The Perfect Protein – A Sharpless S Evans
I read this book immediately after finishing Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish. It opened up a new area of interest, reading about ocean ecosystems and our efforts to stabilize what is currently a failing ecosystem. Growing up and later living in landlocked cities, I’ve always felt a deep attraction for the open seas – sailing, diving and seafood.
The authors have a harsher tone than other books with similar scope, a tone that is quite understandable once you see the way they chose to present the story of fishing.
The ocean, they say, suffers from the same fate as the land fauna explorers encounters across the oceans – hunted to extinction. In this case, fished to extinction and it’s easy to see why, as fish are harder to see and thus easier to forget.
The fish have ran out of places to hide
The story of depleting oceans starts very late in our history, the later decades of the 19th century.
When Europeans discovered the New World, they were amazed by the richness of the seas: in the Caribbean, sea turtles were so many that ships had difficulties navigating the waters. The cod next to New England, was so big that Europeans have never seen a specimen so big. The wildlife was so abundant and rich in the America, that Europeans believed it’s inexhaustible. Colonists use to catch flatfish (that live on the sea floor) by hand. It only took 30 years for some species to become extinct.
The problems started when we dammed rivers and cut down the trees that kept the spawning spots for fish in place. With the invention of refrigeration, the problem for over-fishing increased as now fishermen could ship their catch inland, thus making them fish more (there was no regard for mating season for fish during this period) because of increased demand.
"One-third of all the wild fish caught on Earth end up as fish meal or oil. Of that, 81 percent goes to feed farmed fish."
If this is not depressing enough, there’s more: the GPS, seabed-mapping software, sonar, radar and other tools. The fish have ran out of places to hide.
Farming the fish doesn’t particularly help, as most farmed fish that customers ask for is carnivorous. We fish to grind it into food to feed the farmed fish. Not particularly efficient.
If you are wondering how gloomy the first part of the book is, look at this: in 2003, many big fish like tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut and flounder have been reduced to less than 10% of their 1950 numbers. I read the book in 2016. Hmm.
The book sets out to make the case for the perfect protein. Humans need protein, but in our drive to win the battle with starvation (that was a common occurrence until the early 20th century) we created many other problems that we need to solve. One of them is the huge impact that farming land animals has on the environment; methane being one, as one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
Fish are the perfect protein as they convert feed to food far better than land animals. They are also one of the main sources of Omega 3 for us. Lastly, countries have a lot of coast line that we can easily put to use, rather than using land mass for it.
The argument is intelligently made, as the biggest hurdle in changing anything in our food system lies heavily on consumers. Then on industry interests, then on national interest and so on.
“The perfect protein” starts the daunting task of convincing its readers that this change is possible by telling the story of Paul Butler, a British biologist, that went to St Lucia in the 70s to study the local parrot that was facing extinction. After his study, he made his recommendations to the local government that were quickly accepted and implemented. Besides many common sense recommendations like banning hunting, increasing fines and so on, his primary contribution is the cultural change that followed. He said that the locals need to view the bird as their national symbol. He suggested making the bird a national symbol, monetizing from the beautiful local parrot by making a national sanctuary and placing spots where people can see them . The campaign is still a great success to this day. Follow-up campaigns by an NGO he works with, Rare, include the Siberian tiger and finger-less porpoise in China.
At the moment Rare is working to promote three mascots in Philippines to teach people about over-fishing. Their mascots are wildly successful, having the same appeal as Mickey mouse in the West. The efforts in The Philippines are a key point in this since it shows that change is possible, even in places where because of poverty locals fish with dynamite destroying habitats and also their chance to fish in the future. Food today is definitely more important than food tomorrow in a country where food systems and distribution are not managing to feed its entire population.
Stewards of the sea
One of the most important concepts I found in the book is redefining the relationship between humans and the ocean.
Till now, our relationship with the animals that feed us has had only two names: we are their farmers or we are their hunters. If we are going to rely on them forever as a source of healthy protein for billions of people, the fish in the sea call us to a different relationship—the one called stewardship. Stewardship demands understanding that something is fully entrusted to one’s care. It’s not the same as ownership. A steward is a manager who is highly ethical and cares what happens in the long run.
A multi-generational orientation is built into the term from its origin in the Middle Ages, when feudal lords appointed estate managers they called stewards. Stewards are operating productive enterprises, not protecting pristine nature zones. We take but we also protect. A symbiosis like the one we had when we first domesticated animals and we needed them just as much as they needed us. Something that we have forgotten currently as we are sitting very far away from the origin of our food.
The book itself is condensed in the first part, as the second part of the book has recipes for cooking unusual sea food (think of jellyfish) and also guides for choosing sustainable seafood when making choices on what fish you want to eat.The key takeaway of the book comes from paraphrasing Michael Pollan’s famous philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Andy and Suzannah boil their philosophy down to this: “Eat wild seafood. Not too much of the big fish. Mostly local.”