Weekend Review: Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing SeafoodEven though it caused me to put a hold on eating seafood, I really liked the book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (2009) by Taras Grescoe.  Grescoe takes us around the world in an attempt to explore the lives and stories behind where our seafood comes from, bringing us to a better understanding of why we're not supposed to eat Bluefin Tuna, for example.  On the one hand, this book was full of things that I already knew:  the fact that 90% of the volume of marine life that was around when my grandfather was a child just isn't there anymore; the fact that even when I think I'm being a responsible consumer by making sure that I'm eating "good" fish as opposed to "bad" fish, there's still a good chance (33% if I'm eating sushi in New York) that I'm not eating what I'm being told I'm eating; and the fact that the "solution" of farming fish is just as problematic (cruelty to animals and people, overuse of pesticides and antibiotics, etc.) as other contained animal feeding operations.  But there was also plenty in here that I didn't know and that helped to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge.

One of the issues around eating seafood that I had never thought about before this book was how my consumer choices might affect those halfway around the world. Grescoe interviews the impoverished village people who, up until this point have supported themselves and their communities by sustainably fishing, but have now been displaced by shrimp farms that are owned by enormous multi-national corporations.  They suffer all of the negatives of this situation (increased exposure to toxins, being cut off from their traditional way of living, contamination of their food and water sources) but reap none of the rewards (monetary profit).  It was a great reminder of how important it is for me to remember to consider the full cost of something before consenting to buy it. Cheap shrimp is only cheap because the people who are hired to raise it live horrible lives and to continue to buy it sends a loud and clear signal to those in power that this is an acceptable way to do business.  That's not a message that I want to send.

But all is not lost.  Grescoe doesn't call for us to give up eating seafood altogether and he even admits that since he began the journalistic work that led to this book he's actually started eating more fish.  He's just more conscious of the choices that he makes and this is what he encourages us to do as well.  His references are great and point one to tons of resources, if one is so inclined, and he also provides simple, easy-to-remember rules-of-the-road. He includes a long list of commonly eaten fish and divides them into categories (No, Never; Depends, Sometimes; and Yes, Always) and then explains why each fish made each category. His criteria include how the fish are caught, the impact on local peoples and environments, and the current health of that particular stock of fish. I think it's really helpful.

The good news for me is that both Herring and Mackerel, my two favorite fish, are on the "Yes, Always" list. The bad news is that I can no longer eat guilt-free sushi. I'll still eat it, but I'll order different things than I usually do (darn it! No more tuna!), but, to put a positive spin on it, that opens me up to discover all new fish that could be even more delicious.

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