all patients first report heart disease to their doctors by dropping dead.”
[voice-over] I have no intention of doing that, so I began my year of eating fish. Sometimes, Esther and Luke would join me, but mostly, I’d be on my fishy own. Tonight, it’s tomato anchovy sauce over pasta and some little snapper blues Luke and I just caught. These are some of the oiliest fish around, rich in omega-3s.
ESTHER: Yeah, it looks really good. I’m really excited about the snappers.
PAUL GREENBERG: Over the weeks and months to come, I’d keep at it every meal─ a smoked mackerel on a bagel, wild sockeye from Alaska, grilled yellowfin Nicoise, teriyaki farmed salmon, a new kind of shrimp grown indoors in a warehouse upstate.
All of them tell a story, where they came from and how they ended up on my plate.
Lazy Point, Long Island
When I was a kid, my parents divorced when I was about 3 years old, and my dad pretty much disappeared from my day-to-day life. I’d see him only on the weekends. For some strange reason, fishing was something that I did to fill that empty space.
And I spent a lot of time just disappearing. You know, a day wasn’t just a day, a day was an exploration of a river and the fish that were in it. When I got older, you know, you’re always as a fisherman looking for that next great body of water, and for me, that next great body of water was the sea.
Carl Safina is a friend, a naturalist and a writer. He’s also a fisherman.
[on camera] So when did you first─ you know, you grew up fishing. You grew up fishing on Long Island and around here. When did you first notice that there was an overfishing situation?
CARL SAFINA, Conservationist and Author: When I was studying seabirds in the early ‘80s, I was in a boat pretty much every day for several months of the year. And I was also doing a lot of fishing, and I could see that pretty much everything was declining.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] As boys casting our lines, we didn’t understand the impact of the great post-war age of industrial fishing, when the world’s fleets pushed right up to our coastlines.
CARL SAFINA: The fish were just progressively fished out and fished out. In the ‘70s, ships from the USSR, from other European countries came to our shores. Whatever we hadn’t fished out by then, they fished out. And they did that rapidly.
And then we had─ we put this law in effect that said, OK, no foreigners. We’re going to claim it out to 200 miles.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] And did that fix things?
CARL SAFINA: No. We allowed everybody to say, Hey, those boats? We should have boats like those. And we subsidized the construction of large fishing boats that couldn’t exist in an, you know, actual capitalist system because they weren’t catching the fish to make those kinds of profits. But the taxpayer subsidized them. So then they completely, completely demolished the fish. By the 1980s, everything was basically shot.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] But here’s an amazing thing about the ocean. If you leave it alone, stop abusing it, it can heal itself, and pretty quickly, too.
CARL SAFINA: Compared to most problems, overfishing is quaintly simple. You just don’t kill them faster than they can breed, and they will start to get more of them. It’s not complicated.
PAUL GREENBERG: Carl was part of a group who legally defined overfishing and helped get the U.S. Congress to pass the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act. So after hundreds of years, fish by fish, American waters began slowly starting to recover.
CARL SAFINA: I was shocked that it worked. And we had a massive success on that, and a lot of those fish that were just declining and declining and declining, they stopped declining because the laws changed and the limits changed, and a lot of them are now more abundant than they were when I was a kid.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] We’ve defined overfishing, we’ve identified where it’s happening, and we’ve set a timeline for rebuilding. It seems like a pretty straightforward thing. Why can’t they do that in Southeast Asia, where all these fish are coming from? Why can’t we just─ why can’t that just be the default?
CARL SAFINA: That that should be the default, but it can’t be the default because most places do not have the rule of law. They can’t make rules well. They can’t enforce rules. There’s a lot of corruption. There’s almost no political will. I mean I think most of the rest of the world is largely a total mess.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] In Carl’s and my lifetime, the world’s industrial fishing fleet has expanded into every corner of the ocean, scouring every current and canyon with sonar and trawl, ships large enough to net a half million pounds in a day. Over four million vessels ─ twice as many as necessary ─ catch the fish that are left. And so much of that fish, caught both legitimately and illegally, ends up on America’s shore. We are the second largest consumer of seafood in the world.
Every year, when the big players descend on the Boston Seafood Show, they talk a lot about sustainability. But they don’t advertise the fact that, collectively, the fishing businesses of the world remove 80 to 90 million metric tons of marine wildlife from the sea every year, the equivalent of the human weight of China.
And no one is promoting the fact that a piece of fish in an American restaurant travels an average of 5,000 miles before you get to take a bite. Up to 90 percent of the fish we eat in this country comes from abroad. Meanwhile, we send about a third of what we catch to other countries.
And then there’s just this huge amount of fish, where it’s pretty hard to figure out just what it is and where it comes from, like wild salmon labeled Product of China?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: But our products are all wild caught. The raw material is from U.S.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] Oh, it’s from the U.S.?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: We catch it.
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes, you catch it.
PAUL GREENBERG: And we freeze it?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yeah.
PAUL GREENBERG: And we send it to China?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes. Sure. Exactly.
PAUL GREENBERG: And then what happens?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Then we process it. We cut it into fillet portions, add some other species. Then we export it again.
PAUL GREENBERG: Back again?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes, back to─
PAUL GREENBERG: So it is frozen two times? Do you freeze it─ it comes to you frozen, right?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes. Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: And then you defrost it.
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: And you cut it up and do everything?
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes. Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: And then you freeze it again.
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes.
PAUL GREENBERG: And then you send it back.
CHINESE SALESWOMAN: Yes. Exactly. Correct.
PAUL GREENBERG: Wow.
[voice-over] It’s a truly brave new world out there for fish. But the bravest and newest part is right here at the heart of the Boston show─ almost half of the seafood we consume is now farmed. The taming of dozens of species and making them slave to our desires is transforming the ocean from the place for the last wild food into the farm of the future.
[on camera] I know you’re not supposed to tap on the glass, but I kind of want their attention. So this fish, when you think about it, is the perfect shape for aquaculture, right, because, like, look at all the neat─ the meat part is really big and the head is really small. So that means─
[voice-over] There are smart arguments, though, for why farming a fish like the Australian barramundi could take pressure off the wild stocks.
MAN AT SEAFOOD SHOW: It’s a beautiful white fish that fills a real gap in the aquaculture space.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] Which is what?
MAN AT SEAFOOD SHOW: Well, we need a sustainable white fish replacement for grouper, snapper, sea bass, which are really the premium species that tend to be the most overfished. The consumers increasingly get it that aquaculture in a sustainable, fully traceable and actually very low-carbon way to get your protein.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] But there’s another side in this great race to fill the world’s plates with farmed fish. That’s where Asian producers are dominating, undercutting the Americans.
[on camera] Hey, how’s it going?
CATFISH SALESMAN: Hey, how are you doing?
PAUL GREENBERG: How is the American catfish farmer doing now versus 10 years ago, like our…
CATFISH SALESMAN: Well, there’s still a lot of imported product coming in.
PAUL GREENBERG: Yeah.
CATFISH SALESMAN: And you know, this is the competition we face.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] One way American catfish farmers have tried to fend off the Asian competition is by making a film like this about fish farming conditions in the Mekong delta in Vietnam.
NARRATOR: [“Dirty Waters, Dangerous Fish”] [unintelligible] All this sewage, wastewater and industrial pollutants end up in the nearby catfish ponds.
PAUL GREENBERG: This may be an exercise in advocacy, but I’ve been to Vietnam and I’ve seen fish farms like this. Of course, there are some good ones, but the problem with all this fish coming from Asia, far from our regulators, with almost no testing, is it’s hard to know what fish is what, and what’s in it.
With countries like China and now India farming enormous quantities of shrimp and catfish and tilapia, they’re flooding the international market. The best American farmers can do is put on a brave face and try to grow a better fish.
CATFISH SALESMAN: We’re going to continue to see more species and more opportunities for farmers. I think Aquaculture is─ you know, is the agricultural frontier going forward.
PAUL GREENBERG: Seems like a good idea, right? Even Jacques Cousteau said, “We must plant the sea and herd its animals.”
But it’s a very divisive subject, and when you get a bunch of experts around a table, you get as many opinions as you do dinner guests, people like Robin Alden, fishery manager from Maine, fisherman and MacArthur fellow Ted Ames, renowned fishery scientist Daniel Pauly, entrepreneur Elliot Entis, and Michael Rubino, head of the U.S. government’s aquaculture office, fisherman and MacArthur fellow Ted Ames, renowned fishery scientist Daniel Pauly, entrepreneur Elliot Entis, and Michael Rubino, head of the U.S. government’s aquaculture office, and my friend, Peter Hoffman, a one-time commercial shad fisherman who volunteered to cook some fish for us.
The big question I wanted to ask was whether farming fish is not just a solution to feeding more and more people, but will it also help save the wild fisheries?
[on camera] So chef, what have we got here?
PETER HOFFMAN: Eco shrimp from Newburgh, New York─
PAUL GREENBERG: Whoa!
PETER HOFFMAN: ─raised in a tank in a basement, a wonderfully ecological manner in which they’re being raised.
PAUL GREENBERG: Let’s serve this course.
[voice-over] Shrimp are by far the most consumed seafood in America, so finding a healthier way to grow them, and challenge the Asian competition, is part of a new, inventive industry.
MICHAEL RUBINO, Director, Aquaculture, NOAA: Quietly, in our coastal communities, aquaculture has taken hold. And there’s a whole new generation of folks that are going into this.
ELLIOTT ENTIS, Former CEO, AquaBounty: It is still a tough business.
MICHAEL RUBINO: It is a very tough business.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] Ted, I remember when I visited you in Stonington, last year─
[voice-over] Ted, like many other fishermen and ecologists, became strongly opposed to fish farming after seeing early salmon farms along the coast of Maine.
TED AMES, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries: The tendency of the growers was to overstock, overfeed, trash the area they were in, infestations of sea lice, and they move on. [crosstalk]
MICHAEL RUBINO: But that was 20 years ago.
DANIEL PAULY, University of British Columbia: I’m really worried about aquaculture that─ the aquaculture that is implicit here and feeding a large number of people because we should not forget that in order to produce salmon, we actually feed them with fish. This is an industry that transforms fish from a form that people don’t like much to a form that people like.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Scientists and fishery managers like Robin Alden think before we build more fish farms, we first have to rebuild our fisheries.
ROBIN ALDEN, Former head, Maine Marine Resources Dept.: It’s folly to say because we have so many people, we have to make so much more fish any way we can and let’s ignore the environment. Our fundamental job is to figure out how to live here in a way that is sustainable, and if we don’t start there, we’re not going to feed each other.
ELLIOT ENTIS, Former CEO, AquaBounty: But here’s the ultimate question that I’m hearing about. Aquaculture isn’t the enemy of wild fish. Isn’t aquaculture a supplement which can help the wild fish?
ROBIN ALDEN: It may or may not be.
DANIEL PAULY, University of British Columbia: Actually, I think that aquaculture can be an enemy of fisheries. Aquaculture, to sell its product, has to generate a demand for fish in general. And the Midwest has begun to eat fish in a way that it was not eating, consuming fish before.
ELLIOT ENTIS: And this is bad?
DANIEL PAULY: This─ the fish that goes─ that is produced by the ocean is finite. That’s the point. And the demand is not.
ELLIOT ENTIS: So we have to convince them to eat hot dogs then.
DANIEL PAULY: No!
ELLIOT ENTIS: We’re back to hot dogs.
DANIEL PAULY: Come on!
PAUL GREENBERG: It’s an interesting argument, that aquaculture is increasing the appetite for wild fish. [crosstalk]
DANIEL PAULY: Well complements. I’m saying─
PAUL GREENBERG: And they’ve done that by selling us more and more farmed fish. And there’s no fish that’s been sold harder than salmon.
PETER HOFFMAN: So this is farm-raised salmon with Caribbean jerk spices on it.
PAUL GREENBERG: Farmed Atlantic salmon has become the poster fish for today’s industry. If you want to understand how that happened, you have to go to the place where it was invented over 40 years ago.
Journey to the Salmon Kingdom
PAUL GREENBERG: Norway is really the birthplace of modern aquaculture. With more than a thousand fish farms up and down the coast, it’s a huge business, which is why I came here to meet the head of one of the five families that control most of the salmon farming industry in Norway, Per Grieg.
The Norwegians see themselves as running the most sophisticated aquaculture business anywhere. They’ve had a long time to work out the kinks.
PER GRIEG: I’ve been in this business now for almost 25 years, and I feel pride every day. And one of the reasons is because it utilizes nature in a sustainable manner. And I think it’s a way forward for people to recognize really how─ what is sustainability? Trying to define that─ the industry likes to define that. Somebody thinks we are not sustainable enough. Of course, yes, that’s a discussion.
PAUL GREENBERG: This is where we’re headed, one of his fish farms. I’m pretty sure there’s something familiar rattling down those pipes, feed pellets made in part from Peruvian anchoveta. The omega-3s from those anchovies are essential for the fish’s growth, especially salmon. Each of these cages will have as many as 150,000 salmon.
PER GRIEG: On this site, what do we see here─ three, four─ it’s 10 cages. So we will have around 1, million fish, 1.2 million fish in these cages. So that will be close to $30 million U.S. in one farm.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] And how many of these does Grieg Seafood control?
PER GRIEG: We have around 100 licenses.
PAUL GREENBERG: So how much money are you making from salmon every year?
PER GRIEG: $400 U.S., I think, million U.S. dollars.
PAUL GREENBERG: $400 million?
PER GRIEG: That’s the turnover.
PAUL GREENBERG: I eat all kinds of salmon. I eat farmed, I eat wild. But when i come to Norway and talking with different sides, you hear this word, a “laxe krieg” or a salmon war that’s going on between the NGOs and the salmon farming community. Is there a salmon war going on?
PER GRIEG: No, I don’t think so. Of course, there are some issues that we are discussing with the NGOs, and the NGOs are of course, as they are in most countries, very vocal, very clever with media. And they also have quite a bit of influence on the politicians and the politics of Norway.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Up north, I met a man who’s in league with those NGOs, and he very much thinks there is a salmon war going on.
KURT ODDEKALV, Green Warriors of Norway: This fjord here─ you see, there’s a fish farm there. There’s one fish farm there. There’s one fish farm there. There’s one fish farm there. There’s one fish farm there.
PAUL GREENBERG: Kurt Oddekalv is Norway’s most famous eco-warrior. He wants to expose what he sees as the dirty side of the business.
KURT ODDEKALV: This contains twice as much sewage as the population of Bergen.
PAUL GREENBERG: At a fish farm, angry workers gunned their engines and tried to block us.
[on camera] What’s going on here?
KURT ODDEKALV: Oh, this fish farmer is trying to stop us, but he doesn’t any regular laws or anything that he can use, you know? He’s trying to block the way for us.
And you know, a fish farm like this has a dropping of 450 kilo each day, the droppings feed to the one fish alone, you know, which is really─ really destroying the environment.
PAUL GREENBERG: This is Kurt’s specialty, getting public attention to all those droppings by filming them with his remotely operated submersible. It’s a well-funded operation, all to get a video feed from under a working farm to show to a captive audience in the ship’s theater.
KURT ODDEKALV: This is our rock ‘n roll showroom.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] Whoa.
KURT ODDEKALV: This is where we put people and tell them the truth…
PAUL GREENBERG: So this is like feces theater.
KURT ODDEKALV: I go into a fjord, film the [expletive], show the [expletive] and show people what it is like.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] But this time, with the submersible under the farm, they couldn’t get the video feed to work. So we sat in the feces theater with Kurt and watched recordings of the poop from other farms.
Kurt’s organization claims that there’s more poop produced by salmon than all of Norway’s people, causing algae blooms and dead zones, as well as a long list of chemicals to fight diseases and parasites.
KURT ODDEKALV: And when I started, the list was like this. And today, the list is like this because the more they try to fight nature, the more nature fights back. And it comes new diseases every year, a whole line of them.
PAUL GREENBERG: In fact, Norway’s salmon farmers have been cleaning up their act, choosing better sites and limiting ecological damage. But like many environmentalists, Kurt just doesn’t accept the idea of sea-pens for farmed fish.
The industry, meanwhile, has its own ways of telling its story.
NARRATOR: [promotional video] Going upstream in the Vosso River is no easy task. Facing the toughest conditions in one of Norway’s fastest-running bodies of water, only the best and most agile make it all the way. But you see─
PAUL GREENBERG: The Vosso is a legendary river with a legendary salmon. Except in this marketing film, it’s a make-believe computer-bred salmon.
NARRATOR: This is Mowi.
FREDERIK MOWINCKEL: Luckily, it’s only half of my name, so that’s good.
PAUL GREENBERG: Frederik Mowinckel’s uncle was an early fish farming pioneer. His company and his name got swallowed up by an industry giant.
FREDERIK MOWINCKEL: My uncle would never─ he would never have allowed this sort of animal farming.
PAUL GREENBERG: Frederik says he never thought much about his relative or the industry until this farm suddenly appeared off his summer cottage.
[on camera] We have this expression in the States, NIMBY, you know, “Not in my backyard.” People don’t want things in their viewsheds. Is this just a NIMBY issue?
FREDERIK MOWINCKEL: I don’t think that’s very fair. Did that particular farm trigger my deep-rooted interest in getting to the bottom of what is actually going on in a salmon farm? Yes.
We have an issue with escaped salmon that mixes with the wild. We have an issue with sea lice, which is also affecting the wild salmon. We have the overall pollution. Those are the major issues that I have with salmon farming.
PAUL GREENBERG: The Vosso salmon, which for millennia returned to these home waters, was the biggest of all Atlantic salmon. Now, like many other salmon runs in Norway, there are more escaped farmed fish in this river than wild salmon and the Vosso salmon is threatened with extinction.
FREDERIK MOWINCKEL: There is a nursery program. They are trying to bring the salmon back, and that makes like even more ridiculous because the salmon isn’t there anymore. The number of wild salmon has been reduced dramatically over the years, and one of the main reasons is all the disease and sea lice and everything that happens as a result of salmon farming.
PAUL GREENBERG: Sea lice─ I didn’t know much about these small marine parasites that attach to juvenile salmon and feed off the gills and through the skin. So I found Lars Asplin at the Institute of Marine Research.
LARS ASPLIN: Here, you see how it looks like─ it’s more like in a swarm of bees…
PAUL GREENBERG: This is a computer model of how sea lice from a single farm can breed and spread, infecting the wild salmon.
[on camera] Can sea lice actually kill salmon?
LARS ASPLIN: Yes. A 100-gram fish, if they have more than 10 sea lice, we usually regard it to be lethal.
PAUL GREENBERG: Lethal.
[voice-over] Imagine the same process duplicated on 1,000 farms up and down Norway’s coast.
Meanwhile, the government has looked at plans to expand the industry as much as five times, but they know they have problems.
[on camera] Is the sea lice a real serious problem?
LIV HOLMEFJORD, Director of Fisheries, Norway: Yes. It’s a problem. If the number of sea lice in the farm fish is higher, then you can get a pressure also for the wild salmon. The fish farmers, they are responsible to get rid of it. And they have used chemicals, and that has been a problem. Of course, it’s not good for the environment, and it’s also a problem with resistance.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Curiously, these are not even Atlantic salmon in the farm the fisheries director brought up to. They’re rainbow trout.
[on camera] This is an unusually fat rainbow trout, fatter than you would see in nature, I believe. It’s a farmed animal. I don’t think anyone would ever compare a wild pig with a farmed pig. And I don’t know, if you’re going to eat farmed land animals, I don’t think you could make too much of a beef about eating farmed ocean animals.
If you’re going to be a vegetarian, on the other hand, you know, that’s another way to go. I mean, I could see a vegetarian criticizing all this, but I can’t really see a meat eater criticizing of all this, so─
[to fish] All right, let’s return you to back the water. Enjoy your last few days. I think you’ve got three days ‘til harvest, so enjoy them. And I’m sorry this had to end up this way for you. Oh! Oh, dear. Oh, there he goes!
[voice-over] I fell in love with the ocean because it was the last great wild place where you can find the last wild food. Is this the shape of the ocean to come, selectively bred rainbow trout, an invasive species not even native to Norway, taking up residence here by the millions so that people all over the world can eat the same domesticated thing?
And what about the farms you never get to see? What kind of safeguards are they taking in China, in Chile, in Vietnam? And all the other fish we eat that are grown in pens like this?
Half the fish on our plates are farmed today, and half the fish I’ve been eating are farmed. They’re just too hard to avoid. That includes Norwegian farmed salmon, which for the most part is pretty good. But I still eat it with regret because I know we can do better.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Sometimes to do better, you have to go beyond the familiar, looking for solutions out on the edge, in my case all the way to the top of the world.
I first met Steve Damato about eight years ago, and he sort of struck me as this kind of funky, hippie food dude, but he’s also a businessman. Everyone talks in the environmental movement about the triple bottom line. In other words, you know, you want to have a business that’s economically sustainable, socially sustainable and environmental sustainable. If anybody’s going to make it with triple bottom line, Steve might be that guy.
[on camera] When you look at what are the big threats to the ocean, what are they?
STEVEN DAMATO, Partner, Blue Circle Foods: People.
PAUL GREENBERG: People, sure, but I mean-
STEVEN DAMATO: It’s just─ we are so many of us. Salmon farming is not the biggest problem. It’s trying to feed all the people that are the problem. And unfortunately, the world community looks at the fish in the oceans and says, “It’s mine just as much as it is yours, and I’m going to take it.”
But what we need to do is figure out how to farm the ocean intelligently and also economically. And it’s not─ salmon is one of the species, and salmon might not be the best species by far. But salmon has become better and better and better and more and more efficient. And so if we can do that to salmon, we can produce plenty of fish in the ocean to feed the nine billion people that are coming.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Steven Damato is a co-founder of Blue Circle Foods. This is the tiny island of Kvaroy, near the Arctic Circle. Only 70 people live here. This is where Damato believes you can see where salmon farming should be headed.
STEVEN DAMATO: The industry was terrible in the beginning.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] How were they terrible?
STEVEN DAMATO: Oh, site locations were based on convenience, not on any science on what it was doing to the environment. Escapes was, you know, not looked at as a big deal. Sea lice were, you know, thought of as a problem that eventually would go away. And then nobody cared about how much protein you were using to make protein.
So those are─ you know, it’s a brand-new─ it’s a brand-new industry. They needed criticism, and the environmental NGOs served a really important purpose by criticizing them, and they responded.
PAUL GREENBERG: And so what makes this farm so special?
STEVEN DAMATO: They’re innovative. They recognize they’re not going to be the biggest guy in the industry. They don’t want to be. But they want to be the most innovative and creative one. And our feed projects are a perfect example of that.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] For feed, instead of relying on a reduction fishery, like Peruvian anchoveta, they’re using the offcuts from other commercial fisheries.
And Alf says they’ve taken that one step further by stripping away what are called persistent organic pollutants, contaminants that gather in both wild and farmed fish.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN, CEO, Kvaroy Fish Farm: What we have done with our salmon feed is just cleaning all of that out of the feed because─ and also because we use the trimmings from the production. It’s a more fatty part of the fish, of the wild fish, so it includes more PCBs and POBs…
PAUL GREENBERG: Because PCBs, like, stick to fat.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: Yeah, it sticks to fat. So what we do, we clean it 100 percent to make sure that we have only all cleaned oil in the feed.
PAUL GREENBERG: So this is particularly clean.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: This is very clean. This is the─ probably the cleanest feed you can get for salmon.
PAUL GREENBERG: Well, if it’s clean, then I’ll─ I’ll take a try. It’s kind of like a fishy Dorito. [laughter]
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: That’s a good description.
PAUL GREENBERG: I can see that, Dorito’s new salmon feed flavor. That could be a big hit.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: Yeah, it can─ [crosstalk] It’s good. It’s good.
PAUL GREENBERG: Just knock it back with, like, a kelp beer. [laughter] I think that the whole thing would be a great package.
What are you guys doing that’s different from everybody else?
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: We don’t use any chemicals. We don’t use antibiotics. We use a natural colorant, ferment the bacteria that we have in our feed called panaferd to make the salmon red. And also, we have a lower density in our pens.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] And they are deploying the industry’s latest weaponry against the dreaded sea lice.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: We farm our own lumpsucker and using it as a parasite control.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] I have to say that this is an exceptionally cute fish. [laughter] Well, go be free and eat some sea lice.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: That is the hiding place for the lumpsuckers. They will suck onto the fake seaweed and they will stay inside this, hiding. And when the salmon comes in, it will swim into the hiding, and the will come and clean the lice off the salmon. So even─ even a day after we put out this─ this fake seaweed, the salmon understands the meaning of it and comes in, get cleaned, go out.
PAUL GREENBERG: Sort of like a car going into the car wash.
ALF GORAN KNUTSEN: Yeah, it’s like a car going into the car wash.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Now, like some other farms, they’re adding omega-3s from algae, rather than fish, all changes that Damato says the rest of the industry can afford to follow.
[on camera] If consumers want it and if consumers demand it, they can do it.
STEVEN DAMATO, Partner, Blue Circle Foods: You’ve asked the question, can we scale it up? Can we scale it up? Well, we have the third largest feed manufacturer in aquaculture in the world working with us. That’s scalable.
PAUL GREENBERG: And it’s not going to be, like, “Oh, my God, now they’re losing money.”
STEVEN DAMATO: It’s obscene how much money they’re making. I mean, it’s a commodity and they’re doubling their money─ legally because there’s illegal commodities that don’t even make that kind of profit.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] This is the cutting edge of the industry, constantly making improvements, trying to strike a compromise between the environment and the bottom line.
But my environmentalist friends will say you can’t get these kinds of changes in places far from here, and there are just too many problems with open-ocean farming, all of which reminds me of that conversation around my dinner table back in New York and a radical solution that came up.
ELLIOT ENTIS Former CEO, AquaBounty: The safest thing I’ve always thought is to remove this kind of fishery or this kind of aquaculture from the ocean itself.
PAUL GREENBERG: Elliot Entis thinks all of this farming should become land-based, in tanks, where there’s so much more environmental control.
ELLIOT ENTIS: The point always is how you decrease the inputs to increase the output and specifically decrease the amount of fish-based or seafood-based inputs?
PAUL GREENBERG: It’s been tried for years, but the challenge is to make it economically viable.
ELLIOT ENTIS: What I did 25 years ago was wind up with the fact that modern technology, biotechnology, can assist greatly in this process.
PAUL GREENBERG: So his other, more controversial idea is one he’s been working on for a long time, a genetically modified Atlantic salmon, using the growth gene from a Pacific king salmon.
[on camera] Can we call a spade a spade here? What are we talking about?
ELLIOT ENTIS: In what sense?
PAUL GREENBERG: What are you─ I mean, is this a genetically engineered fish?
ELLIOT ENTIS: Well, of course there’s a─ more than one.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] This is what it looks like after 18 months of growth compared to a conventionally farmed fish, a six-and-a-half-pound salmon compared to one less than three pounds, a fish which has now been approved by the FDA.
ELLIOT ENTIS: We got two wonderful things that have happened. Number one is, yes, it does have the fish grow to its full size in about half the time. And number two, in fact, it does eat less to achieve the same weight─ in fact, about 25 percent less. And it can do that on a diet which is much more enriched with plant protein, as opposed to fish-based protein.
I think simply using these kinds of technologies points in a direction.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] We need much more time to talk about controversial solutions like this. And as Elliot says, the Chinese are already developing GMO fish.
[on camera] Show of hands. Who here thinks aquaculture is necessary going forward?
[voice-over] We debate, we argue, we disagree. Meanwhile, we keep eating more fish. The U.N. says we just hit an all-time high, double the amount per person than when I was a kid. That global consumption means even more overfishing.
So how are we going to responsibly get more seafood on our plates?
Thimble Islands, Branford, CT
Bren Smith may have part of the answer. He’s done it all. As a commercial fisherman, he says, he pillaged the seas.
BREN SMITH, Founder, GreenWave: I was born and raised in Newfoundland, in the fisher there. And I fished Gloucester and Lynn, Massachusetts, Grand Banks. And then I was in Alaska for a lot of years.
PAUL GREENBERG: How far out would you go there?
BREN SMITH: We’d actually fish illegally in Russian waters.
PAUL GREENBERG: So you’re like a former pirate.
BREN SMITH: A former pirate, yeah! [laughter]
PAUL GREENBERG: Turned kelp farmer!
BREN SMITH: Yes, without the gold! Yeah. Yeah.
I mean, my general view is it’s great that we’re trying to fish better, but we need to transition to a completely different relationship to our seas.
I’ll tie up here, I guess.
So here’s the farm. And the great thing about ocean farming is there’s not that much to see. Unlike the salmon pens, for us, it’s all under water and it’s really important because it has a low aesthetic impact.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Beneath the buoys on a network of ropes he grows kelp, mussels, clams and oysters. The shell fish clean up the ocean by soaking up nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon. A three-acre farm like this, he says, can be set up for as little as $10,000.
BREN SMITH: Industrial aquaculture, it went exactly the wrong way in its first stages. So just as land-based agriculture was starting to rethink what new models of farming, of distributed networked food production would look like, industrial aquaculture went in and made all the same mistakes.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] With salmon.
BREN SMITH: With salmon. So with salmon, starting with high input species, feeding them wild fish, using antibiotics, fertilizers. I mean, I used to work on the salmon farms. I saw this first hand. We were really running Iowa pig farms in the ocean. So what we’re trying to do is learn from those mistakes and really do food right, do farming right.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] It’s December, and today we’re seeding his winter crop.
BREN SMITH: So this is our kelp seed.
PAUL GREENBERG: This is the new kale, according to Bren.
BREN SMITH: It is beautiful, though, isn’t it?
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] Nice.
BREN SMITH: So all that is, is─ you’ll see it just sticks onto string. I’m just going to─ oh, actually, Paul, you hold this. Let’s turn you into a kelp farmer.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] They wrap the spores around the rope, and by summer, it will have formed curtains of kelp.
[on camera] So you’re literally just sort of braiding that around this─ around the─
BREN SMITH: We’re just letting it─
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] He turns the kelp into noodles for human consumption and also believes it could replace corn as animal feed.
BREN SMITH: I mean, there are 10,000 edible plants in the ocean. Kelp is the gateway drug to an entirely new cuisine.
We can scale this because there’s such─ because it’s vertical. You can grow incredible amounts of food in small areas, 10 to 30 tons of seaweed, a couple of hundred thousand shellfish per acre if we grow this way.
The reason it’s replicable and scalable is that it’s so cheap because all it is is a simple rope scaffolding system. We don’t have to fight gravity. So we’re able to start these farms up extremely quickly. We draw the line between growing species that we have to feed and species that we don’t.
PAUL GREENBERG: [on camera] So you don’t have to feed these anything.
BREN SMITH: This is what’s amazing. We don’t─ it’s no feed, no fertilizer, no fresh water. These are all things that are expensive, going to be increasingly in short supply. So this makes it the most sustainable food production on the planet, zero-input foods. And it’s going to be the most affordable food on the planet. So we can do this a completely new way.
The Omega Question
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] In the future, we’re going to turn more to the seas to feed us. There’s only so much arable land. And besides, some people say we’ve been eating too much land food, and it’s not good for us ─ processed foods, corn and soy oil, all of them are high in omega-6s. But humans evolved eating foods rich in omega-3s.
We’re way out of balance, which is why I’ve been on this omega-3 journey to try to understand its mysteries. It brought me to Copenhagen to meet one of the founding fathers of the omega-3 movement.
[on camera] Are these oysters from Denmark?
[voice-over] So we’re here to meet with Jorn Dyerberg in Copenhagen. He found that Inuit people living in Greenland had very high levels of omega-3 because they ate a lot of seafood, and they also had a very low incidence of cardiac, heart disease. So I will eat this particular oyster in honor of Jorn Dyerberg.
JORN DYERBERG: And here’s my diary.
PAUL GREENBERG: Wow.
JORN DYERBERG: The young doctor who went up there for science purposes but certainly also for the experience of going to Greenland.
PAUL GREENBERG: I have to ask you, is that sealskin?
JORN DYERBERG: That’s sealskin I got up there from one of the many seals they shot eat─ ate. And maybe I tasted some of it, I don’t know, of this particular seal. But this is a diary from up there with the old photos of their food and their cabins where they lived in. And I’ve just found my old tracings of─
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] The hypothesis that Dr. Dyerberg and his supervisor, Dr. Hans Bang, drew from their study of Inuit seal hunters has largely driven the billion-dollar fish oil supplement business.
But here’s the problem. Lately, the connection between heart health and omega-3s has been called into question.
[on camera] In the last four years, some very long-term studies on omega-3s have come out, some not so positive.
JORN DYERBERG: Some not so positive, definitely. There are murky data, and [unintelligible] and of the one meta-analysis after the other. But I guess within the next two or three or four years, three major studies, including thousands of patients, giving them either fish oil or placebo on top of their treatment, and they will come out with the results that we have to believe in. And they’ll be available in the coming years, but they are not there.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] There’s also a study which suggested that the low incidence of heart disease among the Inuit may have as much to do with their genetic inheritance as with their diet.
[on camera] Other things that have brought into question omega-3s─ there was a study at U.C. Berkeley where they were looking and suggesting that maybe the Inuit were genetically predisposed─
JORN DYERBERG: Yeah, yeah. But that’s─ yeah, predisposed to enrich their body with omega-3 fatty acids. But I don’t know what should that mean. I mean, if we in our population can show an effect, yeah, maybe they are genetically different in that respect, but it doesn’t take away the effect that we find in studies in Western Caucasians.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] After Greenland, Dyerberg did a lot of good work, including a successful campaign against trans fats. But his omega-3 findings leave many questions. Other researchers have connected omega-3s to brain health, joint health, cancer prevention. But none of the nearly 30,000 studies have revealed anything unequivocal.
Back in New York, I’m still eating fish every day, but worrying about all the murky data. I’m continuing my sample of one to see if making my blood more omega-3-rich will translate into better health.
[on camera] OK, so this is a company called OmegaQuant. They have something called omega-3 index, the omega-3 fatty acid blood test. And they claim─ well, they say, “The omega-3 index is a measure of the level of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cell membranes.” And they claim “The risk for sudden cardiac death is reduced by up to 90 percent in individuals with the highest omega-3 index.” So we’re going to see if I truly have the highest omega-3 index.
I need to prick my finger.
[voice-over] Even though I’ve read the recent studies casting doubt on omega-3s, I want to believe that my blood pressure is dropping, my heart and arteries becoming less inflamed, the synapses of my brain firing ever faster.
I think I feel something. I’d just like a tiny bit of evidence.
[on camera] ─they will be able to analyze and see what my omega-3 index level is. So we will seal it up and send it to Dr. Bill Harris in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
[voice-over] The more you obsess over your own little life, the more you lose track of the bigger picture of what we’ve lost. Maybe my search for understanding omega-3 has really been about what we’re all missing. Almost nobody in New York knows there was once wild salmon right next door in my home state of Connecticut.
Today, when you buy Atlantic salmon, there’s no chance it’s local, or wild. They all come from fish farms thousands of miles away. My home rivers are blocked by over 4,000 dams. This isn’t salmon country anymore.
Saving The Last Wild Food
PAUL GREENBERG: Whenever I can, I return to Alaska. It’s where we still try to hold onto the wild and strike a balance between the fates of humans and of fish, where the story of wild salmon is still written into the land.
RICHARD NELSON, Author and Radio Host: It’s a perfect place for watching salmon spawn.
PAUL GREENBERG: In Richard Nelson, I feel like I was kind of encountering a spirit from earlier times.
RICHARD NELSON: What we have here in this pool is a group of chum salmon. They’re also called dog salmon in Alaska. The female is unmistakable. She’s wearing her prom dress.
PAUL GREENBERG: He is this kind of guy who I think has heard the spirit call of the salmon and is kind of broadcasting what he’s experienced─ “heart teaching,” as the Buddhists would say.
RICHARD NELSON: It’s an absolute miracle, and it’s beautiful!
Salmon, of course, have been treated badly in the─ on the European side of the Atlantic, on the North American side of the Atlantic, and then on the western Pacific coast down in Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia also. And there’s this one sort of splendid shining example of where salmon are still in their original abundance, thronging in every year, and that’s Alaska.
PAUL GREENBERG: The idea of protecting wild fish is written into Alaska’s constitution. Take care of them, it seems to say, and they’ll take care of you. But that interdependence between fish and fisherman almost broke apart when farmed salmon suddenly came along.
[on camera] Do you remember when farmed salmon came on the market?
JOHN SKEELE: Yeah. Well, I remember when they started to take us down. By the early 2000s, I’d say 2002 to ‘04, fishermen were reeling. Most fisherman that I knew, that I know, didn’t think that the salmon industry could rebound.
NORA SKEELE: Farmed fish was just so much cheaper. And people didn’t know the difference. They really didn’t care.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] But then Alaskans realized they had to make the rest of the country care. They shouted out loud from up north how good their fish was. And instead of sticking them in cans, they made elegant fillets.
JOHN SKEELE: This is the irony of the thing. People started to eat more salmon Now people got used to eating salmon, and they decided they want wild, so our market started to come back.
PAUL GREENBERG: And here’s the other irony. People started eating more wild salmon than the wild could produce. Alaskans looked at their thousands of miles of salmon streams and thought, “I bet we can squeeze more fish out of this.” So they made a controversial decision. They began to grow smolts, like these in a hatchery near Sitka.
And those baby salmon, released in streams and inlets, went out to sea just like their wild cousins, and in a few years returned to those same waters in record numbers.
[on camera] So what’s your feeling about the hatcheries?
JOHN SKEELE: We’re happy to have all the extra fish.
PAUL GREENBERG: I mean, I ask because, you know, when you talk to the farmed salmon people, they’re always saying, “Oh, these Alaska guys are always shouting about farmed salmon, and meanwhile, all they’re doing is ranching salmon.”
JOHN SKEELE: Right. But there’s a big difference, yeah. I mean, they’re released into the salt water and they go─ they go wild at that point. They just have an improved kind early childhood, kind of a Head Start program for salmon, so to speak.
NORA SKEELE: They’ve placed the salmon here, released them, and they come back to spawn, but there’s no actual river for them to swim up, so we catch them.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Now as many as one in three salmon come from hatcheries. But most, like these kings, are wild.
All together, there are five to six billion pounds of all kinds of fish taken from Alaskan waters every year, more than all the fish Americans eat. Yet most of them go off to other countries like Japan and Korea, who’ll pay more for fish we don’t want to eat.
Alaska shows what a well-managed fishery can produce, but also what it takes to protect this resource. Beneath this land are billions in copper and gold, coal and gas. Here are all the documented salmon streams of Alaska. And here in red are all the active mining claims in the watersheds of those rivers.
And the threat isn’t just from development here in Alaska. Many of the southern river systems originate across this border, in Canada.
Heather Hardcastle, who comes from an old fishing family, keeps watch over Canadian proposals for massive gold and copper mines.
HEATHER HARDCASTLE, Salmon Beyond Borders: If built as proposed, they’d be some of the largest in North America, if not the world, and tailings dams that have to hold back the waste forever. And so it really is, in our minds, ticking time bombs, and we’re sitting ducks downstream. There’s ticking time bombs up river that have to hold back that waste in perpetuity.
PAUL GREENBERG: This is Heather Hardcastle’s fear. The Mount Polley Mine dam wasn’t even 20 years old when it burst and emptied millions of tons of tailings into Canada’s Fraser River watershed in 2014.
HEATHER HARDCASTLE: Just over the border in the Taku watershed is the best Coho salmon-rearing habitat in the world. And I get emotional, I think, because they’re─ they’re global treasures, and very few people know they exist. And so I think now I feel like it’s one of my missions to make sure that people know that they’re here. And we need to decide again as a society, not just a few companies, not just one government, how do we all want to see this place a long, long time from now,
PAUL GREENBERG: Alaska is a kind of jewel, with all its facets still sparkling, where 200 million salmon can be caught each and every year, and all the connections are in place from ocean to river to fish to forest, just as they have been for millennia.
RICHARD NELSON: If you treat them correctly, they’re going to outlast the oil. They’re going to outlast the mines. They’re going to outlast everything else, and just keep coming back. We have an amazing abundance of salmon. A lot of people don’t understand. They think, “Well, I shouldn’t eat wild fish, I should eat farmed fish.” But in fact, in Alaska, the most responsible thing you can do is eat wild Alaskan salmon.
Every time you buy a can of Alaska salmon, you buy a filet, whatever, you’re saying, “Yes, I like what you’re doing in Alaska, keep doing it.” So you’re getting something fantastic to eat, and you’re voting yes for something that really matters in our world.
My Year of Eating Fish
PAUL GREENBERG: I’m still on my health quest. Back in New York, my first call is to Bill Harris to get the results of that blood sample I sent in about my omega-3 levels.
[on camera] Hello? Hey, Bill. We want to get right to the heart of the matter. Have you looked at my results?
Dr. BILL HARRIS: Oh, didn’t you get it?
PAUL GREENBERG: I did get them, but so, I’ve intentionally not looked at them so that I would have the moment of surprise.
All right, here we go, opening my omega-3 results─ all right, so here it is, the moment of truth. Oh, wow, I’m 10.48 percent.
Dr. BILL HARRIS: Well, that’s pretty good.
PAUL GREENBERG: That’s good.
Dr. BILL HARRIS: We’ll call it 10.5.
PAUL GREENBERG: So what does that mean?
Dr. BILL HARRIS: That means you’re in pretty rarefied territory. So what the average American is around maybe 5 percent. The average Japanese, at least a few decades ago, was around 9 or 10 percent.
PAUL GREENBERG: What does that correlate to in terms of just sort of health?
Dr. BILL HARRIS: Well, i think─ it’s hard to say. There have been, you know, very few studies, in the formal sense, done getting people up to that level. There’s─ most of the studies have been done with a prescription omega-3 and you have one pill. At that level, in─ you know, in about three or four years of giving somebody that much, they aren’t seeing an effect of omega-3.
PAUL GREENBERG: If I’m not getting a cardiac benefit from this, or if we haven’t─
Dr. BILL HARRIS: You’re right. I would not conclude that. I would say that over the─ you’re doing this for years, or you’re intending doing it for years, right? I mean, I think this is─ great, what you’re doing. And you maybe─ maybe should have started it 40 years ago. Better late than never.
PAUL GREENBERG: Wait! So how long do I have to keep doing this to have an effect?
Dr. BILL HARRIS: Nobody really knows.
PAUL GREENBERG: Well, Bill, this is really great, very interesting. OK?
Dr. BILL HARRIS: Great seeing you again.
PAUL GREENBERG: Nice to see you, too, and good luck with everything. Keep on indexing. [laughter] Bye.
Dr. BILL HARRIS: Bye. Thank you.
PAUL GREENBERG: I mean, you know, there’s a part of me that I feel perversely joyous that I’ve achieved 10.5 percent. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see what happens tomorrow when we sit down with my GP and see, you know, is my blood pressure─ because my blood pressure’s gone up and down. It was down. It might go up again. You know, it’s hard to say. But it’ll be interesting to see if we have some actual real change in my physical body.
[voice-over] I’m coming to the end of my omega trail. I set off to find out what fish I should eat that’s good for me and good for the planet. Now when I head to the fish market, I know where to begin─ the farmed mussels, clams and oysters that make the sea better while they feed us.
[on camera] The bivalves─ excellent, excellent choice. Mussels in particular are high in omega-3s. All of these are filter feeders. In other words, you don’t have to feed them anything. They get plump and delicious just from filtering the water. They actually make the water cleaner. And they make habitat for other fish to live in, so it’s, like, the perfect aquaculture.
Can I get half a pound of mussels, please.
[voice-over] Our fish markets would be half empty if it wasn’t for aquaculture. Given the salmon choices here today, though, I’d go with the Arctic char.
[on camera] It’s grown actually in tanks out of the ocean so there’s no issues of sea lice or disease spread to wild stocks. It’s high in omega-3s, pretty good feed conversion ratio, below 2 to 1, so good choice.
More salmon farmers will move to tanks, maybe even GMO fish. Others will probably improve their open ocean farming, as long they can farm without hurting the wild. But I’d rather spend some more for a small piece of wild Alaska. It’s a vote for good management and taking care of all our local fish.
[on camera] You will very rarely see a codfish that big out of New England anymore. That’s mostly gone. So─ fortunately, though, the Norwegians and the Icelanders have been managing their cod stocks pretty well, and that’s why they’re getting these big codfish from there. But wow, that is like─ what do you think that is, 40 pounds?
FISHMONGER: Almost. Yeah, about 30 pounds.
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] And then there are some things I’m less keen on.
[on camera] Shrimp leaves me a little baffled. Previously, a lot of farmed shrimp were grown in areas that had mangrove forests. Mangrove forests were cut to create shrimp ponds. That situation is more and more under control, but lately, we’ve had the issue of slavery starting to arise in the shrimp peeling industry, in the shrimp processing.
With the wild shrimp, you know, again, there are good shrimp fishermen out there, but the worst shrimp fishermen end up catching─ can catch 5, 10, 15 pounds of what’s called bycatch─ that is unintentionally caught wildlife─ for every pound of shrimp.
[voice-over] But there’s a class of fish I’m avoiding, even if it comes from a reasonably well-managed fishery.
[on camera] Tuna is actually the highest source of mercury in the American diet right now, and since I’ve been eating so much fish, I’m trying to back down off the high-mercury fish.
[voice-over] There’s mercury in a lots of seafood from both natural sources and pollution. At low levels, it doesn’t affect us too much. But over the year, I’ve been sending hair samples to my biologist friend, Dan Kristol.
[on camera] Hey, nice to see you. How are you? How’ve you been?
DAN KRISTOL: I’m good. How are you?
PAUL GREENBERG: [voice-over] Turns out Dan has some bad news about my mercury levels.
DAN KRISTOL: But I think what’s happening is you’re just getting death by a thousand cuts. You’re just eating so much. You’re eating stuff that has detectable mercury that we just normally wouldn’t worry about because you’d only be eating it twice a week, say. Those gains in omega-3─ I’m not sure why you want to have a lot of omega-3. Is it for your heart, or for your brain?
PAUL GREENBERG: They say both.
DAN KRISTOL: Yeah. So I’m pretty sure that it’s helping your heart, but unfortunately, mercury─ it’s pretty clear that mercury increases your risk of cardiac events, too. So you probably wiped out all the gains there.
PAUL GREENBERG: Yeah.
DAN KRISTOL: And for the brain, it’s pretty clear that─ I would guess that a level of 5 parts per million is actually slowing your thinking and hurting your memory in small ways, nothing you’re going to notice. You don’t have─ you know, eventually, it’s going to be numbness in your hands, you’re going to be stumbling, things like that, you know, up around maybe 10 parts per million or more. But I’m pretty sure you wiped out all your gains.
PAUL GREENBERG: So my blood pressure overall─ has it gone up since I started this?
RICHARD SHEPARD, M.D.: Seems like it. Seems like’s has gone up a tiny bit.
PAUL GREENBERG: So my good cholesterol to bad cholesterol ratio is unchanged, basically.
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: It’s virtually the same.
PAUL GREENBERG: And the triglycerides─
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: Virtually the same.
PAUL GREENBERG: ─also the same?
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: Virtually the same.
PAUL GREENBERG: Which one changed? I got to say, looking at these numbers, I have to say I’m a little disappointed. I mean, I’ve been eating a lot of fish, a lot of oily fish, like sometimes three times a day. And I thought I would see some movement in these numbers. I mean, do you think these numbers, like, are an accurate picture of your health?
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: These numbers are an accurate picture of the blood, your blood lipids, but they don’t necessarily reflect your health. They’re just one factor.
PAUL GREENBERG: But so, like, overall then, I mean, if you were to look at me now versus a year ago, same person?
Dr. RICHARD SHEPARD: I’d say virtually the same. Unchanged.
PAUL GREENBERG: All that fish I ate─ [laughs]
I was surprised. I mean, I do feel better after a year of eating fish. Anecdotally, people say I look better. They say my skin is better. I think even you say I seem better and everyone on this production has said I seem better, but maybe it’s just a giant placebo effect upon the crew. Maybe you want me to look better.
But I─ I guess it’s─ it─ I─ it leaves me questioning what to do next, you know? I mean, right now, what I’d really like to do is have a hamburger.
[voice-over] This is not where I thought this journey would take me. All year, I was feeling pretty smug. You all keep eating your artery-blocking, earth-destroying land food meat─ not me. I’m eating fish and getting younger by the day.
But all zealots die hard. What I need now is some balance.
[on camera] Oh, thank you so much!
[voice-over] I’ll keep eating fish, but not every fish and not every day.
[on camera] No omega-3s, but delicious! I mean, it’s wrong. It’s completely wrong for the planet. And I don’t─ don’t try this at home, but let’s just say if you have 700-odd fish meals in a year, then you deserve one burger. Delicious!
By the time you hit middle age, you kind of hope that you’re a little wiser in the second half of your life than you were in the first half.
You got him! Keep going. It doesn’t count unless you reel him the whole way.
And I remember when I was a kid and I would go fishing, I just─ you know, once the fish start to bite and you start to catch them, you just can’t stop yourself. You just want to catch and catch and catch and kill and kill and kill.
All right, that was a good team effort!
But by the time you reach, you know, 48, 49, 50, you want to think that we can figure out a way to take just what we need.
MAN: Fish on! Fish on!
PAUL GREENBERG: I mean, it’s not like I’m anti-fishing. It’s not that I’m anti-farming. It’s just if there’s going to be fishing, let’s catch what we need and leave the rest in the sea.
I want to let this one go. Is that all right?
PAUL GREENBERG: I think I’m going to let it go.
CHILD: Please don’t let it go!
MAN: That’s a nice fish.
PAUL GREENBERG: I would like to let it go, honestly.
MAN: That’s crazy. We’re going to catch smaller fish than that.
PAUL GREENBERG: I know, but you know what─
[voice-over] If it’s going to be farming, let’s farm fish in a way so that it contributes to a net gain in fish for the world, not replacing fishing with farming entirely. Let’s try and find some balance in the world.
[on camera] We’re going to let this one go.
PAUL GREENBERG: I mean, I see out here as just a place, when I was a kid, there were no striped bass at all. And people were talking about putting them on the endangered species list. And the fact they came back after reasonable legislation, reasonable controls, reasonable size limits─ you know, one fish per day─ that’s plenty for me. That’s all we need. And I don’t even need a fish every day. I could have a couple of fish a year, and that would be enough for me. So in that sense, I think today was a success.