Nov 24 2010

Book Review: The Murky Ethics of Eating Fish

Bottomfeeder was as well-researched as an advanced college textbook…though most college textbook authors don’t travel around the world for over a year, meeting fish farmers, touring factories and fish markets, and even eating potentially life-threatening foods like puffer fish. Over fifteen years ago, Taras Grescoe cut meat and poultry out of his diet, keeping fish as the only ‘flesh’ he ate.  Eating seafood seemed like the best choice.  After all, fish have half the fat content of beef and seem to be in endless supply.

When he started his journey, his 10 plus years of eating only fish had left him half-educated about food issues surrounding seafood.  He knew it was best to steer clear of top feeders like tuna, salmon, and swordfish, whose position at the top of the food chain means that they’re likely to concentrate toxins in their flesh.  He knew certain fish were overfished.  And he carried his Monterey Bay Aquarium card, despite his vagueness about the meaning behind much of what it said.

I initially picked up Bottomfeeder because Grescoe’s mindset sounded similar to my own.  I stopped eating meat a year ago.  I still occasionally eat fish, though not in the quantities that Grescoe does.  I was aware of certain environmental issues surrounding fish and fish farming, but did not know specifics.  I’m sure there are many differences between Grescoe and myself, but the most important one to me is that I had neither the time nor inclination to travel around the world researching fish….and he did.  Bottomfeeder is an elegant, jaw-dropping, and at times painful book about the state of our oceans and bays and the life that lives both in the waters and around the waters.

Upon finishing Bottomfeeder, while I don’t feel like I could rattle off facts to any random passerby, I do feel much better equipped when I go out to eat or see fish in the grocery store.  At this stage, I’m content eating a strictly vegetarian diet at home and occasionally  indulging in fish at restaurants I trust.  I plan on seeking out bottom feeders or fish that are either overpopulated or aren’t caught using invasive, destructive methods.  Basically, after this book, I’ve circled back to consulting my seafood watch card, now with a MUCH better understanding of what the card means.

I’m also aware that to really understand the where the fish you’re debating eating was raised and how it was processed, it’s necessary to delve deeper than you may initially feel comfortable with.   A restaurant is not required to tell you where their fish came from.  If the restaurant appears unsure or unaware, chances are high that it came from an unsustainable, polluted farm.  When shopping, there is no such thing as a country of origin label on any processed fish (fried, battered, chopped).  If there is a label, the country of origin listed means the FINAL place the fish was packaged before being shipped off to the store.

As is the case with meat, vegetables and fruit, know your purveyors and ask questions.  Why should I eat something that lacks transparency? As I read Bottomfeeder, each story or fact led to further questions.  Why does the fish have toxins in it?  What are the conditions like for both the workers and those who live near the farm or water?  Why does one particular fish cost this much?  Why are these fish caught this way?  What happens to by catch?  One could claim that asking these questions takes the fun out of eating;  I counter that there’s nothing more satisfying than preparing or dining on food that was raised, grown, or caught with awareness.  The difference is both in the taste and where who your money goes to—directly to the farmer or to some faceless corporation.

Grescoe divided Bottomfeeder into 10 chapters, each encompassing a stop on his worldwide fish journey. At each stop, he learned and absorbed the local customs related to fish, toured fish markets, tried the local delicacy, talked with native researchers, fishermen, and restaurants, all to gain a global understanding of fish industry.  At the end of his journey and in the book’s epilogue, Grescoe remains a fish eater, but a very selective one.  He’s disappointed in the continual collapse of worldwide fish stocks and feels that government, and not industry, needs to oversea both food safety and fisheries.

My attempts to summarize Bottomfeeder have proven to be nearly impossible.   In reality, there is no perfect way to summarize a book of this magnitude.  As I read the book, I could have taken notes on nearly every sentence written.  It’s rare to read a nonfiction book with such a nuanced approach to the subject matter.  This was a passion project that was able to remain flexible and focused.  Instead of trying to summarize the book for you, I’m going to recount a few facts that stuck with me.  I encourage you all to stop by your local bookstore and browse the Appendix:  Tools for Choosing Seafood.  This appendix gives you detailed facts on which fish to eat and why.

Trophic Levels

The ocean is divided into the following levels:

1-phytoplankton, seaweeds, and sea grasses.  These are the primary producers that fix energy from the sun and make it available to life forms in the other levels.

5-large predators—shark and tuna

2-zoo plankton, like krill

3 and 4-most of the fish we eat; carnivores that hunt and eat the herbivores from level 2.

In trophic levels, size is less relevant than eating habits.  The closer to the bottom of the trophic scale humans eat, the better it is for the environment.

The world’s average trophic level is declining, for several reasons:  overfishing, global warming, pollution, and invasive species.  Ocean life is becoming simpler and full of bottomfeeders.

Fishing Methods


  • Hook and Line—the original method
  • Trolls: little by catch
  • Purse Seines: echo-sounding sonar to target schools of fish

Not So Good, and Bad:

  • Long Lines: can be 60 miles long and carry up to 30,000 hooks.  Much by catch (sharks and turtles)
  • Bottom trawler: “Like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds for food”; destroy miles of seabed each day

In 2005, Americans consumed 5.2 million tons of seafood, 86% of it imported.  50% of American seafood supply is eaten in restaurants.  Red Lobster is the largest seafood restaurant chain.  It’s headquartered in landlocked Orlando and buys directly from overseas suppliers.  Catching, raising, and processing fish can happen in sustainable ways (there are even such things as good fish farms).  However, most modern practices are either harmful to the environment, the surrounding species, the surrounding culture, or the eater.

43% of fish eaten in the world are now farmed.  Without getting into a debate about trapping fish in pens versus letting them swim free, fish farm corporations are ignoring farming’s impact on our waterways.  Farmed fish escape frequently and disrupt the natural ecosystem around them.  Fish farms require constant rounds of chemicals to keep the fish ‘healthy’.  Massive amounts of fish excrement eliminate surrounding life.  Though this is a complicated problem, Grescoe eloquently summed it up with this sentence:  “Fish farmers are emptying the very oceans they claim to be saving.”

In a few cases, farming fish is the best way to return fish to a bigger population.  Less than 1% of the original oyster population remains in the Chesapeake Bay, due to urban pollution and poultry and pig farms.  As the bay continues to be filled with nitrogen, the Chesapeake needs oysters.  Nitrogen feeds algae and allows it to thrive.  Oysters feed by filtering algae through their gills. In their absence, algae remain, warming the water and harming other fish.  One solution to the damage caused by the algae is the creation oyster farms.

Some points on specific fish:


In the UK there are 11,500 chippys, which translate to about 250 million servings a year.  Most chip shop owners in the UK have contracts with big frozen food suppliers.  In cod, fecundity increases with age and size, meaning that older females produce the most eggs.  It was these big spawners that the Newfoundland fishermen were targeting, which ultimately contributed to the cod collapse.  The remaining cod have proven to be less resilient to disease and have since lost their niche in the food chain.

Half of the worlds cod is thought to come from the Barents Sea.  At least 1/5 of the cod harvested from its waters is caught illegally.  Cod caught in the Barents Sea is sent to China to be filleted, frozen, and then sent back to England.

So what happens when you remove the majority of cod from the oceans?  Trophic levels have declined and the top of the food chain is dominated by smaller fish like herring, capelin, and mackerel.  The offspring of the few cod that remain are subjected to severe competition/predation by their former prey


Darden, the restaurant operator that owns Red Lobster, buys 44 million pounds of imported shrimp a year.  Three quarters of the world’s shrimp production comes from Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and China. If you are eating cheap shrimp today, it almost certainly comes from, in Grescoe’s words, a “turbid pesticide and antibiotic filled, virus ridden pond”.

There are 2,000 known species of shrimp, of which 200 are used for human consumption.  Interestingly, only 20 shrimp species are available in North American.  Farmed shrimp are fed the flesh of wild fish (typically bottomfeeders) as well as a plethora of pellets and antibiotics.  It takes at least 2 pounds of ground up wild fish flesh to produce one pound of farmed shrimp flesh.


Tuna is one of the worst seafood choices you can make.  Besides being high in mercury, tuna caught using long lines leads to high levels of by catch.  Remember that the dolphin friendly logo isn’t a guarantee of good fishing practices.  Also, tuna cans tell you nothing—neither the ocean of ocean nor the species of fish.


The cooling of the Arctic Ocean splits salmon into two distinct species : Pacific and Atlantic.  Presently, most salmon are raised in farms.  A big farm can go through $20,000 worth of pellets (fish food containing ground fish meal, additives, and antibiotics) a day. Fish farms, including of salmon, can bring disease to wild fish.  Farmed salmon frequently escape their pens, disrupting the natural aquaculture and feeding on the wild.


Grescoe defines bottomfeeders as abundant, small species that tend to be full of omega-3s and other brain-healthy nutrients.  These can include sardines, anchovies, barramundi, mussels, jellyfish,  mackerel, herring, and oysters.  Bottomfeeders, such as sardines, tend to be low in saturated fats, mercury, dioxins, and high in fatty and amino acids.  In fish, amino acids counterbalance the osmotic pressure of the salty ocean—the saltier the water, the more amino acids a fish needs.

Only a small percentage of the world catch of small and medium pelagic fish make it to our tables.  Instead, these fish are used as fertilizer, pig feed, chicken feed, omega3 supplements, and bait. The fact that many people wouldn’t even consider eating sardines or anchovies is a fiction invented by the fish farming industry.