Review: Bottomfeeder: How To Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood

bottomfeeder covers image

American and Canadian covers

Taras Grescoe is the ultimate ecotarian; he stopped eating meat a decade ago out of concerns about growth hormones, factory farms etc in a time when organic happy meat was expensive and hard to find. But he loves seafood, with its thousands of varieties, and is convinced that the Omega 3 oils are critical to our brain development and maintenance. He writes in the introduction:

I began writing this book knowing that ours might be among the last generations in history able to enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught fish. ...when I started planning my voyage, a decade of fish eating had left me half-educated about some of the crucial issues surrounding seafood...I heard all the talk about sustainable seafood, but I was not sure how to walk the walk.

But learn he did, and he writes about his trip eating his way around the world. And he writes about it very well. Alas, after reading this book a lot of seafood is now off the menu; just reading the Monterey Aquarium Fish card will tell you what you should and shouldn't eat, but after reading this book you won't even want to.

monkfish photo


The bluefin tuna is obvious, we have covered it in TreeHugger many times. But the monkfish? It is his barometer about the seriousness of a restaurant about serving sustainable food and is shocked how often he finds it in reputable restaurants.

shrimp farm photo

Shrimp farm in Asia

Shrimp? After reading the descriptions of how it is farmed in India, china and Thailand I couldn't even think about eating one, my stomach turns. Anyone reading this book will never set foot in a Red Lobster again.

fish farm photo

fish farm in BC

Farmed salmon? The chemicals, the antibiotics, the colourants, the destruction of the habitats, all appalling. But the worst is the loss of real food like anchovies and other sources of fishmeal that are fed to them, up to four pounds for every one pound of bland salmon grown, anchovies and sardines that are packed with flavour, Omega 3s and that if they were fed to people instead of fish, would provide up to four times as much protein.

And good old Cap'n Highliner fishsticks? It could be caught in Chile, shipped to China for processing, sent by container to Vancouver, trucked across Canada to Nova Scotia, cut up and breaded and refrozen, and then shipped across the country to be sold in a Wal-Mart in San Diego.

It was shocking. But that doesn't mean that there isn't anything to eat; sardines and anchovies can be delicious, pollock and halibut are healthy, and you are doing the world a favour by eating carp or jellyfish, they are in surplus.

Grescoe notes that two hundred million people around the world depend on fishing for their livelihood, but are being put out of business by the factory trawlers, the dredging nets and the shrimp farms. He proposes something dear to our hearts: a Slow Fish Movement.

old man and the sea photo

Spencer Tracy as the Old Man and the Sea

Small scale fisheries are not messy, inefficient leftovers from a pre-industrial age, but nimble and efficient, responding quickly to changes in species abundance, while using far less fuel to catch fish than industrial fisheries. Slow fisheries would not produce vast fortunes, but they would allow a large number of people to live very well. They would also help keep coastal communities alive.

I think slow fish has equal potential as a gastronomic movement. Slow fish, after all are what I have been seeking since I started my journey. Slow fish are the sardines brought to port by day boat and eaten barbecued an olive's pit throw from the Atlantic. Slow fish are caught in traps or on fishing lines, but never in drift-nets or bottom-trawls. Slow fish are often bottom-feeders, healthily low on the food chain but high in flavour.

He concludes by suggesting that we can help the oceans by changing what we eat, that what we chose for dinner matters, particularly since half the fish in America is eaten in restaurants. If the chefs learn that you won't touch monkfish then they won't serve it.

He also strongly believes that fish is good for us, and that we all should eat more of it; he has it four times a week. But what he eats has completely changed, and he is proud to call himself a bottom-feeder. After reading this book I may well do the same. This is a must-read for anyone who cares about what they eat.

Bottomfeeder: How to eat ethically in a world of vanishing seafood

We will follow up with some of his recommendations.

More on Fish in TreeHugger:
US Should Push for Bluefin Tuna Fishing Moratorium, Conservation Groups Say
Overfishing Update: Endangered Atlantic Bluefin on the Menu at Nobu in London, EU to Reconsider Common Fishing Policy

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