Bottomfeeder: How To Eat Ethically In A World Of Vanishing Seafood

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.


Unknown said...

You've sold me - I'm requesting this book at the library today!

Green Bean said...

Wow. What a powerful, beautifully written book - though I cannot believe that no one came to see him talk! The seas are in such trouble, I'm glad that you are getting the word out about this book.

I am a vegetarian and my family never eats any seafood product, ever, but I'll recommend this book to anyone who does.

Great review, Katrina.

Donna said...

Looks like I'd better add this one to my list! You know how to pick them. :) Thanks for a really great review.

You're really lucky to live in a place where so many authors come to visit. Too bad this guy didn't get a good crowd, but you never know but one of the seven might write a review on her blog and get everybody to read the book anyway!

Kris said...

The seafood thing is interesting in that it doesn't seem to have captured people's imaginations in the same way that land products have (at least, not in Australia where I live). Maybe as you suggest, it needs a face.

The partner of a friend of mine line caught all his fish when he lived in our town. So sometimes they ate fish and sometimes they didn't. I respected his approach, taking responsibility for his engagement with the stocks available.

I eat fish, but with the sense that it might not be the best fish, so I'll read this and hopefully have some more knowledge and more power.

Kale for Sale said...

bobbi - I can't wait to hear wht you think of it.

green bean - I would recommend this book for a non-fish eater too because the travel and character aspect of it is so good. And the info on the ocean is invaluable. And .....

(Thank you.)

donna - And I love going to see authors. Somehow their books are more alive as a result of hearing some portion of it actually read in their voice. I've always liked being read to.

kris - You're right about seafood not capturing our imaginations in the same way as land products. I thought about that reading this book because the fish farms were in no way different than the feed lots where we raise beef but maybe the fact that it's done in water gives an illusion that all is pristine.

I like the story of your neighbor, which is how I grew up. I don't think I bought fish until my late 20's and I don't remember knowing anyone that bought fish. If you ate it, you caught it.

Please let me know if you read the book. I'd love to know what you think.

Anonymous said...

Oh thank you so much for writing about this. I haven't heard of the book, but it sounds like such an important piece of work. One we need, one I've been looking for, one that can plug some of the gaping holes in the information available to us. I'm going to hunt out a copy.

Kale for Sale said...

kathryn - You made my day. This book is an important read and it's written in a way that is entertaining too. Let me know what you think.

Lucy said...

Have just ordered it. My thoughts on seafood changed dramatically after reading Peter Singer and Jim Mason's book which, in Aust is called 'The Ethics of What We Eat'. I'm sure that title is slightly different in the U.S.

A great review. Can't wait to get reading.

Kale for Sale said...

lucy - Thanks for the tip on the book. The authors names sound familiar. I'd love to hear your response to Bottomfeeder.

Jenn said...

I haven't read the book yet, though I bought it a week ago.

I was mostly vegetarian with occasional lapses into seafood (around my period sushi was really better than Advil) - but cut it out a year after I discovered diary/egg/soy(legume) allergies.

Fish and seafood are the main thing that I abstain from eating because of ethics - we're killing all the fish in the sea. It's not good. I still miss sushi, but am blessed to be able to eat at an amazing vegan sushi place (I think the avocado tempura rolls are starting to show, though...)