Monday, October 06, 2008

See the tuna fleets clearing the sea

A few years back, Taras Grescoe wrote an entertaining travel/food book called the Devil's Picnic, which described his quest to try prohibited foods and beverages, including absinthe and raw milk cheese. His most recent book, Bottomfeeder, is just as entertaining, but also describes a serious global problem, namely, the devasation to the world's ecosystems caused by man's appetite for seafood.

Grescoe visits the home of many seafoods to show how the market for food is crushing seafood stocks. In the Chesapeake Bay, he notes how overfishing and environmental damage have destroyed oysterbeds. Around Marseilles, he shows how invasive plantsand overfishing are wrecking the habitats for the fish that define bouillaibaise. In one of the more disturbing chapters he visits the shrimp farms of India, where much of your bottomless shrimp plate most likely begins life. These places are cesspools of chemicals and disease and they tend to kill off the natural mangrove habitats essential to biodiversity and sustainable fishing. Throughout, efficient but destructive fishing techniques are smashing habitats.

Grescoe isn't all doom and gloom. He does point out solutions that might improve things. He notes that product labeling in Japan is excellent, describing the source and the means of catching. In the Chesapeake Bay, he shows that farming oysters just might bring them back. Finally he notes that there are plenty of seafoods available that are not destructive.

The title of the book comes from what Grescoe believes we must become if we are to prevent the elimination of whole swathes of sealife. He argues that by going down the foodchain to the lower forms, including sardines, shellfish and, yes, jellyfish, we can get the health benefits of seafood without wrecking the environment at the same time. McDonald's gets a rare pat on the back when Grescoe notes that the highly sustainable pollock is the source for the Filet o' Fish.

I have picked up and put down a number of books on the state of seafood in the past year, but this one is a winner. Grescoe combines the amusing stories of travel, a strong love for food and a study of environmental impact that make for a great read.

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