Meet & Eat: Paul Greenberg, Author, 'Four Fish'

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

Paul Greenberg's relationship with the sea started when he was a boy and evolved into the focus of his work. His writing about seafood and the ocean has won numerous awards, and his latest book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, explores how our desire for plentiful seafood has changed the future of wild fish. Through his book he takes us on a journey around the globe to learn about the four fish we have cultivated to be our staples, and to explore more sustainable ways to approach the fishing industry.

Paul will moderate a panel on November 18th at the Seaport Museum with other ocean writers and local scientists on a panel entitled "Can New York City Seafood Be Local?" where they will discuss oyster restoration and rebuilding local shad, herring, bluefin tuna and striped bass.

Name: Paul Greenberg
Location: New York City and Lake Placid
Occupation: Author, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

What is special about the four fish you focus on in your book—salmon, tuna, bass and cod?

Each of these four fish tells a different important story about humans and the ocean.

Salmon is about the destruction of habitat and the loss to memory. Most East Coasters don't know that we used to have wild salmon at out doorstep. But in my lifetime, wild Atlantic salmon were replaced outright with a farmed variant—a specter that lurks for all of fish-kind as we do more and more damage to the wild ocean.

In line with that, "Bass" is the story of the next phase of domestication of the sea. Salmon were relatively easy to domesticate because they hatch out of a big, nutrient-rich egg and can take pellet feed pretty early on. Fish called bass (and there are many, many fish called bass) generally hatch out of near microscopic eggs and require a whole parallel universe of live feed (including the thing comic books used to call "sea monkeys") to reach maturity. And so one sea bass in particular, the European sea bass, a.k.a. branzino a.k.a. loup de mer, became the Rosetta stone fish, the fish that we sought to master and by doing so opened up the whole pandora's box of domesticating the ocean.

"Cod" is an entirely different problem—the problem of abundance. For cod was the fish that we used to build the American colonial economy. Indeed cod's most discernable characteristic for most of human history was its extreme abundance. But as is well known, we blew it with cod. Throughout the '70s and '80s and '90s codfish population after population crashed and now we are left with the remnants. It's not a doomed fish, though. The question is—how do you rebuild abundance in the presence of fishing, and what is the proper definition of abundance, when many people don't have a living memory of the extreme abundance that used to rule the oceans.

Finally, tuna is about fish as wildlife. People are used to seeing fish as meat pulled out of the sea, not as a group of wild animals that have their own destinies to pursue. Tuna, particularly bluefin, are our best chance and coming to a realization that fish are wildlife and worthy of greater respect and attention. Bluefin swim at 40 miles an hour, cross the oceans, and are warm-blooded. Sounds like wildlife to me. And increasingly environmental organizations and everyday consumers are embracing this truth.

Why are fish near and dear to your heart?

I grew up fishing, which, for me, was the way to develop an intimacy with nature. It is miraculous that you can catch wild fish within sight of the Empire State Building; they're a constant reminder that the nature is resilient. Fish to me are also just extremely cool. People who love fish and fishing know what I'm talking about. The closest thing I can think to compare it to is the way auto fetishists love the many different models and colors of high performance sports cars.

What should serious eaters keep in mind when shopping for fish or ordering it in a restaurant?

The smaller the fish, generally speaking, the more plentiful it is, the more resilient it is and the lower its toxicity will be. If all humans ate lower on the food chain in the ocean we'd have a much healthier marine environment. Atlantic mackerel, sardines, anchovies are all abundant fish high in Omega3s and low in mercury and PCBs. We should be eating them instead of feeding them to salmon on salmon farms.

sardines with lemon salsa

Sardines with lemon and mint salsa. [Photograph: Blake Royer]

Where are some of the most interesting places you traveled in your quest for knowledge about our relationship with these four fish?

The Falkland Islands stand out. A weird very English place at the bottom of the world complete with red phone booths and hedgerows and even sea trout imported from Scotland and transplanted to Falkland rivers. It's interesting to see how the expansion of sea ownership that occurred after the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty changed things. Before 1982 nations owned their seas only out to 3 nautical miles or so. Now it's 200 nautical miles. What that did for the Falklands was to make an island of a few thousand sheepherders into very rich fishermen. Suddenly they owned a tremendously productive large swath of ocean territory.

What do you foresee happening to our fish supply in the next few decades?

I think aquaculture will continue to grow. It will come to dominate our markets. At the same time wild fish will get more expensive and hopefully because they are more expensive they will be caught in fewer numbers. But I know that is wishful thinking.

What is the Sustainable Fisheries Act and how has it impacted the U.S. cod population?

SFA mandates that all commercial species of fish have to be rebuilt by a certain date. This has been a helpful tool for it empowers regulators to take extreme actions like closing fishing grounds if rebuilding is not happening. I believe the uptick we've seen in cod off Montauk in recent years is a direct result of fishing closures on Georges Banks, the place where those fish spawn.

How does the fact that bluefin tuna is endangered affect other types of tuna?

Atlantic bluefin tuna are not officially endangered. But they are widely recognized as highly diminished. They are the canary in the coal mine. The same bad management that led to the bluefin's decline could lead to similar declines in other large tuna like yellowfin and bigeye. They are more sensitive because they grow slower and migrate into more populous areas, but other tuna could suffer declines unless management becomes more science based and less politics based.

Do you order fish when you eat out?

I catch most of the fish that I eat, but I will occasionally order seafood when I eat out.

If so, any favorite fish dishes in the city?

Peter Hoffman at Savoy makes a great clam chowder and he does nice things with Arctic char too. The pan seared wild striped bass at Pearl Oyster Bar is nice. The whole tilapia in brown sauce and Grand Sichuan International is fantastic, as is their salt and pepper shrimp. I like a lemon grass treatment of squid at the Vietnamese places on Baxter Street as well as the Vietnamese dish ka ka to—usually catfish or tilapia in super spicy black pepper sauce.

Any that you make at home?

I make a lot of fish cakes and I also smoke my own bluefish and mackerel on my terrace (much to the chagrin of my neighbors). There's a nice fish head spaghetti sauce by Marcella Hazan I like to make, though it's always a big mess. Sometimes I find a fish ear bone in the silverware drawer long after that sauce has been eaten.