What appears on our national and global dinner plates has come under intense scrutiny in the last decade, as many of the world’s food production practices are devastating the natural abundance and health of planet Earth. In the wake of such eye-opening books as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and, more recently, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals comes journalist Paul Greenberg’s excellent investigation into global fisheries and fishing practices, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.

Admittedly, Greenberg is a fish guy. As a youngster he avidly fished for bass, first in a pristine pond near his Connecticut home; then, as a teenager, he took to the sea in a beat-up aluminum boat. “I thought of the sea,” he writes, “as a vessel of desires and mystery, a place of abundance I did not need to question.”

But boys grow up, and other interests crowd out childhood passions. The allure of fishing faded until Greenberg decided to revive the habit in the early 2000s. Returning to his former fishing grounds, he found that the flounder, blackfish and mackerel that he used to catch in abundance had moved on, dwindled or disappeared. He traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and down into Florida, “fishing all the way” and meeting many fisherman, all of whom had the same complaint: “Smaller fish, fewer of them, shorter fishing windows . . . fewer species to catch.”

Visiting fish markets (another childhood habit), Greenberg noted that “four varieties of fish consistently appeared that had little to do with the waters adjacent to the fish market in question: salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna.” Over the next decade, he determined to find out why “this peculiarly consistent flow of four fish from the different waters of the globe” was ending up on our dinner plate.

What follows is an extraordinarily attentive, witty, sensitive and commonsense narrative about salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna that covers their origination, life cycles and the ever-evolving saga of their exploitation by humans. Backed by rigorous research and enlivened by Greenberg’s man-on-the-spot reportage, the book charts the history and rise of the world’s appetite for these four fish, the industrial fishing practices and the “epochal shifts” in these fish populations—from habitat damage and overfishing of the last wild stocks to the often dubious farming and aquaculture enterprises that now dominate the fish production marketplace.

While Greenberg believes that we need the oceans’ harvest to feed an ever-increasing human population, he acknowledges that a “primitive” human greed has helped land us in an ecological tangle. But this inspiring book doesn’t just diagnose the problem; Greenberg puts forth an ameliorating set of principles that can help us to live in better balance with the “wild oceans” that sustain us.

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