Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood


Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe opens with a horrifyingly poetic description of a monkfish as the “Quasimodo of the Atlantic” whose “uncooked flesh, especially the liver can be virtually ambulant with marine worms”.

The book goes on in squirm-inducing detail to educate readers about why we shouldn’t be eating the fish we are eating and how, if we want to save our oceans, we’d all be well-advised to become bottomfeeders.

Expertly written, enthralling and suspenseful, this book goes deep into the reasons most top-of-the-food-chain fish aren’t sustainable and also lays out the facts about heavy metal contamination in many popular fish, like tuna and swordfish.

In addition to being an invaluable resource for eating fish sustainably, the book has huge entertainment value. The author is a true seafood lover with the mind of a social geographer. He has a feel for describing the fisherpeople he meets on his travels as he searches for marine life he can safely enjoy without emptying the oceans.

Along the way, readers are treated to gorgeous descriptions of Belon oysters with French butter and rye bread, flame-kissed Portuguese sardines and micro-scale sustainably-farmed shrimp in a coconut curry, while getting an intimate peek into the lives of the people who harvest, produce and cook the fish.

The book’s journey around the world is organized around a species or a dish that is a central part of the culture of each place the author visits. The opening chapter is set in the fine restaurants of Manhattan and centers on the monkfish, a severely overfished bottomfeeder that nobody would have considered eating until Julia Child popularized it.

While in New York, he provides a sharp, spot-on critique of top chefs who speak convincingly about sustainable fisheries while filling their menus with overfished species.

Grescoe visits the Chesapeake Bay and France in the chapter about oysters. He goes to England to discuss the reasons behind the demise of the cod, ending that chapter with the assertion that if moratoriums are not placed on the cod fishery, the next generation will be eating jellyfish and chips.

Next, he heads to the Mediterranean in search of the rascasse, the essential ingredient to bouillabaisse and a cousin to this hemisphere’s endangered snapper. Tokyo is the setting for his investigation of the mighty blue fin tuna and India for a sickening description of the ponds that provide the ubiquitous, cheap shrimp on those all-you-can-eat platters. You don’t want to know about this, but you need to.

This book has unequivocally changed my eating habits forever.

Though for years I’ve carried the Seafood Watch card to avoid buying endangered fish, I must admit that I have ordered off restaurant menus without thinking too hard about that sushi on my plate or the type of fish in those tacos. No more.

Now I will eat delicious sardines, aquacultured clams, oysters, and vegetarian species of farmed fish, squid, Pacific halibut, and the occasional black cod.

It is hard to learn there are so many things I love that I can no longer eat, like canned tuna, but I’d like to save something besides jellyfish for the next generation and help preserve the vibrant fishing and eating cultures that I learned about in this book and in my own travels.

The end of the book provides useful information on what to eat when, including fishing methods. This is important because some fish are only smart choices if they are caught in ways that don’t harm the environment or take a lot of bycatch.

Bottomfeeder will break your heart if you are a lover of seafood and our ocean environments. Yet that’s exactly why everyone should read it. Our oceans might just depend on it. It will be nearly impossible to come away unchanged by this book. After reality sunk in, I felt empowered by my knowledge and inspired to do the right thing all the time. I will no longer look the other way for the sake of one good meal.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.