Fish Tales: An Interview with Author Paul Greenberg

When I interviewed Paul Greenberg, the fisherman-turned-journalist was in the middle of a good week. The previous day, Greenberg, the author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, had caught a pair of striped bass off Breezy Point in Brooklyn. Considering recent declines in bass abundance, two respectable stripers is enough to land a week squarely in the win column.

In an age in which nearly all food is relentlessly manipulated and homogenized, the fact that a person can still snag forty pounds of untamed protein off the beach in Brooklyn qualifies as extraordinary, and Paul Greenberg wants to make sure his readers know that. Four Fish is many things – social history, science journalism, prognostication – but, at its heart, the book is a paean to fish, and to fishing. From his rapturous description of landing a tuna to the reverential capital letters with which he spells the word COD, it’s clear that Greenberg holds dear our ability to reap nature’s bounty without the mediating presence of agriculture. Fishing is our final direct link to the food chain, and that thought fills Greenberg with a kind of awe.

Author Paul Greenberg on a good day in 1970.

Yet Greenberg also recognizes that our exploding population requires ever more calories, and that farmed fish will inevitably provide a critical source of nourishment. We have to keep raising fish, then, but we have to do it better. Four Fish offers both diagnosis – why do we eat the fish that we eat, and into what crises have they led us? – and prescription, advocating for several species of cultivable fish that can sustainably meet our needs. Greenberg imagines a world in which farmed fish alleviate the pressure on wild stocks, in which obtaining cheap protein doesn’t destroy ecosystems, and in which humans can forever, albeit carefully, harvest wild food.

Sage Magazine spoke with Paul Greenberg about the reaction to Four Fish, the future of genetically-modified salmon, and what decidedly un-Kosher seafood will be appearing on his Seder plate this year.


SM: How have various stakeholders – from fisheries biologists to fish farmers to fishermen – responded to the recommendations you make in Four Fish? What kind of feedback have you gotten?

Paul Greenberg: I haven’t had any major conflicts with any of the groups. Fish farmers are accustomed to getting beaten up in the press, because there’s this body that says that all wild fish are good and all farmed fish are bad. So they were pleased to have their perspective taken into account.

The biggest complaint I got from fishermen, actually, was from the hook-and-line bluefin [tuna] guys, who I don’t think liked being portrayed as pursuers of an endangered species. They’re a pretty sustainable fishery in a vacuum, and they see themselves as being the ones who are doing it right, whereas the Europeans are destroying the stock with purse-seining.

But I also had one fishermen from Chesapeake Bay who was about eighty [years old], who told me he felt like every word in this book is true, and I was really touched by it. I feel like people sometimes give me more credit than I deserve.


One of the themes that emerges from the book is how much disagreement exists over what constitutes a healthy, fishable stock. For example, one biologist looks at the Gulf of Maine cod stocks and declares them mostly recovered, while another considers the same stocks nearly collapsed. What’s the source of that disagreement, and how can we move toward more certainty in our evaluation of fishery health?

Greenberg: If you talked to a layperson, they might tell you that fisheries managers go out and count all the fish and tell us how many we should catch. Which, of course, is not the case at all – fisheries biologists sample a small part of the ocean, and come up with models based on certain assumptions that are not necessarily one hundred percent in tune with reality. Fisheries biologists are simply doing the best they can with a huge amount of territory.

Deciding how you’re going to manage a fishery depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. There are two goals I heard again and again from my sources: on the one hand, we can have a sportfisherman’s scenario, where you have a low harvest and a high abundance of fish. The other scenario is to have high harvest and low abundance, which is the commercial argument.

And, although I initially came at it from a sport fisherman’s perspective, and wanted to see more abundance, I started to see the negative effect of restricting commercial fishing. You lose the functionality of the waterfront [with excessive restrictions], and if you drive too many fishermen out of business then you get condos coming in, and soon the waterfront is not a waterfront anymore. I think in a way we might have swung too far on the pendulum toward the sport fishing lobby, and we need to think about how we can constructively rebuild working waterfronts, and restore commercial fishermen as a visible presence in our lives.


Presumably, though, there must be some way of returning to a scenario of high abundance and high harvest, right?

Greenberg: That requires restraint for an extended period of time. If we really want to rebuild stocks, we’re going to have to lay off them.

In the case of the bluefin, people from Carl Safina to hook-and-liners will tell you that we should shut down purse-seine fishing altogether in the Mediterranean. Right now we have a good year-class of bluefin that just came to maturity a year ago – it’s the first big spike we’ve had in years, and it might be our last chance to protect those fish. We need some sort of moratorium on that year class to preserve it.


Changing tacks for a minute, you wrote a piece earlier this year about AquaBounty’s creation of a genetically-modified salmon, and how society doesn’t need a GM fish. Still, given that global population just crossed 7 billion and will continue rising, couldn’t a genetically-modified salmon someday be a useful tool for meeting the world’s ever-growing demand for food?

Greenberg: [Genetic modification] is a point of last resort, but we’re not there with fish yet. We’re still working on [improving] feed efficiency for salmonids through breeding, and we’re getting better every year. While the AquaBounty fish grows twice as fast, it requires almost as much feed – optimistic scenarios say it uses only 10% less feed [than a non-GM salmon]. But a modest improvement in feed efficiency is not an equation that’s going to sustainably feed ten billion people.

I would rather see us look at unmodified fish that might be brought into culture. There are a number of different fish that have tremendous growth rates but aren’t fully understood yet, like yellowtail. There are fish like cobia, which grow extremely quickly and do really well in close containment.

We’re just scratching the surface with which species we might try, but people get obsessed with these brand-name fish like salmon that everybody recognizes. At the end of the day, I think the creation of GM salmon is about making a profit play, a stock play, to get people excited to invest in AquaBounty, rather than about the future of aquaculture.


Lately it seems like the ‘social history of fish’ has become its own literary subgenre, with great books about cod, shad, and menhaden appearing in the last decade. What unsung species of fish do you think is most ripe for its own social history?

Greenberg: What really needs to be done is a book about algae and phytoplankton. I was thinking about doing an article called, “The Little Unicellular Organism that Could.” That’s what’s going to be feeding the world eventually.


One of the charming things in Four Fish is your description of how your passion for fish, and fishing, blossomed in Long Island Sound. Do you still fish in Long Island Sound, and are you engaged in its conservation in any way?

Greenberg: I’d like to see Connecticut and the Sound be a force toward bringing seafood closer to the epicenters of populations. When you’re going to have a planet of 10 billion, you can no longer continue to treat the oceans as a waste disposal system – it needs to become a food system. And that has to be fully realized right at ground zero, right at the population centers like New York City. The next book I’m working on is loosely titled The Fish Next Door, and it’s about the importance of returning local fisheries to our lives.


Last year you put an oyster on your Seder plate to call attention to the plight of oysters in the Gulf of Mexico. Any early frontrunner for the honor of gracing your plate this year?

Greenberg: I think we’ll have to see how the oyster beds are doing. You know, I don’t normally seek out traif (non-Kosher food) to put on the Seder plate. I used an oyster last year because Passover is about remembrance of past tragedies, as well as future hope, and the Gulf is a tragedy that’s going to unfold over a number of years. This year it could very well be a bluefin tuna, or maybe the scale of a bluefin tuna – you certainly wouldn’t want to put a chunk of tuna on your plate just to make a point.


Featured Image on Homepage: “Still life with Bluefin Tuna” by Flickr User KQEDQuest

Benjamin Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, Earth Island Journal, and elsewhere. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of SAGE Magazine. Check out his writing at and hit him up at @bengoldfarb13.

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