Thursday, May 19, 2011

Taming the seas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, domestication, animals, fish

Certain conditions for the successful domestication of an animal were laid out by Francis Galton in an 1865 article, "The First Steps towards the Domestication of Animals" (Trans. Ethnological Soc. London, vIII, pp 122-137):
  • Hardiness
  • Fondness for Man (or at least Tolerance)
  • Desire of Comfort
  • Usefulness to Man
  • Breeding Freely (i.e. in all seasons)
  • Gregarious or Loyal and thus Easy to Tend
These traits have led historically to the domestication of livestock, such as cattle, sheep, swine and horses, and to certain pets, notably dogs. House cats are the prime example of an animal that is not gregarious, but is extraordinarily loyal to the comforts of a home. Can these criteria be applied to fish, and thus guide our efforts to "farm" them?

Paul Greenberg believes they can, and must be, so applied. In his book Four Fish:The Future of the Last Wild Food, he presents the demise of the wild fishery upon which much of human nutrition has depended, and its replacement by fish ranching. It is a bittersweet transition.

After growing up an avid fisherman, as an adult he noticed that fish markets displayed little of the diversity of the past, and had become dominated by just four varieties of fish: Salmon, Sea Bass, Cod and Tuna. The short version of his message is that salmon in the market are already mostly farmed, certain representatives of the "bass" and "cod" prototypes are getting that way, but tuna are unlikely ever to be a "manageable" fish, primarily because of Galton's principles. If a prediction made by Galton is accurate, we may thus expect the total extirpation of all species of tuna during this century, for "they are doomed to be gradually destroyed off the face of the earth as useless consumers of cultivated produce." While Galton was writing of land animals, it is likely that, once we have fished tuna to near extinction, the perception of them will shift to match that once attributed to wolves, as voracious competitors for fish we'd rather eat ourselves.

The book is composed of four long chapters, one per type of fish, plus a long concluding essay on what is needed for a sustainable fishery. To pick the most important criterion, I rely on that which informs sustainable sport hunting: most meat for most people is taken from domestic stock (in this case farmed fish), with smaller numbers left to sports fishermen. The "profession" of fisherman would thus go the way of the market hunter.

What is the possibility that any fish really matches all the Galton criteria? Pretty good, really. Two standouts: Kahala and Tilapia, one marine, one a freshwater fish. I've eaten farmed tilapia, and it is an excellent whitefish. In other words, it has the potential to replace bass and cod on the menu. The kahala, in the midst of being renamed "Kona Kampachi", could replace fattier fish like tuna. Where most "bass" type fish and all tuna will thrash themselves to death against nets meant to contain them, these fish are tolerant of confinement and, while not particularly "fond of man", are at least tolerant of being "managed".

In order to get ground truth on the state of each variety of the four fish, the author traveled the world, participating in sport fishing expeditions and visiting fish farms of all kinds. His is a mostly optimistic message. He hopes fisheries management will become more rational, but mostly we must rely on the power of human desperation: we will do better once it becomes absolutely imperative because our own survival depends on it. Agriculture resulted from such a paradigm shift about ten thousand years ago. We did it before, and we can do it again.

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