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Silent seas

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

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When Taras Grescoe began the journey behind Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, he was looking to do more than write a thought-provoking, timely report; he wanted to change his own behavior. In the introduction, the former food writer recounts that before doing the research for the book, he had “heard all the talk about sustainable seafood, but was still not sure how to walk the walk.” And so walk Grescoe did. And fly, and boat, around the globe on a nine-month adventure through the modern seafood industry. 

The resulting book is structured a bit like a vacation, skipping from one iconic seafood-based meal to the next, beginning with monkfish in New York and stopping for everything from bouillabaisse to shark-fin soup. But from its opening pages, Bottomfeeder makes it clear that even the most enjoyable meals come at a price. Grescoe manages to use each dish as a cultural and environmental lens through which the changing nature of today’s oceans comes into crisp, if terrifying, focus. 

Bottomfeeder places the world’s diminishing fish stocks in context, spelling out the triple threat of overfishing, global warming, and pollution in exacting detail. The book is full of hard reporting on everything from the antibiotics used in shrimp farming to the illegal practices behind France’s Belon oyster industry. It also includes a glossary, as well as a robust appendix of resources. The most memorable passages, however, aren’t the stats and sources but the real-life narratives. Grescoe has a genuine affection for the fishermen, chefs, street peddlers, and fish farmers he meets along the way.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Eat little mackerel, not big swordfish."] 

As the title implies, Grescoe echoes scientists and environmentalists the world over who are urging more people to eat lower on the ocean’s food chain. He advocates for cutting out top-of-the-food-chain fish, such as salmon, shark, and tuna, and gives many compelling reasons for eating more small and underappreciated kinds of seafood. 

After investigating the near-disappearance of Atlantic cod, for instance, Grescoe learns that haddock makes equally excellent fish and chips, the British classic that traditionally relied on cod. He also frames some seafood choices as good for the ocean, such as oysters (which help clean polluted waters) and jellyfish (which are too abundant in some parts of the world, thanks to trophic cascading, or the flattening of the ocean’s food chains). 

Grescoe also makes concrete recommendations, such as creating a system of marine reserves — sort of like national parks, only in the water. (Only three-fifths of one percent of the ocean is currently protected.) In his final chapter, Grescoe writes, “Rather than further privatizing the oceans by granting quotas to giant fishing corporations, it may be time to start viewing them as a genuine public trust — instead of the last frontiers of free enterprise open to anybody who happens to have a boat and a net.”

All of these elements make Bottomfeeder a memorable and educational, if not the fastest, read. You’ll probably need to take breaks between chapters in order to digest all the facts and analysis. Fortunately, however, Bottomfeeder  also offers visceral scene-setting. Take the tale about the marine scientist who discovers what is likely the first patch of invasive Australian sea grass in the Mediterranean — only to realize later that he could have avoided a catastrophe if he’d pulled it up right then. Or the larger, sweeping depictions, like the shady world of freezer ships that unburden fishing fleets of illegal cod in the North Atlantic. 

Grescoe describes these stories and subworlds — the fetid shrimp farms, the dead zones, the red tides, the areas changed irrevocably by invasive species of algae and Asian carp — with a steady and often harrowing directness. But he also offers reasons for optimism and, as is crucial for all books about environmentalism, a form of companionship for the reader. 

By the end of the book, Grescoe’s own diet has changed irrevocably. He has become a true bottomfeeder, eating mainly at the base of the food chain: small, pelagic fish (sardines and anchovies), plus sustainable shellfish (oysters, mussels, and clams). He also discovers some larger fish that are still abundant, such as sablefish, trout, and Arctic char, and eats them in moderation. (Grescoe eventually compiled his own sustainable-fish list and posted it on his website.)

Bottomfeeder’s strongest lesson is to reinforce that old canard about teamwork: no one can solve all the ocean’s problems alone. Because everyone — as Grescoe so elegantly reminds us — is in this together.

p(bio). Twilight Greenaway is the visual and virtual education manager at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). She is also a regular contributor to Culinate and other publications that help readers make smart, responsible choices about what they eat.

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