Eat Like a Fish by Bren Smith

Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer By Bren Smith Knopf, 2019

There’s an idea at the heart of Bren Smith’s invigorating new book Eat Like a Fish, and you’re not going to like it one bit. The idea isn’t “climate cuisine,” the notion that humans should be adapting their dietary habits to the new and barren and scalding-hot hellscape their own actions are making the most verdant planet in the solar system become over the course of one lifetime - that idea has been around for decades, ever since the ocean’s great fisheries started to fail. Entomophagy (that’s ‘eating bugs as food,’ but I thought I’d break it to you gently) has been a part of Paris restaurants for nearly a decade, after all. 

No, it’s the particular kind of “climate cuisine” Smith has in mind that will make Eat Like a Fish tough to swallow. It’s seaweed. He’s proposing - passionately, eloquently - that humans start eating seaweed. He’s proposing a massive shift in food economies, from sprawling meat-farms that are inhumane, inefficient, and extremely toxic to sprawling seaweed-farms designed to provide yields of healthy, nutritious vegetable matter all through the year, all over the world. 

And as Smith proceeds with his sales pitch, he stresses that this isn’t merely a climate-disaster stop-gap alternative: 

Native seaweed contains more vitamin C than orange juice, more calcium than milk, and more protein than soybeans. Those on the hunt for omega-3’s are often surprised to learn that fish don’t create these heart-healthy nutrients by themselves - they consume them. By eating the plants fish eat, we get the same benefits, while reducing pressure on fish stocks. So it’s high time that we eat like a fish. 

“Problem is,” he continues with gamine understatement, “a lot of Americans think seaweed is disgusting.” Well, yes. 

In addition to the many ways “underwater gardening” is an attractive idea, and in addition to the author’s charming but somewhat strained assurances that its produce can be palatable, there’s also the point that Americans, and by extension all other humans, might find seaweed less disgusting than starving to death on a wrecked and strip-farmed planet. Smith knows about that wreckage on a first-hand level; for a long time before he was a restorative ocean farmer, he himself was part of the wrecking crew: 

To feed the ravenous appetite for fast food, we ripped up entire ecosystems with our trawls. After each haul, we threw dead bycatch - basically, anything that comes up other than what you’re fishing for - overboard by the thousands; our ship was surrounded by a sea of death. We fished illegally in Russian waters. There was a government-mandated 

environmental inspector aboard, but he spent his days shunned and threatened, cowering in a defensive crouch. A fig leaf for our plunder. 

The message underlying most of Eat Like a Fish couldn’t be clearer, although Smith is neither a browbeating author nor a repetitive one: the kind of food-trawling Smith used to do isn’t sustainable, was never sustainable, is ruinous. There are alternatives, and they’re in operation now, and ocean farming is one of them. And really, doesn’t a big colorful seaweed salad sound more inviting than some freeze-dried scorpions on a bed of soy? 

--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is