Pollan of the Sea

Four Fish author Paul Greenberg has produced a wonderfully written, important, flawed, and depressing as all hell article for the New York Times’ Magazine on the collapse of bluefin tuna populations. The piece is filled with solid research and, at times, penetrating analysis:

In the years to come we can treat tuna as a mile marker to zoom past on our way toward annihilating the wild ocean or as a stop sign that compels us to turn back and radically reconsider.

A wonderful point, but halfway through the article, we are asked this breathtakingly stupid question:

But if we are to embark on a global project of ramping down tuna fishing, what are we to eat?

And here we discover that Greenberg is apparently unaware of the existence of foods like rice, beans, vegetables, grains, and fruits.

So you know where this is headed: fish farming. Trouble is, bluefin tuna may be even more ridiculously inefficient to farm than feedlot cattle. The article points to an estimate of fifteen pounds of feed required for every pound of farmed bluefin flesh.

In further exploring the ethics of tuna farming, Greenberg asks a series of beautiful questions:

As the science historian D. Graham Burnett points out in a coming book on the Save the Whales movement, collaborations between American nuclear scientists and marine biologists were once proposed in the 1960s whereby tropical atolls, leveled by nuclear testing, could be used as giant corrals for the commercial farming of cetaceans. But fortunately for the whale — and I think for us too — we have come to see the whale not as something we fish for, not as something we farm, but as something we appreciate and maybe empathize with. Instead of expanding our stomachs or our wallets, whales have expanded our consciousness, our very humanity. So we have to ask ourselves, is there any rational argument for humans to eat bluefin tuna, wild, ranched or farmed? Is the fish really so special that no substitute will do? If the Japanese adapted to a higher-fat diet in half a century, could they and all sushi lovers not shift gears again and adapt to a sustainable diet?

Sadly, the article ends with a lengthy Pollanesque passage as the writer embraces a new generation fish farms as the lesser of two evils. The stuff reads remarkably like Pollan’s visit to Polyface farm. And, unlike Pollan, Greenberg neglects to so much as mention a third way forward: simply avoiding fish in the first place.

Still, just like Pollan’s deeply flawed Omnivore’s Dilemma, this is an incredibly useful piece. Even if you’ve closely followed the issues surrounding collapsing tuna populations, you’ll find Greenberg’s article to be loaded with important new information, and flashes of genuine insight. Link.

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