Review: Seafood: Ocean to the Plate

Shingo Hamada and Richard Wilk, Seafood: Ocean to the Plate, Routledge Series for Creative Teaching and Learning in Anthropology, Routledge. 2019. Pp. 138. ISBN: 9781138191877 (paperback).

David Beriss, University of New Orleans

I live in New Orleans, where fish, oysters, crabs, shrimp, and other creatures from rivers, lakes, and the sea are central to our foodscape. When I ride my bike along the Mississippi River levee, I see people hauling in enormous catfish. There are shrimp boat fleets based on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, on the northern edge of the city, generations of families work the oyster beds on the coast, and all manner of commercial fishers ply the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Despite all of this, our grocery stores often carry shrimp imported from South America. They sell bags of frozen crawfish tails from Vietnam. We see only a few species of local fish in grocery stores or on restaurant menus, along with a wider variety of imports and we have the same kinds of frozen fish that one might find anywhere in the country. Meanwhile, much of the catch from the Gulf of Mexico is likely to be shipped far away from Louisiana. That bounty, and with it, the entire fishing industry, is threatened by a mind-boggling array of environmental and economic hazards.

New Orleans is hardly alone in this situation, as Shingo Hamada and Richard Wilk demonstrate in this short-but-dense book. They bring a decidedly anthropological lens to analyzing seafood, putting the relationship between humans and the lakes, rivers, and oceans at the center of their analyses. Yet the book also takes a multi-disciplinary perspective in an effort to provide a hard-nosed and troubling picture of the consequences of human efforts to get food from the sea. This is not a book about the romance of the sea, about the love of fishing (although that is mentioned) or about intriguing ways to cook and eat fish. Rather, Hamada and Wilk focus on the complex and often disturbing ways in which human efforts to find food in the sea can be linked to environmental change and disaster. Each chapter examines a different aspect of the human relationship with the aquatic world, usually quickly and effectively raising pointed questions about the consequences of our efforts to get food from the seas. The book is part of a series that seeks to help readers think deeply about the everyday items in their lives. I have not read other books in the series, but this one works well to contextualize the fish on your plate, linking what we eat to a wide variety of other issues that humanity confronts.

Each of the book’s short chapters could stand on its own as a brief essay raising provocative questions about some aspect of seafood. Indeed, since each chapter has its own bibliography, they are well designed to being assigned to students individually. The style is often deceptive, with some chapters starting out with an alluring appeal to the delights of fish consumption or the pleasures of fishing, only to quickly turn to darker subjects, including everything from parasites to the poisons one might encounter when fishing. Chapter 1, for instance, is largely a discussion of whether consuming fish is healthy for humans. It begins with the “good news” about the health benefits of fish consumption, including references to populations that consume large amounts of fish and that seem comparatively healthy. Before readers can get swept up in this, Hamada and Wilk show that there are serious flaws with claims made about the benefits of fish eating and with the studies often used to support those claims. They then proceed to discuss in detail the hazards, including diseases, parasites, and pollution, that can be encountered in seafood. Chapter 2 examines the environmental history of the sea in the context of human endeavors to harvest seafood. They cover a wide range of fishing techniques and in short order readers are confronted with the environmental impact humans have had through the techniques they have developed to harvest the seas. Chapter 3 extends this analysis into a very useful discussion of fisheries management policies around the world. From the problems inherent to using a “tragedy of the commons” approach to managing fisheries, to specific efforts to preserve and revive overfished species, this chapter critically explores the limits of what people can do to make seafood sustainable.

One of the greatest challenges to the sustainability of seafood is the impressive and powerful technologies humans have developed in order to exploit the seas. Chapter 4 focuses on industrial fishing and globalization, raising key questions about what happens when industrial efficiency on a global scale is applied to wild resources. A lot of seafood is consumed in forms that hide its origins. This includes the frozen fish sticks you can get at your local grocery store, as well as products like surimi (fake crab). The production and distribution of these products are addressed in chapter 5, raising questions about all kinds of products that come from the sea. The industrialization of the seas is further examined in chapter 6 through analyses of fish farming, non-food uses of sea products, genetically modified fish, and other efforts to develop the seas as a resource.

At this point in the book, readers will be wondering how our exploitation of the seas can possibly be sustainable. In chapter 7 (my favorite chapter), Hamada and Wilk raise ethical and cultural questions about seafood that are guaranteed to stir debate among readers. These include evidence that fish are not only intelligent, but that they may have their own cultures, including the ability to learn, adapt to new situations, cooperate between different kinds of fish, and more. This, they point out, challenges the boundaries we place on species we consume and those we choose to avoid. They also look into the powerful place of fish in religious practices and mass entertainment, including aquaria or in the media. It is hard to come away from this chapter without at least some queasiness about the ethics of eating seafood. Chapter 8, finally, looks at some of the policy schemes that are being used to make seafood consumption ethical and sustainable.

If, after reading all of this, you are hungry, the book’s postscript is a brief survey of many of the ways seafood is prepared and appreciated around the world. Once you get to that part of the book, you may have so many disturbing questions about the ethics and environmental consequences of seafood, that you may not want to actually cook and eat any. Like the work of food journalists such as Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and others who have helped readers think critically about where their food comes from, this book should spark serious debates among readers. Hamada and Wilk’s book is better researched and more cross-culturally informed than the journalistic versions, of course, and is written in a way that is far more likely to be useful in university classes. I would recommend this book for use in undergraduate classes in anthropology and related social sciences, as well as in food studies and environmental studies. Each chapter’s bibliography provides a very useful resource for students who want to pursue further reading related to the topics, making the book also useful for starting research assignments. And, of course, once you have read it, you may never look at the fish on your plate the same way again.

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