THE CLARION CALLS ringing out about our overfished oceans now constitute an entire horn section — yet the symphony still goes largely unheard. I was recently distressed to see Chilean sea bass — a fish on the very brink of extinction — at supposedly conscientious Whole Foods. Two new books are adding their voices to the din, each exploring the collapse of our global fisheries by focusing on one piece of it: a single species and a single town.
Tuna: A Love Story is aptly named. Author and marine artist Richard Ellis loves this fish. His rapt description of the physiology that makes tunas one of the fastest things in the ocean — they’re warm-blooded fish, odd as that seems — lends emotional urgency to his account of the collapsing tuna fishery. Ellis, author of Men and Whales and The Empty Ocean, has for years held the unenviable job of playing Cassandra outside the profit palaces of the world’s commercial fisheries. Here you get the distinct feeling he may be growing frustrated at the lack of response. A fish he describes as an “engineering marvel” is being hemmed in by a plethora of unconscionable fishing practices, and the world is doing little to stop it.
Ellis describes how “horse mackerel” went from being a junk fish to a delicacy worth more per ounce than gold. Sport fishermen enamored of its size made it popular to fish, and the burgeoning sashimi market — at first Japanese but quickly spreading round the globe — made it popular to eat. Once the prices got high enough, the money was just too good. Ellis lays out the gruesome details of industrial fishing, including drift-netting, in which miles-long nets float through the ocean killing everything in their path, and the insidious new practice of “tuna ranching,” or capturing juveniles and fattening them for the market in feedlot-like pens, a practice with dire consequences for the fish stocks. Nor does he much approve of the ancient Sicilian tradition of mattanza, where nets encircle the fish and draw them to the center to be gaffed. “Seeing a bluefin gaffed with spears,” writes Ellis, “is like watching a Thoroughbred racehorse hacked to death with an ax.”
Rich in description, Tuna is packed with information and occasionally repeats itself. How many times, you can almost hear the author thinking, do I have to say this stuff? Alas, the answer seems continually to be just a few more. It’s hard not to agree with marine biologist Sylvia Earle, whom Ellis sees at a whaling commission meeting. He asks her why an industry seems so intent on destroying its own livelihood. “Think of oil, timber, coal,” she tells him. “Whenever humans have had the opportunity to exploit a natural resource, they have over-exploited it.”
Mark Kurlansky is at first glance less outraged than Ellis, and yet The Last Fish Tale is no less a call to arms than Tuna. Kurlansky takes us through the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts, “America’s most original town.” He paints a vivid picture of a scrappy, individualistic, proudly blue-collar community that also embraced artists and dreamers. Writing from the fisherman’s point of view, he provides a window onto a rapidly vanishing lifestyle.
There are multiple threads to Gloucester’s story, which Kurlansky expertly weaves together. There’s the story of the immigrants — Sicilian, Irish, Scandinavian, Jewish, and Portuguese — who shaped the town. There’s the story of the fish that brought them there — the famed cod stocks, but also halibut, haddock, whiting, pollack, herring, mackerel, and later, when those fish grew scarce, redfish, skate, and Cape shark. There’s the story of fishing boats, schooners, then steam-powered vessels, then giant trawlers. And there’s the evolution of fishing, from hook-and-line, a difficult, backbreaking craft, to multiple lines, increasing yields, and eventually to dragging, which has been described as “strip-mining the sea.”
It’s shocking how soon fishermen realized dragging the ocean would harm fish stocks by killing juveniles: Kurlansky describes a parliamentary protest that England’s fishermen lodged against dragging nets in 1376. By the 1880s, when the first trawling vessel arrived in Gloucester, the British were already convening commissions to consider banning them. In 1911, Gloucester fishermen asked for legislation prohibiting trawling, describing it as “the greatest danger the fisheries have ever faced.”
Fast forward eighty years, to the collapse of the North American cod fishery, and you have to ask, What happened? How could we have failed to heed the warnings of the people closest to the resource? Kurlansky gives a distressing account of the antipathy between fishermen and environmentalists. While the two groups occasionally unite, as in the fight to prevent oil drilling on Georges Bank, Kurlansky suggests environmentalists have often failed to separate small fishermen from the real enemy: the powerful industrial fishing companies. Furthermore, regulation has too often played directly into the hands of the behemoths. Small fishermen struggle to eke out a living under “days at sea” restrictions, while giant factory ships haul in plenty under the same code.
Like Ellis, Kurlansky paints a harrowing picture: an ecosystem in peril and a world in maddening denial. He doesn’t pretend to have answers. But in weaving together the story of a town, its people, and its environment, he shows that when a natural resource is damaged, human culture pays a price as well — in homogeneity as well as lost profits. Unfortunately, we seem all too willing to sacrifice real social diversity for sanitized nostalgia. Kurlansky closes with an album of sorry snapshots of tourism replacing an ages-old way of seaside life. Gloucester’s cod are gone — but you can buy cod-shaped cookies there, in the souvenir shops catering to the town’s new clientele. The cookies are called “Endangered Species.”