Taras Grescoe: What's left to eat in the oceans?

Taras Grescoe, author of Bottomfeeder, on what's left to eat in the oceans.
Author Taras Grescoe.
A serious ethical eater in Canada can choose fair trade chocolate, songbird-nurturing coffee, SPCA-approved eggs. But those juicy prawns and tender shrimp - were mangroves destroyed to grow them in fetid pools that poisoned the local waters? That "Chilean sea bass" — did it arrive from the world's only, and very small, certified sustainable fishery, or did pirates scoop up the last juveniles, ensuring the species extinction? Is that Atlantic halibut (fished to the brink) or Pacific (sustainable)?

Taras Grescoe wants you to ask.

"For me, choosing fish ignorantly is no longer an option," writes the author of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (HarperCollins 2008). 

Fourteen years ago, Grescoe, an award-winning food and travel writer, cut factory farms and growth hormones out of his diet by eliminating meat and poultry. But stories of mercury and dioxins in fish began to appear. Dolphins were drowning in tuna nets. Swordfish and other big fish were disappearing.

Realizing that we could be the last generation to enjoy fresh, wild-caught fish (the only wild animal most of us will ever eat, he points out), and determined to find a way to keep it in his diet — ethically — he decided to educate himself.  

The book, rich in fact and anecdote, is funny, fascinating and horrifying.
Grescoe ate bouillabaisse in Marseilles, poisonous fugu in Japan, plump sardines in Portugal and drunken shrimp in China. He fished with a waterman in Maryland, visited the shrimp farms of Tamil Nadu, walked stunned through Tokyo's Tsukiji market, "an Auschwitz for fish."

Salmon farms, he concludes, are not only dealing a death blow to wild Pacific salmon, but also perhaps to stocks of the small fish ground up to feed them. 

He found ignorance, corruption, greed and terminal shortsightedness are cleaning out the ocean's pantry. "We have gotten too good at catching fish," he writes, "and tragedy is striking our global commons."

Jellyfish and chips, anyone? 

This book, rich in fact and anecdote, is funny, fascinating, and horrifying. Still, it is not designed to turn you vegan ("I love seafood", he writes, "just about any squirmy, wriggly, fishy, edible thing that comes out of the ocean"), but rather is meant to be a guide. Yes, he says, you can eat seafood without being complicit in the ocean's devastation. 

But carefully. Eat small. Be a bottomfeeder. Folllow some of Grescoe's pointers  on what you can eat and what should be done.

In an interview with CBCNews.ca, Grescoe described why he can no longer eat wild Pacific salmon in good conscience, how you can still eat seafood ethically, and how greed is pushing ocean ecosystems to collapse.

Handling the catch and the bycatch on board the French trawler Grande Hermine. ((Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty Images))
CBCNews.ca:  What are we doing to the oceans?

Taras Grescoe: Industrialization of fishing, which has been improved with the development of new nets, diesel-powered engines, GPS, echo sounders, and that sort of thing has spread to all the oceans of the world.

We are now capable of sending down bottom trawls a mile and a half beneath the surface of the ocean to rake the top of sea-mounts, which are these oases of life on the high seas.

We have the technology now to catch all the fish in the oceans very rapidly if we so desire. So we have to limit human appetite. We have to limit human greed. 

How do we do that?

One of the big things that we as consumers can do is to steer away from the top of the ocean's food chain, and rejig our eating to the healthier fish — coincidentally they're healthier — like sardines, mackerel, herring, anchoveta.

These are all preferable to the prestige proteins that the top chefs in the metropolises of the world seemed to favour.

People in a position to make choices about seafood usually make them for health reasons or taste. We don't seem to think much about the food the fish need. The whales, even the seabirds, the eagles.

In order to coat salmon farm pellets and make them more appetizing to the salmon, we are fishing krill from the very bottom of the food chain in the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic, and that's a disaster.

Krill provides nourishment for humpback whales, penguins, and all kinds of species. By removing that — they suck them up with these huge factory vessels that have these kind of vacuum cleaners — we are really messing with the food chain. 

Salmon farms like this one off B.C.'s west coast use floating net pens to hold thousands of fish. (CBC) ((CBC))
You actually refer to grinding up fish to make bigger fish as "crimes against nature."

In a hungry world, it's an incredibly inefficient use of protein.

The food fish, the forage fish, the sardines and mackerel … the anchoveta that are being caught off the coast of Peru, these all go to the aquaculture industry. It takes about four pounds of such wild-caught fish to make one pound of farmed salmon.

And some of that stuff is ground up to make feed for pigs as well. I've seen cans of cat food that are made with salmon. So we are catching sardines, anchoveta, all these smaller fish, herring, whiting, sand eels, grinding them up, feeding them to salmon, which we then feed to cats. That should be considered some sort of environmental crime.

Can seafood be farmed ethically?

Oh, definitely. They are even farming salmon ethically. There is a company called Swift Aquaculture up in Agassiz in B.C. and he is making pan-sized coho [salmon]. 

He's feeding them discarded trash fish from fisheries, which is great. He's raising them inland, in concrete containment tanks, away from the coast. And he is using the waste from the salmon farms to fertilize his wasabi fields. So it is a great, integrated holistic approach. 

And you know there are forms of aquaculture that are inherently sustainable. Raising oysters and mussels, for example.

You have a whole section on what needs to be done. The list is pretty overwhelming.  

One of the best ideas that I've heard, and fisheries scientists seem to agree this would work, is to set aside … 20 per cent of the oceans for marine reserves, where no fishing is allowed, by the year 2020. 

Marine reserves allow the female fish to get older. Old females are the most fecund, they get more and more fecund the bigger they get. We tend to take those out in our fisheries because they are coveted for their flesh and profitability.  It is a very bad idea. It leaves these juvenile undersized populations. 

One thing we forget is how fantastically abundant the oceans once were and can be again. It doesn't take them very long to recover.

Can you imagine a time when you would stop eating seafood? A time when you decide, yes there is still stuff left but maybe nothing is ethical?

I've actually sworn off salmon this year. I'm hoping that the B.C. runs recover, that there is abundant Fraser River sockeye next year, but right now they have limited it to subsistence in the aboriginal fisheries.

Last year happened to be a very good year for Alaska's salmon. We were getting it frozen by Highliner. But this year the runs are not so good, and I'm just staying away from it because I can't be sure whether it's come from sustainably fished stocks.

If the oceans run out, if we start running out of those schooling species that I mentioned like sardines and herring, the human race is going to be in big trouble.  Humanity will be in huge trouble.