Last month I saw the author of Bottomfeeder, Taras Grescoe, speak at Book Passages in the Ferry Building. Me and seven other people. Three were his friends. It was admittedly an unseasonably warm evening but I expected a higher turn out.
Taras is a young man, almost shy, to the point I didn't buy the book. His hesitation became my own. He was solid in the content of the book but a salesperson he's not. Which is too bad because his book is a winner. After reading it from the library, I'm sold.
Bottomfeeder is to seafood what Omnivore's Dilemma is to corn, what Uncertain Peril is to the seed. This book is a top of the list read for anyone with an appetite for fish and half a conscious to eat responsibly.
Part travelogue, part food memoir, part wake up call to the state of global fish stocks, Taras begins his journey of seafood in NYC exploring fish on the menus of four star restaurants. He travels to the fish markets of Japan for an investigation of blue fin tuna, to Marseilles for bouillabaisse and with many stops in between ends in Nova Scotia at a factory for fishsticks. In each place he eats the local catch, explores the history, traditions and present day wild stocks of seafood. And he interacts with salty characters on every shore.
Following him down to the waterfront, I watched him strip to his trunks, don flippers and a snorkel mask, and swim a few yards out to his racks of oysters..... Emerging from the water, he bade me follow him into a stone toolshed, where he responded to all my questions while standing unselfconsciously naked. (He explained that it is healthier to let the breeze dry one off after swimming.)
Each chapter puts a face to the men and women fishing, farming or working the fisheries. The people that experience or deny first hand the affects of overfishing, of destructive methods of aquaculture, invasive species, dead zones and unsustainable fishing methods.
As I was shown more sores and patches of dry skin on slender arms and legs, the old woman with the thick glasses took my notepad and wrote in it, in a schoolgirlish hand: "Dysentery. Ulcer. Womitting. Itching. Breathing problem." All of them, Selapan explained, were maladies that afflicted the people of Riverbank Street since the shrimp farms arrived.
Each destination brings to the surface new challenges to maintaining species of fish native to our varied cultural diets. But Grescoe doesn't let the book drown in despair. He is a constant fish eater with no plans to give it up. He chooses his fish wisely and hopes we will too.
Surprisingly McDonald's has chosen wisely. Their Filet-O-Fish sandwich uses Alaskan pollock whose stocks are still abundant. The Alaskan pollock, live in the middle of the water column, which mean destructive bottom-trawls do not have to be used in their capture.
Several times reading this book I day dreamed taking up post at the local fish counter with a patent leather purse on the crook of my arm. And swinging it at people that ordered fish from the list to avoid. Tara's takes a smarter approach. ... knowledge is power, he writes.
My fierceness would be more effective copying and distributing the appendix from Bottomfeeder that includes tools for choosing seafood with informational web sites, principles to follow, questions to ask. He succinctly explains and categorizes the good, bad and the ugly of fishing methods. And he gives his opinion of seafood to never, sometimes or absolutely indulge in.
While the contents of the entire book are relevant and important beyond the fish we find or don't find on our plates there are two chapters that stand out. The first deconstructs shrimp farming in India and the second focuses on salmon farming in British Columbia. Reading them you may find yourself considering a patent leather purse as I did.
But remember, knowledge is power and we can no longer afford to be ignorant of the way sea food arrives on our plate. The price has a face and it's much too high.
20 hours ago