Changing Planet

“The Fish on My Plate” review – Author and fisherman Paul Greenberg tells us which fish to eat, which to avoid and which we’re running out of

By Erica Cirino

In 2015 author and fisherman Paul Greenberg asked himself the question: “What fish should I eat that’s good for me and good for the planet?” In an effort to arrive at an answer, on September 1 of that year, and for the following 365 days, Greenberg cut land-based animals out of his omnivorous diet and replaced them with sea animals—all different types of fish, shellfish and crustaceans.

Greenberg consumed sea animals “for breakfast, lunch and dinner…and sometimes snacks.” When he wasn’t researching seafood recipes, cooking in or eating out, Greenberg, who is also a Pew Fellow for Marine Conservation and Safina Center Fellow, was traveling and meeting with the world’s foremost fisheries experts. He tells his story in a forthcoming PBS Frontline documentary called “The Fish on My Plate,” which airs Tuesday, April 25, at 10pm Eastern, 9pm Central.

One of these experts was Patricia Maljuf, vice president of Oceana Peru and an authority on anchovy—a fish that Peru exports more pounds of per year than all fish caught in U.S. combined. Maljuf informs Greenberg that anchovy are among the most nutritious fish in the sea, containing high quantities of supposedly health-boosting omega-3s, yet the majority of the world’s anchovy catch is not eaten but ground up and fed to other fish. Farmed fish.

This despite Peru’s so-called “reduction” anchovy fishery, because the fish are reduced through processing into oil—almost didn’t open in 2015 due to overfishing and a lack of adult fish. Luckily, Greenberg explains, Peru’s government acted quickly to remedy the loss of anchovy by restricting fishing. In one scene, Greenberg stands on an idyllic New England beach with his friend and colleague Carl Safina, casting fishing lines. Safina recalls moments in history when U.S. fisheries collapsed and still haven’t fully recovered, and that in order to have enough fish for people to eat, people need to stop overfishing.

Greenberg watches from the cockpit of a Peruvian fishing boat as wriggling, shimmering anchovy are hauled up from the rippling ocean waves a ton at a time. He wonders if the oceans—and people—would just be better off eating anchovy, and other forage fish, rather than catching them in droves and feeding them to other fish.

In Norway, “the birthplace of modern aquaculture,” Greenberg sees farmed Atlantic salmon in large open-water pens. Farmed Atlantic salmon don’t stand out as a sustainable seafood choice because they are often plagued by lethal parasites called sea lice, produce large quantities of waste and consume tons of fish food made of anchovy and other forage fish.

Where all the big fish decisions in Norway are made

A post shared by Paul Greenberg (@4fishgreenberg) on

Yet Greenberg learns that salmon farming is becoming less wasteful and less polluting than it once was, with innovations like plant-based feeds and non-chemical methods of parasite control. And then there’s genetically modified salmon, which has been approved for farming and sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but which is still hotly debated.

Greenberg also visits a very different type of aquaculture farm, fisherman Bren Smith’s Thimble Island Ocean Farm, where sea plants like kelp—not fish—are the main crop. Smith’s work raises the question: given the current sustainability issues with fish farming and overfishing, should people be eating fish—farmed or wild—at all?

Salmon awaiting processing, Sør Arnøy, Norway

A post shared by Paul Greenberg (@4fishgreenberg) on

Greenberg concludes “The Fish on My Plate” with the realization that, as with most things in life, moderation is key. Greenberg says we can’t overfish or over-farm the oceans if we want to ensure enough fish to feed the world’s growing population into the future. And as far as health goes, at the end of his 365 days of “eating fishally,” Greenberg has his blood and vital signs tested to see if all those omega-3s have actually helped make him healthier…and he reveals how much the amount of omega-3 fatty acid levels in his blood have changed after a year of eating fish at almost every meal.

A book based on this documentary and experiment, tentatively titled The Omega Principle, is slated for release in summer 2018.

Carl Safina is author of seven books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A winner of the 2012 Orion Award and a MacArthur Prize, among others, his work has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN.com and The Huffington Post, and he hosts “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. The paperback version of Safina’s seventh book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” is available in stores July 12, 2016.

  • ROSALIE DEMARTINO

    4/29/2017: I watched the PBS special,The fish on my plate. I found it very interesting, and educational. Sorry about your over-dose in Mercury. I have had most of my favorite fishes for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.; Salmon, sole, halibut, and just had haddock. Also, eat shrimp and lobster tail, all of which I cook; I bought some smoked salmon snack pieces. I also prepare manila clams, and razor clams, too. A few years ago I ate a delicious Hawaiian fish that looked and tasted like chicken. I told the waitress, I didn’t order chicken, and she assured me it was fish. Where can I buy your book? I need an ISBN number. Many thanks for the info;

  • Christina

    Really enjoyed this…I do believe we need to balance everything we eat. I love a great fresh fish as well as a great burger. I think we all lose when we don’t eat fresh!!!

  • Joe Arceneaux

    At the end of the program, there was a reference to the amount of Hg (mercury) you absorbed during a “year of eating fish-ously”. And comments that any health gains from eating fish, were cancelled out from the Hg. Where was the mention about Se (selenium?). There’s abundant research that eating fish with higher amounts of Se than Hg actually protects one from Hg exposure. One of the best sources of high Se seafood? Yellowfin tuna.

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