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Bottomfeeder - how to eat sustainably in a world of vanishing seafood

By Taras Grescoe
Published by Bloomsbury
Website: www.bloomsburyusa.com
2009, 326pp, ISBN 978 1 255 0(Hb), US$24.99

In a world awash with information and alarm, authors have to be original to catch and hold readers' attention. The title of this book is certainly original, and so is the blend of science, ecology, travel and gourmandising, all presented to alternately shock and appeal. Taras Grescoe's central and abiding message is that the oceans are on the brink of catastrophe with some 90 per cent of all predator species (cod, tuna, shark) now harvested, and many other fisheries also on the brink of collapse. If this marine disaster seems removed from terrestrial priorities, Grescoe's travels and investigation confronts the reader with shocking realities.

To walk the vast fish markets of Japan, daily stocked with an amazing array of unrecognised species, to watch lobster fishermen on the east coast of Canada emptying pot after pot, day after day, or to read the menus of seafood restaurants the world over offering fish dishes to please any palate, is to be lulled into a sense of security that intimates continuing supply in quantity and variety. And then there is the fall-back assurance that if all else fails, farmed fish will be the solution. The illusion makes for a false reality: at our current rate of fishing, writes the author, the oceans will very soon be either "filled with jellyfish, bacteria and slime" or will be monocultures where single species such as crab, lobster and shrimp survive precariously as bottomfeeders.

Fish provide the main or only source of protein for billions of the world's poorest people, and for many also their only livelihood. But the collapse of fisheries is no mere food aid matter: Grescoe quotes very recent research that suggests that eating fish was what made Homo sapiens: the omega-3 fatty acids found most richly in fish account for why H. sapiens has such a large cranium and brain size. "Proto-humans evolved close to the water," writes Grescoe. "It is likely our seafood-rich diet provided the diet that made us the world's brainiest primate." So what of a fish-free future?

For those with faith in technology as an answer to all challenges, aquaculture would seem to offer some solace. But reading Grescoe's account of how salmon are farmed, subjected, as they are, to a range of chemicals from egg to slaughter, and ultimately packed in cages more densely than battery chickens, the option neither appeals nor does it offer the quantity of output of fish flesh that we have taken for granted these past decades: 10 million tons of sardines caught off the coast of Namibia alone, is just one example given.

So, what are the options? An immediate halt to most conventional fishing seems to be imperative to give the small surviving stocks some chance of recovery. And then, as the title suggests, we must become bottomfeeders in order to eat sustainably in a world of vanishing seafood: new species must be targeted for food, and chefs challenged to present these often unappealing looking creatures of the deep as dishes worthy of any seafood connoisseur. It is here, describing the sampling of exotic and palate-challenging dishes in some very obscure locations, that the author gives rein to his tongue-in-cheek writing which, though original and humorous, at times also tries the patience of the serious reader gripped by a very serious story.

That aside, Taras Grescoe has done a great service and deserves to be read widely.

Date published: May 2009

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