Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food


Paul Greenberg
304 pages | Buy this book

Face the fact: the fish are dying. Half popular history, half environmental manifesto, Greenberg's book exposes the dire straits of our favorite seafood. Solving the problem means more than just skipping the tuna sashimi. It's going to take big politics, smart ocean management, and plain old restraint (no!) to forestall a tragedy of the commons.

What's the Big Deal?

The sustainable food movement has made noticeable inroads into the mainstream—grass-fed beef and locally grown tomatoes abound—but for wild fish, the situation isn't getting any better. Oil spewing into the gulf doesn't help; in fact, conservationists are now fighting for endangered-species status for the blue fins that spawn there. Using the stories of four fish—salmon, tuna, bass, and cod—Greenberg explains what went wrong—and how we need to fix it.

Buzz Rating: Hum

Greenberg's recent article, "Tuna's End", in The New York Times Magazine grabbed attention and garnered mentions for Greenberg in The Atlantic, San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR's science blog 13.7.

One-Breath Author Bio

Greenberg, a journalist and novelist, has written about fish and food for publications including The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. His work has also appeared in GQ and Vogue.

The Book, in His Words

"We can carefully select the fish that work well both in conjunction with human farmers and alongside the wild ocean food systems that still function. Or we can run roughshod over the wild ocean, install feedlots up and down the world's coasts, and continue to reap short-term calorie credits irrespective of the long-term ecological debits. If humans are at root rational creatures, then we must without question choose the former path over the latter" (page 251).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. If you leave them alone, they will come back. Fish populations, given the space, are remarkably resilient. That is, if they aren't completely destroyed first. If more than 90 percent of a stock has been removed—the stock is "collapsed"—the population's genes could be affected, as happened on Canada's Great Banks, where the average cod has plummeted from around 20 pounds to three pounds (page 140).

2. We've picked the wrong fish to domesticate. Many farmed fish like salmon are inefficient, requiring a lot of feed, and their genes and diseases can often negatively affect—or even wipe out—wild populations (page 252). Greenberg says we should domesticate fish like the kahala, better known as the Kona Kampachi, a fish that is efficient, spawns constantly and has a meaty, dense flesh that could replace tuna.

3. Empower yourself! (Kinda.) You might feel good about consulting your pocket guide to sustainable seafood before ordering the Chilean sea bass (it's marked red under "Worst Choices"). But even your best efforts will have little effect on how fish are farmed or managed in the wild, Greenberg says (page 244). But that's not to say the program isn't working—people are increasingly becoming aware of the need for wise ocean management.

Swipe This Critique

The history of fish farming and eating is surprisingly entertaining, but Greenberg takes a jarring, wonky turn toward the end. He uses the stories of four fish to make a larger point about wildlife management. But the final chapters, which delve into the policy, are dense and difficult. It's important information and great analysis—but it's much more fun to read about the air-breathing Vietnamese tra than about "ecosystem models of forage/predator systems" (page 248).


Prose: Greenberg blends memoir, analysis, and extensive research into an easy and enjoyable read.

The "four" motif—four mammals, four birds, four fish, four ways humans are trying to master the oceans, four tips—feels like a stretch.

Bottom Line:
Fish aren't the most glamorous creatures, but Four Fish makes them fascinating.