No-go fish: A review of “Bottomfeeder” by Taras Grescoe

Taras Grescoe says he wrote "Bottomfeeder" (Bloomsbury USA, May 2008) for a somewhat selfish reason: he wanted to taste the world's great seafood dishes — like bouillabaisse in Marseilles, fish and chips in England, bluefin tuna sashimi in Tokyo — before they disappeared or were dramatically changed by our plundering of the oceans. Whatever his motivation, Grescoe has given us a fascinating book that I hope will inform many about the dire state of the oceans, expose the dreadful environmental consequences of badly managed aquaculture, and prompt us to make better seafood choices.

At first glance, "Bottomfeeder" is a surprising choice to title a book about seafood. When I think of bottomfeeders, I think of creatures that inhabit the filth and muck, subsisting on carrion and droppings. But Grescoe uses the term in the context of food chains: humans need to eat lower on the fish food chain, eating the fast-growing small fish that are prey for the big, slow-growing fish, or eating oysters and other mollusks that can be raised sustainably through aquaculture. If many more of us become bottomfeeders, we might give the creatures of the oceans a chance to recover.

The subtitle, "How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood," is almost misleadingly narrow. This is no simple "how to" book filled with terse lists of dos and don'ts. Instead, it's a sweeping survey of the bounty of the oceans and how we have been destroying them. With clear, compelling writing, Grescoe covers a vast array of topics ranging from ecology (e.g. how overfishing affects ecosystems), cooking and eating (a trip to a Japanese restaurant that serves whale meat), economics (the business of black-market cod), and history.

Blame the top chefs

Chapter One is set in the fish markets and restaurants of New York City. Grescoe's target is the monkfish (Lophius americanus), an ugly bottom-dweller that lived in obscurity until Julia Child recommended it in a 1979 magazine article. The fish caught on with consumers; today it carries an "Avoid" rating from Seafood Watch. Setting a pattern for the chapters that follow, he reviews the biology of the species and its path to our tables. In the case of monkfish, bottom trawlers that destroy sea-floor habitat are the preferred technique — some tracks left by trawlers can be seen from space! — and various historical and economic aspects of the fish.

Fish selectionHe reviews the history of seafood boycotts and how restaurants and the public have responded. One of the significant evolutions in our appetite for fish is that chefs are telling customers more about the seafood they serve — that it was caught using hook-and-line, for example, or that it came from a sustainable source like Alaska's Copper River, one of the well-managed salmon fisheries.

Grescoe sits down with a few of the premier seafood chefs to talk about their menus. Don't worry, they say, our monkfish or Patagonian toothfish comes from independent fishermen who use sustainable methods to harvest the fish. We know these guys, and they catch fish the right way, with hooks and lines, or small nets. But the chefs' words do not convince him; he sees that the chefs' menu choices have wider ramifications:

Wandering the streets of the theater district, idly reading menus filled with Chilean sea bass, cod, orange roughy and other red-listed seafood, I realized what was bothering me. Though the chefs I had met were buying from small businessmen who worked sustainably, their menus were still filled with overfished species.…For every Bernardin and Esca, there were thousands of restaurants across the continent serving red-listed seafood. Their menus might have been influenced by the reviews they had read of New York's greatest restaurants; or their clients may have asked for the fish they had enjoyed on a visit to Manhattan. Though [Chef Eric] Ripert and his peers can afford to buy the scallops Rod Mitchell personally harvested, or the monkfish from the day-boat whose captain they have met, the chef at the bistro in Milwaukee, or a salmon house in Calgary, almost certainly does not have that kind of access. Yet thoughtlessly-sourced monkfish, scallops and other species end up on menus across the continent — more often than not from industrial-scale fisheries that were wrecking the oceans. It was the very prestige of the world's leading chefs that legitimized the ongoing pillage. It was not necessarily the fault of New York's star seafood chefs. It was, however, their doing.

Grescoe's indictment is pretty harsh, but we need to remember that he's talking about one of the few foods that is still "hunted." The supply of seafood is governed by the rules of nature — we can't go out and "plant" a few extra rows of swordfish or monkfish — so the rules are different than they are for domesticated foods such as premium grass-fed beef, baby lettuces, or heirloom tomatoes. His argument is definitely something to keep in mind when a seafood restaurant brags that their red-listed fish is caught using sustainable methods. Perhaps there are some creatures that we shouldn't be eating under any circumstances until their populations can recover.

CAFOs of the sea

After New York, Grescoe visits the Chesapeake Bay for oysters, England for fish and chips, France for bouillabaisse, and Portugal for sardines, before turning his eyes to the stagnant, contaminated ponds of shrimp aquaculture.

Aquaculture — the raising of fish and other marine creatures under controlled conditions — has been booming in recent decades. A report by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (PDF) states that the worldwide production of farmed salmon increased by 17,000 percent between 1980 and 2000, from 5,000 to 850,000 metric tons. The vast majority of the salmon sold in the U.S. is farmed, as is much of the shrimp. To reveal the true cost of cheap salmon and shrimp, Grescoe devotes one chapter to each creature.

Some of today's aquaculture facilities should be accurately called "Aqua-CAFOs," because they closely resemble cattle or hog "concentrated animal feeding operations": all kinds of chemicals and antibiotics are needed to keep the creatures alive under these dismal conditions, and both kinds of facilities cause significant environmental damage. Basically, they're about "cheap food at any cost."

Visiting shrimp farms in India, Grescoe learns about the intensive use of biocides, antibiotics, growth promoters, and other suspect chemicals that will allow shrimp to survive in overly crowded conditions and keep production costs low. For consumers, that means shrimp contaminated with all sorts of toxins and other undesirable compounds. For people who live nearby or downstream of the farms, the consequences are even worse.

Grescoe makes a trip to a village called Thirunagari, located in southern India's historical "rice bowl," which had employed scientific methods of irrigation as early as the eighth century AD. It was also one of the birthplaces of the "Grow More Food" program, a precursor to the biotech "Green Revolution," in the late 1960s.

But Thirunagari had lately become a victim of the blue revolution. At a village office, local farmers showed me a map of the Uppanar River, which flowed past 20 shrimp farms on its way from Thirunagari to the Bay of Bengal.

"Our village is going to die," explained Sellapan, a farmer and retired bank employee who had lived in Thirunagari all his life. "The population is about 4,000, but already in half of the village there is no cultivation.…The groundwater has become totally polluted, and there's a famine of drinking water. Shrimp farms have destroyed the cultivatable land, which has to be abandoned. The shrimp have come down with diseases, but the owners have brought in experts, and they are managing the problem with antibiotics. In fact, the government is giving out leases to new farms."

Shrimp farms have taken over what used to be productive rice paddies, have polluted the ground water and rivers, and are leaving destroyed lands in their wake.

Grescoe concludes the chapter on shrimp with some shopping tips. No. 1: "Be very, very careful." Farmed shrimp extracts a heavy price on the land and probably contains unwanted residues from the antibiotics and pesticides used in the crustacean-CAFOs. Wild-caught shrimp are usually a better choice, but a bit complicated because of the methods used to catch them. The first problem is bottom-trawling, a practice that destroys marine habitats. And the bycatch can be large, perhaps 10 pounds of other fish are caught with each pound of shrimp. Coldwater northern shrimp are an exception, as the nets used to catch them have features that allow fish to escape. The best option for shrimp is varieties that are caught in traps. He mentions spot prawns from the West Coast (late spring and early summer), pink hoppers from the Gulf of Mexico (October to May), and the northern shrimp Pandalus borealis (mid-December to late April).

After visits to China and Japan, Grescoe heads to salmon country to learn about both wild and farmed varieties. He has much criticism for the practices of the salmon CAFOs and the environmental damage they are causing. As with shrimp, there is a high price for cheap seafood: nutrient overload, spreading pests like sea lice to the wild fish, genetic pollution from escaped farm fish, and more. With the California and Oregon salmon fisheries closed for the season and a virus wiping out salmon on farms in Chile, the chapter on salmon farming is even more important for seafood consumers to read.

Aquaculture is not always detrimental to its environs — it can also play a beneficial role in cleaning up marine ecosystems. That's right, aquaculture can act as a remediation program. For example, the Chesapeake Bay, which has 16 million people and numerous agricultural operations in its watershed, is in terrible condition because of nitrogen overload, which causes algae populations to boom. When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the Bay, where it decomposes, sucking oxygen out of the water and making parts of the bay uninhabitable by fish or other sea creatures such as the region's famous blue crab. Some scientists believe that oysters can actually clean the water. Oysters are filter feeders that extract algae and other nutrients from the water, thereby shifting the nutrient balance in a beneficial direction (an article by the NOAA Habitat Program has more about this subject). Some oyster-farming efforts are beginning, but numerous obstacles stand in the way of large-scale farming.

Here's the catch

"Bottomfeeder" ends with a list of Grescoe's solutions to the problems he has illuminated in the previous chapters. His policy proposals are many:

  • Encourage fishing boats to keep their bycatch instead of dumping it overboard
  • Create an international body to battle outlaw fishing vessels
  • End fishing subsidies
  • Reevaluate industrial aquaculture
  • Create a worldwide set of marine reserves

On the personal level, he sees the need for better information from fish sellers — consumers must be able to learn what they are buying, where it came from, and how it was caught. A sign that says simply "Salmon" is not good enough. He provides several examples of improved traceability, including a can of French sardines that lists the boat that caught the sardines, the port in which the boat landed, and the date of the catch.

The appendix provides numerous tools to help us make better seafood choices. Grescoe suggests a list of questions to ask your fish seller or waiter before making your choice: Is it wild or farmed? Where was it caught or farmed? If it is a wild fish, how was it caught? What is the species? "'Chunk light' is not a species of tuna, and 'fish stick' is not a taxonomic division," he writes.

Finally, he provides short descriptions of fishing methods and seafood species divided into good, so-so and bad choices. The good news for seafood lovers is that there are plenty of species on the good list — like Atlantic herring, squid, sardines, and jellyfish. Not all of these are at the top of everyone's dining list, so we should look at Grescoe's suggestions as an opportunity to have some culinary adventures.

This review is based on an advanced reader's copy provided by the publisher. The official release date is April 29, 2008.

6 Responsesto “No-go fish: A review of “Bottomfeeder” by Taras Grescoe”

  1. Becki says:

    I love seafood; I prefer it to chicken or beef or pork. But this post was really eye-opening to me, and I wonder why I didn't know some of this stuff before. I'll have to check out Bottomfeeder.

  2. Kevin S. says:

    Seafood is among my favorite things to eat, and living near the Chesapeake Bay I have access to good stuff and I hear a lot about the poor state of the Bay. The days of cheap blue crabs (one of the premier foods in the world, in my opinion) and oysters are long gone. A lot of the blame does lie with the human impact such as farms, runoff and development. Very often when you go to a crabhouse around here they will tell you that the crabs come from somewhere else. Same thing with rockfish, although the rockfish population seems to be doing better these days. I eat a lot of sushi and sashimi and most if not all of that has to come from far away.

    It seems to me that one of the main problems is that industrial food collection and distribution doesn't allow for too much differentiation within  various types. Grescoe highlights that with the comment about 'chunk light' and 'fish stick'. Profit benefits from efficiency, and efficiency relies on commodification. Commodification works best with monocultures. Between efficiency driven production methods and consumers who seem to want cheap food, whatever the true cost may be, there does not seem to be a lot of incentive to get to know the immense variety of foods there are to eat. Shrimp is coming to define the food the same way Kleenex came to define tissues: A 'brand name' that morphed into a generic term. Hopefully more people will pay closer attention to what is available locally and on a seasonal basis, which should help ease the pressure on the species that are overfished. A thoughtful premise from the author, and I look forward to reading the book.  

  3. Kristin says:

    For seafood lovers who want to eat sustainably, check out the cookbook "Ocean Friendly Cuisine," published in association with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It gives you recipes for the Seafood Watch "best choices" or "good alternatives" along with information about the fish and the fisheries.  So, when you're in Whole Foods staring down a counter full of "avoids" (which reminds me, it's time for my next angry email to Whole Foods) and the only "best choice" is mackerel, you'll know what to do with it!

  4. Kevin S. says:

    Kristin:

    Thank you for the tip! I like mackerel (as an example), but it isn't everyone's fave. I would like to get some ideas of what to do with it.

    Where I grew up we also had a lot of bluefish. Most people seemed to like it more for sport than for eating, but that meant more for me! When I was a kid, my grandmother used fry bluefish fillets in corn meal for me and we would have a nice dinner. She never made mackerel that way, but I'll bet she would have liked it.

    Good luck rattling the Whole Foods cage!

    KS

  5. Emily H. says:

    Oh, I love mackerel, but if it's not ultra-fresh, it can be pretty skanky. I had some amazing mackerel sushi once that was simply exquisite ... I've never braved preparing it at home, though. I think it's supposed to take really well to soy/mirin-variety sauces. I may just check that book out, too!

  6. Kristin --
    Thanks for the Monterey Bay recommendation.  Based on some browsing at the bookstore, "Fish Forever" by Paul Johnson (of Berkeley's Monterey Fish Market) also looks like a promising guide to choosing and cooking seafood with sustainability in mind.