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Essay
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Art of the Wild

Essay
For the Love of Fish
At a time when seafood guides abound and environmentalists
argue about eating farmed versus wild species, an author aims to change the way we think about sea life.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food
By Paul Greenberg
The Penguin Press, 304 pages, $25.95

Environmentalists often use the term “charismatic megafauna” to describe animals like grizzlies and wolves that are majestic, appealing, and easily enlisted to capture the public’s attention. These creatures provoke empathy; that’s why polar bears are the public face of global warming. Fish, by comparison, are lackluster. They don’t rear their young in picture-perfect landscapes or lend themselves to anthropomorphism. They’re far less apt to trigger our humanity. Sure, we’re disturbed by the news about overfishing and ocean acidification and islands of plastic stretching across the Pacific. But how often do we stop to really think about the fish themselves—the individual species that have evolved unique and awesome traits—as animals worthy of our respect and admiration?

Paul Greenberg is a writer who loves fish. In Four Fish his immense appreciation for them is the current that propels the narrative forward, transforming the book from yet another environmental requiem into more of an ode to fish. It’s about fish as food, and how to reconcile the increasing human appetite with the biological realities of ocean ecosystems. But more important, it’s a persuasive argument for treating this precious protein source with more reverence.

The book examines four types of fish, chosen to represent “four discrete steps humanity has taken in its attempts to master the sea.” These animals are among the most compelling characters—no small feat beside the assortment of idiosyncratic, single-minded entrepreneurs and innovators we meet. Bluefin tuna as Greenberg conjures them are vaguely erotic in their vigor and wildness, “their slick, scaleless, hard-shell skins barely containing the surging muscle power within.” Cod are like proletarian masses, able to create strength in numbers. As redwoods came to dominate forests by limiting other trees’ access to sunlight, so cod “form a kind of predatory canopy over the continental shelves,” keeping potential predators at bay by forming “marauding hordes . . . that monopolized the most productive swaths of current.”

Greenberg’s passion for fish makes you root for them, even as humans scoop them out of the water by the millions to process into homogenous frozen filets and canned seafood products, or worse. In a particularly shocking example of our diminished respect, he observes a Yupik Eskimo couple, allowed to catch king salmon during a “subsistence opening only” day on the Yukon River, pull up next to an oil tanker and trade a beautiful 30-pound king salmon for supermarket packages of frozen meat. Afterward, he can’t shake the image. “If we are going to continue to eat wild salmon,” he writes, “we must eat them as the rarest of delicacies, and their price should reflect their rarity in the world.”

The question of whether we should continue to eat large quantities of wild seafood, or whether we should focus on developing better—more efficient, less environmentally harmful—ways of domesticating them is central to Four Fish. Many of the zany human characters are fish farmers who dream of producing affordable and bountiful protein. Take Yonathan Zohar, the Israeli endocrinologist who figured out how to make European sea bass spawn in captivity, paving the way for untold experiments—of varying success—in fish farming. His lab discovered the hormone that makes the fish spawn, created a synthetic version of it, and then developed an implant that slowly releases the chemical into the fish’s bloodstream to make it discharge all its eggs or sperm at once instead of over space and time as it would naturally.

Zohar’s story is both heroic and troubling. On one hand, it celebrates the tireless pursuit of usable knowledge. On the other, it shows how far we’re willing to go to take a creature’s wildness away so we can grow it in cages to ensure we have a predictable harvest of seafood. Greenberg seems bothered by the notion of fish penned up in nets, unable to undertake their most basic of activities: swimming. And he notes the potential environmental problems if farmed fish escape. But he’s more concerned that if we don’t farm fish, some species will rapidly disappear. Greenberg travels to fish farms around the world: a Canadian operation that grows salmon along with seaweed and mussels to limit pollution; a Scottish cod farm that uses tanks representing the exact sunlight levels of a specific month to trick cod into spawning; a series of deep-ocean pens in Hawaii where an Australian environmentalist is raising kahala in hopes of easing pressures on tuna.

Unlike many environmental books that overwhelm readers with dismaying news and then offer only a vague and unsatisfying prescription, Four Fish unfolds as an earnest quest for the right path forward. Ultimately, Greenberg concludes, we will have to rely on a mix of wild and farmed seafood—but not just any mix. Wild populations of commercially caught fish must be managed according to specific goals, including the protection of forage fish (those now used as feed for aquaculture as well as for traditional farm animals) and the designation of at least one percent of the world’s oceans as “no-catch areas.” As for farmed fish, the message is even simpler: some, but not others. “Humans should purposefully select a handful of fish species that can stand up to industrial-sized husbandry,” Greenberg writes, “with the goal of compensating for the huge gap between wild supply and growing human demand.” Farmed kahala, yes. Farmed bluefin tuna, no.

What ultimately makes Four Fish so readable is that it’s not really about the plight of the world’s oceans. It’s about a serious problem and how, with integrity and foresight, we might be able to solve it. And what, after all, is more human than that?

Colorado writer Hillary Rosner is a frequent contributor to Audubon.

 

EDITORS’ CHOICE

Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty
By Craig Welch
HarperCollins, 274 pages, $25.99

Monkey blood, baboon noses, tiger penises: “Almost anything in nature can become contraband,” writes Craig Welch in Shell Games, a book about the dangerous and strange new world of wildlife smuggling. Forget elephant tusks and alligator skins, globalization has created markets for items much more exotic, and none is so odd as the geoduck, a phallic Pacific Northwest clam that can weigh 14 pounds and live for 150 years. Catches are highly regulated, but booming demand in China, where a single three-pound geoduck can cost $100, means savvy poachers are willing to risk fines and imprisonment. The book, which spans the world from Beijing to Brooklyn, resembles a spy thriller, with shady fishermen and double agents. The heroes are a rugged bunch of adrenaline-hungry workaholic wildlife cops. “It was like a Walt Disney movie that turned into Stephen King,” one crook says of the geoduck trade. While some villains end up behind bars, the fight to halt wildlife smuggling is far from over. “It never ends,” says one cop. “It just changes.” And becomes weirder.—Justin Nobel
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Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times
By Paul Rogat Loeb
St. Martin’s Griffin, 381 pages, $16.99

“We often hesitate to get involved in our communities,” writes author and veteran activist Paul Rogat Loeb. “We’re too busy, we say. It’s hard to imagine how we might make room for more public commitments.” Yet by addressing this very reluctance—speaking to those who feel they should be more engaged in political life but have hesitated to take the plunge—Loeb’s Soul of a Citizen, first published in 1999, has found a large and devoted audience. Loeb has now revised and updated the book, with new reflections on the Obama campaign and the challenges of climate change. His wager is that hearing the stories of what motivated others to finally act will make us more likely to do so ourselves. One environmentalist, who was deeply moved learning about Alaskan wolves being hunted from helicopters, asks, “What difference could the shooting of a few Alaskan wolves possibly make in my life?” Still, he says, “I tell the story anyway,” because the true sense of loss that he initially felt inspired him to push the boundaries of his compassion. Relating such incidents, Loeb is willing to risk the occasional cliché (“No one political group or viewpoint has a corner on idealism”) to get at some kernels that are as genuinely wise as they are sentimental. “The more we tell and retell stories about our commitments,” he writes, “the more we can strengthen our hope.”—Mark Engler
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Insectopedia
By Hugh Raffles
Pantheon Books, 465 pages, $29.95

In this faceted work, anthropologist Hugh Raffles zooms in, quite literally, on a universe that most of us ignore most of the time: that of insects. Beginning with “Air”—an essay describing the moment when explorers in airplanes were first baffled to discover the millions of insects that course through the atmosphere daily, Raffles offers a series of 26 essays, arranged in alphabetical order from “Air” to “Zen and the Art of Zzz’s.” Each opens a window onto our human attempts to understand the proximate insectarian universe. Some essays catalogue attempts to know and to see: In “Chernobyl,” Raffles follows Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a scientific illustrator who has made a life painting the abnormalities of bugs exposed to nuclear radiation. Other essays depict ways we humans interact with bugs: In “Generosity (the Happy Times)” Raffles visits masters of Chinese cricket fighting and recounts how the Chinese have long thought of cicadas as “singing brothers.” Whether he’s informing us about form or deformities, art or culture, Raffles is continually circling the question of what it means to rub shoulders with these myriad and mysterious species, each of which is a precise, elaborate form. He marvels, along with the French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre, that insects act in such distinct ways and yet live without “self-knowledge or consciousness.” Raffles is in awe, as Fabre was, that bug instincts “generate flawless behavior that solves the most complex problems of existence.’’ As Raffles shows our nearby neighbors to be at once dangerous and beautiful, common and incomprehensible, he refracts a world that is newly fascinating.—Tess Taylor
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FILM
Looking for a good scare? Add these eco-themed horror movies to your Netflix queue.

The Host
A notorious real-life incident inspired this monster movie’s opening scene: It’s 2000, and a U.S. military mortician orders a Korean subordinate to empty hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde into the sink and thus, ultimately, into Seoul’s Han River. Jump ahead a few years: An enormous amphibious creature with a penchant for eating people leaps from the river. The film follows a wonderfully dysfunctional family in search of its youngest, who was snatched by the mutant. Think Little Miss Sunshine meets Alien—this cautionary environmental tale is suspenseful yet surprisingly funny and touching.—Alisa Opar

 

Birdemic: Shock and Terror
As horror flicks go, Birdemic is arguably one of the best of the worst, with wooden acting, cheesy dialogue, and corny special effects—homicidal birds that are more reminiscent of Nintendo’s “Duck Hunt” than Hitchcock. What sets the film apart is its blatant environmental messages. The hero sells solar panels and craves a hybrid car. An ornithologist stresses over climate change. And a hippie guards a forest that’s a refuge from the avian terror plaguing the NorCal-esque town beyond. California suburbia, best keep your eye on the sky.—Julie Leibach

 

Black Sheep
A New Zealand farmer tries to create the perfect sheep, but his barnyard project goes terribly wrong. An altered animal infects his herd, turning its members into carnivorous killers that attack anything within biting distance, including people, who mutate into enormous sheep that gorge on human flesh. A trio of unlikely heroes springs into action: sheep-phobic Henry; Tucker, the fearless farmhand; and Experience, a feng shui–embracing activist. Black Sheep is a must-see for fans of horror movies and comedies. But insomniacs should take heed: Don’t expect that counting sheep will ever again help you fall asleep.—Susan Cosier

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Art of the Wild

It took four years to shoot, but Eirik Johnson’s Sawdust Mountain (Aperture, 143 pages, $50) has been a lifetime in the making. It’s a pictorial narrative of places around his childhood home in Washington—a state that has traditionally seen its natural resources both as cultural icons and economic drivers. The modern setting and overcast light reveal uncertainty as towns and nature respond to the post-boom days of industry. An image of jellylike balls—salmon eggs—represents the hatcheries compensating for depleted runs. Many logging operations that plundered old-growth forests have closed, and today timber comes largely from tree plantations (above). “The future is not entirely bleak,” says Johnson, “but there has to be a balance between finding new ways of getting by and protecting the environment that exists.”—Julie Leibach
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