Reading the book left me with a series of depressing conclusions. The first being that there are hardly any wild salmon left in the oceans, none at all in the Atlantic.

There is no more wild salmon in the Atlantic.

This in itself is hard to believe by itself given how ubiquitous salmon is in every supermarket. The second discovery that becomes apparent as you delve into this captivating story of men’s relationship with our sea food is that it became extinct shockingly close to our times. You read about dodo birds and megafauna of Australia or the Americas, the fact they went extinct fast because of over hunting and you’d assume we learned something from it. We haven’t and Paul Greenberg takes us through all the reason why this happens with fish. In part because of our misunderstanding of the oceans ecosystems and in part because the ocean is no-ones property. The tragedy of the commons, as economists love to put it, happens when resources are shared by multiple parties and everyone treats it as a sum-zero game. If I don’t exploit it, everyone else will! The ocean suffers from all the pains of open access.

One thing that is apparent early in the book, is the importance of one man that is responsible for putting most of the farmed fish we eat currently on our table: Jay Laurence Lush. The man responsible for breeding large animals (cows/sheep) into what they are today.He is to animals what Norman Borlaug is to domesticated plants.

Lush managed to drop the feed to food ration from 10 to 5 pounds. That means you now need 5 pounds of feed to get 1 pound of food. Animals grow twice as fast with half the food. This allowed whole countries to get out of starvation, the main drive why our efforts have included fish farming as well. “Four Fish: The future of the last wild food” is about this.

"Salmon abundance requires a set of river characteristics that have stood in direct opposition to human industrial development, and salmon were among the first fish to suffer extreme extirpation at the hands of humans. Salmon need rivers that are free-flowing, clean and oxygen-rich, and protected by significant timber cover. One by one, each of these characteristics has been removed from the world's major salmon rivers." p.26

The four fish

The book tells not only the story of the most commonly eaten fish, but it also touches on why we focused on these fish in particular and not others. The ocean is a big place and there are many fish that we deem undesirable. There are also many others that we do enjoy and the book focuses on these four: sea bass, cod, salmon and tuna.

The sea bass is a fish that lives close to the coast and thus has been fished by humans for centuries. Might be one of the first fish that we farmed: trap the baby fish and wait for them to grow. The salmon is the fish that we understood very well, as it’s eggs are large, it’s meat is distinctively red and it’s dynamic lifestyle made him quite visible across rivers. Cod is the fish that made our exploration of the oceans possible. It’s very versatile, dried cod was the staple food of sailors until Napoleon gave us canned food. And lastly, tuna – the fish that everyone knows will disappear soon.

The book doesn’t try to be an encyclopedia, but it does try to explain our journey in domesticating fish species and what was the trade-off for doing that. It also goes on to show what science is giving us now and how we are trying to solve the problems that we self-inflicted on ourselves. Some solutions come in the form of fish species, some come in the form of public policy. Paul Greenberg also stresses how consumer demand drives the entire direction fish farming has taken and will take in the future. One of the option is to adopt the farm to table lifestyle – eating from closer to home and being a bit more adventurous with the selection of fish.

The boldest solution comes by taking advantage of one of particularities of the fishing industry – the commercial name for the fish have usually nothing to do with their taxonomy. The industry can give any name to the fish they pull out of the water, this being possible with the enormous amount of species in the ocean and also the understandable ignorance of consumers when it comes to fish species.

Instead of fishing highly vulnerable fish, just farm the alternative – fish from the same species that taste the same and create a fraction of the environmental impact.

When using muscles to clean the waste from the fish and shrimp to create nutrients for growing sea weed, it creates a poly-culture that not only gives 4 harvests, but also its more healthy than mono-cultures.

The way to solve most of the problems with this are to farm fish that fulfill other qualities and are easier to farm. There is no reason why fish would need more feed to pound ratio (3 pounds of feed for 1 pound of salmon), as they don’t need to defeat gravity and they are not warm blooded and don’t spend energy for heat. There are plenty of efforts being made now to feed soy to salmon, a carnivorous fish.

The most environmentally friendly and profitable solution is taking advantage of the natural ecosystems that exist in nature and replicating them.

Poly-cultures – salmon farming shows that mono-cultures in the sea have the same problems as on land. However, when using muscles to clean the waste from the fish and shrimp to create nutrients for growing sea weed, it creates a poly-culture that not only gives 4 harvests, but also its more healthy than mono-cultures.

All in all the book is amazingly descriptive of something that most of us eat and very few understand. If you are not a fisherman, even a hobbyist, you will appreciate the extensive research and the easy flow of the book in detailing why these four fish have such a strong relationship with humans.

In the typical style of Paul Greenberg, the book is narrated through his eyes, filled with many characters he spoke with or met through his travels. Make no mistake, Paul Greenberg practices what he preaches and he definitely knows his fish. I have no doubt he also knows how most of them taste like, his love for amateur fishing is apparent throughout the book.

For a great read on how Paul Butler, an environmentalist and biologist manages to change public perception and saves a species of parrots from extinction in St. Lucia, the Siberian tiger in Russia and the fingerless porpoise in China read The perfect protein by Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans. Here is my review of the book.



Below you can watch Paul’s Ted Talk about the same book: