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The Future Of 'Wild Fish,' The Last Wild Food
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting
in for Terry Gross.
Today, we feature two guests with ties to the fishing industry, one who
writes about it and one who works in it.
Forty years ago, almost all the fish we consumed was caught in the wild.
Today, nearly half is raised in fish farms. So eating fish has become
kind of complicated, between worrying that there may be toxins in the
fish and concerns that the way the fish is farmed or captured may be bad
for the water's ecosystem.
Our first guest today, author Paul Greenberg, warns that in natural
ecosystems, we've removed more wild fish than can be replaced by natural
In his book, "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food," now out in
paperback, Greenberg looks at what's happened to salmon, sea bass, cod
and tuna. These are four fish, he says, humanity is trying to master
whether through the management of a wild system, domestication and
farming of individual species or the outright substitution of one
species for another.
Paul Greenberg has written about fish and the oceans for the New York
Times. He spoke with Terry Gross last year.
TERRY GROSS, host:
So let's take a look at salmon. What does salmon represent in the larger
picture that you're looking at, how fish have changed and how humans
consume and farm fish have changed?
Mr. PAUL GREENBERG (Author, "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild
Food"): Yeah, well, gradually with the way humans have used fish, we've
started inland and moved further and further offshore. And salmon
represent that first step with fish that - you know, salmon spawn in
freshwater rivers. They're nearby. And we have very close, intimate
interaction with them right where we live.
So they were one of the first fish that we really hit hard with
industrialization. Dams and pollution and all of these different things
caused wide-scale extirpation of salmon, particularly Atlantic salmon,
throughout their range.
And now what we've seen is, you know, salmon was really the first large-
scale domestication project that happened with the fish that we eat.
There are many more farmed salmon in the world than wild salmon. And
it's a kind of, you know, replacement of a wild food system with a
domestic-food system that has started to be a kind of a model moving
GROSS: So is it mostly the Atlantic that's lost the salmon, still a lot
of wild salmon in the Pacific?
Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah, I mean, there are still pretty strong runs of
Pacific salmon, particularly in Alaska and the Russian Far East. But in
the Atlantic, basically Atlantic salmon are commercially extinct.
And this is a very important thing that consumers need to know. You
know, a lot of times when you see salmon in the marketplace, you'll see
Scottish salmon, Irish salmon or even Nova salmon. I think, you know,
probably you grew up eating Nova lox, for example, right? You know, that
was lox from Nova Scotia.
Mr. GREENBERG: Well today - right? You know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GREENBERG: Today, all those fish are farmed. You know, there is
almost no wild Atlantic salmon left in the Atlantic. I mean, I've heard
the number at something like 500,000 fish total.
So what we've essentially done is we've replaced an extremely productive
and, you know, calorie-rich and highly nutritious food system, wild food
system, with a domesticated one. And that began in the late 1960s, and
it's been probably the driver in changing the way we're taming the sea.
GROSS: Let's talk about how salmon are farmed. First of all, you use the
word captive when describing salmon, and I never thought of farmed fish
as captives. I always have this image of, like, fish swimming around
this kind of like, fenced-off part of the sea.
Mr. GREENBERG: Home on the range, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, so, like, okay, they couldn't venture far, but they can,
like, swim around. They have their food brought to them, so they don't
have to worry about survival. And, you know, of course they're killed
for us to eat, but I never thought of them quite as, like, captive.
Mr. GREENBERG: Well, yeah, and in fact, you know, they're often confined
in pretty tight spaces. You know, the technology around modern
aquaculture or fish farming, that's what aquaculture is often called
scientifically, really developed around salmon.
And what they consist of are sort of hoop-shaped cages that are often
put up in sort of symmetrical arrays. In Norway, they started doing them
in fjords, where they were protected from, you know, wave and wind, and
same deal in the Bay of Fundy in Canada. And, you know, the fish are
pretty crammed in there.
And what they'll do is they'll usually start them indoors, in tanks when
they're still at a very fragile stage. And then what they'll do is
they'll transfer them to these large pens. They're - you know, sometimes
they're called sea pens or sea cages, where they grow out for a couple
of years until they're ready for harvest.
GROSS: Is there room for them to swim, or are they basically just penned
in and sitting there?
Mr. GREENBERG: No, no, they can swim. And in fact, for their own health,
they have to be able to swim, and they tend to kind of circle around.
But you bring up a good point, which is that, you know, the density of
salmon is a really big issue in terms of its environmental effects.
Keep in mind that most salmon are grown in wild salmon country, right?
So if you put a lot of farmed salmon, confined in cages, in a place
where migrating wild salmon still exist, there are going to be
deleterious effects on the wild population.
The first that are crammed in real tight, you do get outbreaks of
disease. There's been a rolling disease called infectious salmon anemia,
which causes bleeding in salmon kidneys. There's a huge problem with a
parasite called sea lice, which affixes to - you know, it's a naturally
occurring parasite, but when you have fish in extreme densities, then,
you know, the sea lice are drawn in to this sort of, you know,
aggregation of food.
And there's been some studies that show that sea lice do transfer to the
wild populations, and because wild populations of Atlantic salmon are so
depressed throughout their range - you know, maybe if there were a lot
of wild Atlantic salmon out there, the interaction wouldn't be so bad,
but with the numbers being so low as they are right now, anything that
knocks them down a peg is a real, real problem.
And, so, you know, the salmon farming industry has a real issue on its
hands with how do they continue to produce product for the market
without destroying wild runs of existing Atlantic salmon.
GROSS: Now, another concern about farmed salmon is what they're fed and
how much they have to be fed. What are the concerns?
Mr. GREENBERG: Well, yeah. This is another big issue about the sort of
replacement of a wild food system with a domesticated food system. You
know, what do salmon eat? Well, on the farm, anyway, what they eat is
other fish. And where do those fish come? The wild.
So, you know, the global catch right now in the world is 90 million
tons, which is a lot of fish. You know, it's equivalent to the human
weight of China removed from the sea every year.
A third of that is what they call forage fish: herring, anchovies,
little things like that. And incidentally, the weight of all of those
taken from the sea every year would be the equivalent of the human
weight of the United States taken out every year.
Those are harvested every year. They are made into feed pellets. And in
the early days of aquaculture, the early days of salmon aquaculture, the
feeding was extremely inefficient. There wasn't a great deal of care
making sure that the salmon actually ate what they were fed.
So there was a lot of waste, and I think in 2000, the journal Nature
published a study that the fish-in, fish-out ratio, in other words the
number of pounds of wild fish that was required to make a pound of
salmon, could be as much as three pounds of wild fish to make one pound
of salmon. So right then and there, you're sort of like, well, that's a
pretty screwy equation. You know, why are we coming up with a net marine
But to its credit, you know, the salmon industry took this somewhat
seriously, or actually very seriously, and because it's also an economic
factor for them because, you know, it's expensive buying all that feed.
And over the years, they've instituted a selective breeding program with
salmon, mostly in Norway, where they took the 40 original salmon strains
in all these different rivers in Norway, and they crossed them, and they
re-crossed them, and they came up eventually with a salmon that required
half the feed of its original wild variant.
So, you know, you could say that was a positive ecological move that the
salmon industry did, but unfortunately, the salmon industry keeps
growing so that while per-fish efficiency is better, the overall
footprint of the salmon industry is just bigger and bigger. So, you
know, it's a concern.
GROSS: So are farmed salmon any more or less healthy than wild salmon?
Mr. GREENBERG: That's a very, very, very big debate. About 10 years ago,
the Pew Environment Group commissioned one of the largest studies ever
done where they tried to figure out was there any difference between the
sort of industrial contaminants, things like that, in farmed salmon than
in wild salmon.
What they found was that actually, yes, there was. The deal is that wild
salmon are actually much more omnivorous than farmed salmon. In the
course of a wild salmon's life, they're likely to eat, you know, little
crustaceans, sometimes some fish, sometimes, you know, crab here and
there, whereas a farmed salmon only eats fish pretty much, plus whatever
soy and corn products are put in there to kind of fill out the fishmeal.
And it turns out that it's really important where that fish comes from.
In the early days of salmon farming, most of the fishmeal that was used
was Northern Hemisphere fishmeal: capelin, herring, mackerel, different
things from the Northern Hemisphere.
And by and large, you know, the Northern Hemisphere has higher
industrial pollutants than the Southern, and with feed in farmed salmon,
it turns out that there were high concentrations of PCBs in the fishmeal
that they were being fed. And the contamination in the fishmeal gets
passed on into the flesh of salmon.
It turns out PCBs, you know, they're polychlorinate biphenyls, are a
very persistent chemical, and they don't wash out of the body very
easily. They take many years for the body to be rid of them.
And the same deal is true with salmon. So if a salmon keeps eating
fishmeal that's contaminated, it'll get a higher and higher toxicity,
and it will eventually pass that on to humans.
So what they found overall, what the Pew study found, was that farmed
salmon overall had higher levels of PCBs than wild salmon. Keep in mind
that this was, you know, close to a decade ago.
And since then, the salmon industry has started to look at Southern
Hemisphere feed sources, mostly Peruvian anchoveta, which are, you know,
caught off of Peru. And the Southern Hemisphere fishmeal generally has
lower PCBs than the Northern Hemisphere fishmeal.
There hasn't been a large-scale subsequent study since that shift
started to occur. So I think the jury is still out. But according to
that original Pew study, PCBs were higher in farmed fish than in wild
GROSS: Before we move on to another fish, what are some of the lessons
learned from the way we've farmed salmon that you think should apply to
the farming of other fish?
Mr. GREENBERG: Two things. When you farm a fish in proximity to its wild
equivalent, you're taking on considerable risks, and you potentially
threaten a viable wild food system. And I truly believe that those
things need to be taken into account before any kind of farming is
introduced into the open sea.
There are some really interesting what are called recirculating
aquaculture facilities in development. There's a guy named Yonathan
Zohar down at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, I think it's
called the COMB Lab, who has literally got a fish farm set up in
downtown Baltimore where all the inputs and outputs are controlled.
Even the waste products are recycled, and it has no negative interaction
with the wild. It's energy-intensive, but at the same time, it's
something that could conceivably reduce the food miles that, you know,
fish have to travel. You know, if you can grow fish in downtown
Baltimore and feed it to Baltimoreans, that's probably a pretty good
The other thing that came up that I found really interesting, when I was
up in New Brunswick, I met a guy named Thierry Chopin, who was doing a
project called integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, or IMTA.
And what that does is to kind of turn the whole equation of monoculture,
of salmon on its head and say, you know, let's not just grow one, single
crop. You know, we've learned that with, like, corn and beef and all
that kind of stuff, that monoculture is generally a bad environmental
What Thierry is doing with IMTA is that he's growing salmon, mussels,
sea cucumbers and edible and industrial-use algae all in a polyculture.
Those different extractive creatures, like mussels and sea cucumbers and
algae, remove waste from the water.
It's still a pilot project. It's not scaled up to industrial use, but
I'd like to see more of that kind of work happen.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Greenberg. He's the
author of the new book "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food."
Paul, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Paul Greenberg. We're talking about his new book
"Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food." And he writes about
salmon, cod, sea bass and tuna.
Let's look at cod. What does cod represent in the big picture that
you're writing about?
Mr. GREENBERG: Well, as I said before, the exploitation of the sea
starts inshore and moves further and further offshore. And what cod
represents is this sort of epic industrial move to the continental
shelves, where, you know, beginning around the Middle Ages, huge
aggregations of cod were found, first off of Europe.
But then people like Mark Kurlansky would posit that that's what brought
the Vikings to the New World in the first place were these huge,
epically large amounts of cod on the Grand Banks in Canada and then the
Georges Bank off of Massachusetts.
So - and they really represent the sort of industrialization of fishing.
If all that cod had never been found, I don't think we'd have a fish
stick today. And, you know, it's the sort of re-imagining of fish, not
just as this sort of local, artisanal product but as this mass-scale
industrial thing that fills up our supermarkets and our fast food
GROSS: So once cod started being used for fish sticks and all the fish
stuff in the fast food restaurants and the frozen food sections, how did
that affect the fish, the cod itself?
Mr. GREENBERG: Well, what it did was cause a huge build-up in what's
called fishing effort, just bigger and bigger boats, more and more nets
in the water, bigger and bigger technology because keep in mind, the
real big buildup that happened in fishing was post-World War II, you
know, when all this new technology, you know, sonar for finding
submarines, turned, you know - was easily repurposed to sonar to find
All these polymers, you know, were turned into, you know, huge nets and
things that allowed us to just catch many, many more fish. And what we
saw was, you know, the destruction of two of the greatest fishing
grounds the world has ever seen: The Grand Banks off Canada closed in
the I think late '80s, early '90s, and then large chunks of Georges Bank
closed to fishing in 1994.
And we've been sort of waiting ever since, trying to see, is cod going
to come back. And if not, what else can we find out there to fill our
GROSS: So is there no more cod left, or is it just a different type of
cod that's available now?
Mr. GREENBERG: Well, no. You know, first of all, when talking about the
ocean, a lot of people try to reframe things in terms of the land, and
they say, you know, cod is extinct, bluefin tuna are extinct.
What we're talking about here is really the loss of abundance, right?
There are probably, you know, even on the Grand Banks, there are
probably on the order of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of cod
still left. But they are what is called commercially extinct. In other
words, the effort it requires to catch those fish isn't really worth the
amount of money you can sell those fish at market.
So the Grand Banks is still in pretty bad shape. It's not really showing
very good signs of rebuilding. In America, on Georges Bank and in the
Gulf of Maine, those are, you know, two different, separate populations
of cod, we are seeing some gradual rebuilding.
The Gulf of Maine, according to the fishery service, is 50 percent
rebuilt, although, you know, that has some controversy attached to it.
We also - there are Pacific species of cod, which are still pretty
common, a lot of it caught in Alaska. And there is still a couple of
populations of cod that are, you know, commercially viable. There's a
big population in Scandinavia called the skrei or wandering cod, and
Iceland also has pretty good, healthy cod stocks at this point.
GROSS: In your chapter about cod, you write about tilapia, aka St.
Peter's fish, which is farmed and is easy to farm. And you describe it
as a good example of a fish that works in an industrialized setting. Is
tilapia relatively new to American fish markets? I don't remember it
from when I was young.
Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah, it's completely new. What happened with tilapia,
it's kind of an interesting story. Some early work was done in Israel.
Israel is a very early aquaculturist. But it was also something that
people in the Peace Corps really embraced because they found that
tilapia, it's one of these things where you can just throw it in a pond,
and it will eat whatever is in there, and it grows, and it doesn't
require too much effort. So it was this kind of like perfect development
fish that you could introduce into ponds throughout the developing
world. It was a good way of getting protein.
Actually coincidentally with the crash of Georges Bank cod and Grand
Banks cod is that tilapia culture started getting serious, particularly
in Latin America. And a lot of former Peace Corps volunteers who, you
know, became businessmen sort of said well, let's try and turn this fish
into something that works for a Western market. And it really started to
kind of get going in the late '90s and it, you know, now I think it's
the fifth-most-popular fish in America.
GROSS: So if you eat a lot of tilapia - farmed tilapia - is that
considered a healthy fish?
Mr. GREENBERG: Tilapia, because they don't eat a lot of fish meal, they
don't have the omega-3 profile that, you know, so many nutritionists say
we should be having. That said, as a form of protein, it's better, I
think, to eat a low-fat filet of, you know, a sustainably raised fish,
than a big chunk of beef or even pork or chicken. It's just leaner.
There are some concerns.
Tilapia has something called an omega-6 in it. And frankly, I haven't
gone too far into the health aspects on that one, but I've gotten a few
emails from nutritionists that say that there are some potential
ancillary health problems with eating too many omega-6 - having to do
with inflammation of tissue and things like that.
But overall, you know, I eat tilapia. I think it's a better, you know,
in the profile of food that we have to eat out there, I think it's
certainly a better choice than beef.
GROSS: So let me sum up what we just learned. You've basically told us
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Salmon are farmed in ways that are probably not environmentally
great that they may have PCBs. They did about a decade ago. We're not
sure now. So it's a kind of discouraging picture. But tilapia, which are
farmed in much more environmentally correct ways with better food and,
they're not as healthy as salmon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So, what am I supposed to do when I'm ordering? You know, if I
order the salmon, then I feel really bad because of the poor ways that
most salmon are farmed. If I order tilapia, I'm not getting the benefits
Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah. First of all, I think this is the problem with the
kind of paring down of fish markets down to these, sort of, four basic
fish. You know, the answer might be sort of none of the above.
And I'd go back to like if you want to eat something that's healthy and
not damaging to the environment, you know, smaller fish like herring,
like mackerel, anchovies, sardines, those are all really good nutritious
kinds of things that have a good omega-3 profile.
They're not the kinds of things that we are accustomed to eating. You
know, like I think Americans in general don't like too fishy a fish, but
we might need to kind of readjust to that and kind of start to embrace
fish that are smaller and, you know, easier on the environment.
As far as, you know, tilapia are concerned, I mean listen, we eat all
sorts of unhealthy stuff, right? We shouldn't be eating as much beef,
right? We shouldn't be eating as much chicken, probably.
You know, Mark Bittman, who I've been having these endless back and
forths about, you know, whether we should farm fish or not, he is saying
well, we should just be eating less of everything. We should be eating
less meats and more vegetables.
Same thing is true of fish. Let's eat wild salmon. But if we're going to
eat it, let's eat it sparingly because there's not a lot of it. You
know, there's still very healthy runs of Pacific salmon out there, but,
you know, not enough so that the whole world can have a huge chunk of it
every day. But a little bit of it every week is not a bad thing to do.
BIANCULLI: Paul Greenberg, author of "Four Fish: The Future of the Last
Wild Food," speaking to Terry Gross last year. We'll continue their
conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross,
back with more of Terry's 2010 interview with journalist Paul Greenberg.
His book "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food," is now out in
paperback. He looks at salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna, and what they
reveal about the impact of fishing and fish farming on our health and
the health of our planet's marine ecosystems.
GROSS: Let's take a look at tuna. What do they represent in the big
picture that you're writing about?
Mr. GREENBERG: Tuna are really the last wild fish gold rush that's going
on right now. Tuna often live in what are called the high seas, the
international waters that are owned by nobody and fished by everybody.
bluefin tuna cross the Atlantic and the Pacific, so do yellowfin, and
albacore are quite far-ranging as well. So they're really the wildest of
fish that we have out there. And the sushi binge that's happened over
the last 20 years is having a serious effect on them. And so I guess
they represent fish, you know, whether they should be seafood or
wildlife, and I think they're at the heart of that debate right now.
GROSS: What do you mean by the difference between seafood and wildlife?
Mr. GREENBERG: Well, you know, seafood is one of my favorite and most
hated words. I mean when you think about it, what a cruel word. And it's
consistent language to language. Europeans call seafood, you know, sea
fruit, frutti di mare. Russians, I think, say dari-morelle(ph), which,
you know, gifts of the sea. So there's this sort of generic thing. Like
there's all this stuff down there and we just kind of pull it up and we
sort of parse it and figure out what's good, and throw the rest
overboard, and we eat it.
But meanwhile, you know, these creatures are wildlife. You know, these
are wild animals that have incredible life cycles. You know, bluefin
tuna can be 12, 14 feet long, 1,500 pounds. They can swim up to 40 miles
an hour. They have organs in their head that act as both a sextant and
as a compass. You know, they're incredible, incredible animals and yet,
you know, we generally think of them as sushi.
So, you know, that I think is something that really needs to be
reevaluated at this point. And we have to figure out, you know, what
does work as food and what is better left as an animal. And, you know,
tuna, particularly Atlantic bluefin tuna, may be the thing that we
should think of more as wildlife than food.
GROSS: Now the tuna swim through international waters, so what problems
does that pose in terms of regulating the fishing of tuna?
Mr. GREENBERG: The problem it poses is that there's no really hard fast
way to regulate them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GREENBERG: There are what are called - there's 18 regional fisheries
management organizations that are kind of like these little United
Nations that sit down and kind of hash out, you know, who is going to
get what from all the tuna. But a lot of times the negotiations around
tuna are built around sort of political compromises that, you know,
while there are scientific committees that say you shouldn't take more
than this much, a lot of times they'll just sort of say well, you know,
you know, Ivory Coast wants more yellowfins and no - but they'll swap us
this for that. And you end up with these kinds of quotas that are not
really scientifically based.
You know, the most famous thing of that was that two years ago the
committee that oversees bluefin tuna, Atlantic bluefin, set a quota at
nearly double what scientists on the scientific committee were saying
was the threshold for a catch. So you ended up, you know, where the
population went down and it's now kind of at a crisis point. And whereas
bluefin are kind of the tip of the iceberg, there are all these other
tuna species below them that are still in reasonably good shape, but are
the kind of next thing on the chopping block should we go through our
GROSS: Now a lot of people say we shouldn't even be eating big fish like
tuna because that's not healthy. What are the problems?
Mr. GREENBERG: The bigger fish, the bigger tuna, there is a mercury
issue that happens. Just like PCBs, mercury does something called
bioaccumulation. Mercury contamination levels get more intense the
higher you go up the food chain and tuna are, you know, at the top of
the food chain so they have the highest mercury levels.
It varies from species to species. But certainly bluefin have a mercury
risk. That's the main thing to watch out for. Also, some people say
that, you know, again, tuna are a fattier fish again, particularly
bluefin. And if the benefit we're looking for in fish is a leaner kind
of meat, then maybe bluefin isn't really where we should be going in the
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Greenberg. He's the
author of the book "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food."
I guess, you know, I never really thought of fish as the last wild food
until I saw the title of your book.
Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah. You know, and that's what I think is amazing about
the ocean. You know, a lot of the book is - there's a fair amount of my
going fishing and that's how I first encountered fish. I never bought
seafood, I always caught it. And so for me it was always wild. That
consumers have become so detached from it that they don't even really
think of it as wild is disturbing to me.
A lot of people I know, you know, perfectly intelligent college-educated
people, if I mention a fish to them, they can't even really say what it
looks like or how big it is or, you know, what it does in the wild. So I
kind of think that, moving forward, you know, I'm not saying that we
should stop fishing or that we shouldn't have this wild food - quite the
contrary. I think it's a beautiful thing to have abundant wild food in
When you think about what happened on the Great Plains - before American
colonists arrived, there was somewhere in the order of probably 60
million bison, and today there are, you know, about 100 million head of
cattle. So we basically replaced a functioning wild food system with a
domesticated one that has all sorts of environmental repercussions and
all sorts of costs associated with it.
Where we stand right now with fish, is, you know, as I said earlier, 50
percent of our seafood is now farmed. We could end up replacing a very
good and beautiful and functional wild food system with an expensive,
potentially environmentally degrading farmed food system, and I don't
want that to happen. I want there to be wild food. I think there has to
be some farmed fish as well, but we need to figure out a way to farm it
in a way that does not affect wild populations.
GROSS: Well, Paul Greenberg, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GREENBERG: Thanks so much, Terry. It was a lot of fun.
BIANCULLI: Paul Greenberg speaking with Terry Gross last year. His book
"Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food" is now out in paperback.
Coming up, a visit with a veteran fishing book captain and author, Linda
This is FRESH AIR.
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A Female 'Swordboat' Captain Returns To The Sea
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of film, "The Perfect Storm")
Ms. MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO (Actress): (as Linda Greenlaw) Andrea
Gail, do you read me? Do you read me? Come in. Come in, for God's sake,
come in. (Unintelligible). They are exploding.
BIANCULLI: That's Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the movie "The Perfect
Storm," playing our next guest, fishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw
Greenlaw. She says that her actual radio conversation with Captain Billy
Tyne in 1991, believed to be the final contact made with the Andrea Gail
before it disappeared in a storm, was less dramatic than the Hollywood
But Greenlaw is a real commercial fisherman and the only female
swordboat captain in the country. Swordfishing doesn't involve nets and
trawling. During each fishing venture, Greenlaw and her crew will set
thousands of individual hooks on a line and haul the massive creatures
aboard one at a time.
After years on the sea, Greenlaw left deepwater fishing for 10 years to
set lobster traps and write books. Her first, "The Hungry Ocean," became
a bestseller, and she's written five more books of fiction and
Last year, she returned to the deep water and that voyage is the subject
of her latest book. It's called "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns
to the Sea," and it's now out in paperback.
Linda Greenlaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last year.
DAVE DAVIES: Linda Greenlaw, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in this
book, you write: the position of skipper aboard a U.S. Grand Banks
longline vessel is the absolute pinnacle of the commercial fishing
world. And I'd like you to begin by just telling us what longline
deepwater swordfishing is, how it works.
Ms. LINDA GREENLAW (Author, "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to
the Sea"): Well, longlining is, as the name would suggest, the fishery
itself is fishing a very long line. A typical set, which we do every
night while we're at sea, is 40 miles. We lay out a 40-mile single
strand of 1,000-pound test line, onto which we attach about 1,000 baited
And that attachment is called the leader. It's suspended, basically,
fairly close to the surface. And we fish temperature breaks, for
instance east of the Grand Banks, which is where most of my experience
is. We fish where the Gulf Stream, which is to the south, pushes up into
the Labrador Current, which is cold water.
These temperature breaks are where all the feed collects, and where
there is prey, there should be a predator. That's where we fish.
DAVIES: Okay, and so every day, you have this big spool on the deck, and
you just roll out 40 miles of line, and you have floats every so often,
right, which I guess allow you to retrieve these things later. And you
leave these 40 miles and 1,000 baited leader hooks out for several hours
and then reel them in the next day, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, that's correct. And swordfish are nocturnal in that
they feed at night. They come close to the surface to feed at night. So
we set the line out in the evening, and at daylight, we pick up the end
of the 40-mile string and start hauling it back.
DAVIES: Okay, so now you've got this crew of, you know, I guess five or
six people on a boat that, I guess in the case of the Sea Hawk, which
you most recently were on, it was, like, about, what, 63 feet?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a 63-foot boat, and I had a crew of five men.
DAVIES: Right, so you have five people that are baiting 1,000 hooks a
day, reeling them out. And then when you reel them back in, explain the
process there and what you do when you have a swordfish or some other
kind of fish on it.
Ms. GREENLAW: Okay, well, hauling the gear back, it's all hands on deck,
including the captain. And that's my favorite part of the job is hauling
the gear because it's just like Christmas. You know, you can't wait to
see what you're going to get.
Tie-in at the end of the morning and start hauling it. The captain
drives the boat along the line, kind of following these floats, as you
mentioned. And when the line gets tight or you feel some strain on it,
that means you have some weight on a hook.
You back the boat down, stop the boat hopefully, and see what you have.
It comes to a point when the snap or the thing that connects the hook to
the main line, when that breaks the surface, it's hand-over-hand
hauling, one man against one fish.
And you hope it's a swordfish. Sometimes it's a shark. Sometimes it's a
tuna. Sometimes it's mahi-mahi. But the target is swordfish. That's what
we're all praying for.
DAVIES: And you can tell when it's a swordfish, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: I can, yeah. I've been doing this a long time. I started
swordfishing at the age of 19. So, basically, I'm not fooled much when
there's a little weight on the line. A swordfish acts totally different
than a tuna or a shark.
DAVIES: Well, talk about that. How does a swordfish act?
Ms. GREENLAW: A swordfish generally is pulling straight down, and when
it gets close to the surface, it starts doing these circles. We call it
a death circle, or we hope it's going to be a death circle and not a
Tuna fish, often if you have the line in your hand, you feel a pump,
pump, pump, when it's pumping its tail, and you can really feel that if
you have the line running through your hand.
A shark generally does not dive down. It comes up to the surface. So the
leader would be stretched out on the surface and quite often, you'd see
a fin breaking the surface.
DAVIES: Now you've got to get this thing aboard the boat, and I know
from reading your book that there's a break in the gunnel, I mean, the
side of the ship, right, in effect a door, right, where you can haul
this. But it's still, you're talking about a hundred-pound fish, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, I mean, you're hoping it's a hundred-pound fish. Last
season, we had a 171-pound average. These are big fish. And, yes,
there's a door cut in the side of the boat to make it a little easier to
get the fish aboard.
Basically, once the fish breaks the surface, you put gaffs in the fish
to help pull it aboard. If it's a gigantic fish, we have a hydraulic
lift that we can put a strap around the tail and pull the fish aboard
DAVIES: Then what happens?
Ms. GREENLAW: Once the fish is aboard the boat, the fish cleaner goes to
work. It's very important for us to keep the quality of the fish really
to high standards to get the money that we need to get for the fish to
make a living.
So the fish needs to be cleaned. That means, you know, the head comes
off, the guts come out, saltwater rinse, and it gets packed on saltwater
ice immediately. Really important to get the fish chilled really quickly
and not leave the fish on deck.
DAVIES: So every day, assuming that the weather is decent and things are
working, you are reeling out 40 miles of longline, baiting 1,000 hooks,
pulling in those 1,000 hooks the next day and then preparing to put them
back out the next morning. It must be incredibly strenuous and sleep
Ms. GREENLAW: Sleep deprivation is a big part of the swordfish industry.
We're lucky if we get four hours a night. You know, the days get long,
you know, depending on - weather, of course, is the biggest factor. If
you're trying to haul in the gear in bad weather, it just takes a little
Every fish, you know, that you stop to bring aboard is a little more
difficult to get aboard in bad weather. Part-offs are a huge factor in
the length of a day.
DAVIES: Where the line gets cut, right.
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, if you - if you're hauling back the line, and you
have two or three or five part-offs in a day, each time you have to
chase the end. It's time-consuming. A captain can make a bad set and
catch a lot of sharks, very time-consuming.
So yeah, the long days you know, you're lucky if you get four hours
DAVIES: And how long does a trip last?
Ms. GREENLAW: We generally keep our trips in synch with the lunar cycle.
So a trip is, you know, 28 to 30 days, and that's the goal is to keep on
the lunar cycle because the fishing is better because you're fishing
these temperature breaks, and the moon obviously affects tide.
I guess everyone's aware of that, but these temperature breaks are more
defined during from the first quarter through the full moon. So we try
and do our steaming back and forth to the dock and our turnaround or our
time at the dock unloading, re-supplying, during the new moon or when
you can't see any moon, and our fishing during when you can see a moon.
DAVIES: So you're typically at sea for about a month.
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a typical trip is 30 days.
DAVIES: So when you're reeling in the line, these 1,000 baited leaders,
how many swordfish will you typically get?
Ms. GREENLAW: Well, the success of a trip just varies so much. I've
never been skunked. That means I've never been fishless at the end of a
haul back. My biggest day was 107 fish. That's huge, over 10,000 pounds
of fish in one day.
If you can average, you know, 3,000 pounds a night, you know, 30 fish,
that's a good way to put a trip together. It's a grind. You know, you're
going to make 10 or 12 or 20 sets, whatever you need to do to get enough
fish to go in with without sort of overdoing the moon thing. You know,
you don't want to miss the next moon. So you can't stay out too long,
and you don't want your fish to be too old. So, you know, 3,000 pounds a
night is a pretty good average.
DAVIES: So 1,000 hooks, 30 fish and do it again the next day.
Ms. GREENLAW: Exactly.
DAVIES: Right, so here you are. I mean, you're at very close quarters,
working long hours with five or six other people, and you are a woman,
which is rare in the business, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, it is rare in the business.
DAVIES: I know from reading about you that you started swordfishing I
guess when you were in college. And I'm just kind of curious: What was
it like being a woman at sea? Was it different? Was it difficult?
Ms. GREENLAW: I fell in love with fishing at the age of 19. I love what
I do, and honestly, gender has not been an issue. I started on deck, I
worked very hard, had an opportunity to run a boat, came up in the
You know, I stayed on a boat long enough to become first mate. The owner
of the boat bought a second boat. That was my opportunity to become
captain. Worked very hard, eventually got good at it. I hire my own
A lot of questions are about, you know, men working for a woman. I hire
my own guys. Any man that doesn't want to go to sea with a woman
hopefully won't ask me for a job. And that's not to say I've never had
crew problems, because I have, but they haven't been as a result of my
being a woman. Everyone has crew problems at one time or another.
DAVIES: I'd like you to tell one story that you relayed in the book
about a case where you saw a swordfish take on a shark.
Ms. GREENLAW: Early in my sword fishing career we fished on Georgia's
banks and part of the fishery that we were doing was harpooning, which
is the most incredibly fun and exciting fishery. It's a sight fishery.
You're, you know, my part of that was being the helmsman. I climb up the
mast. I'm in the crow's nest. I'm driving the boat from up there and
looking for fish swimming on the surface of the ocean. It's one fish,
you know, you're not seeing schools of fish. You're looking around for a
Well, this particular day I was up in the crow's nest, I saw fins and I
was like wow, all right. Cool. I put the boat in gear and the captain's
running out to the end of the stand, to the pulpit from where you
through the harpoon. And as we approach the fins, which kept
disappearing, I noticed that there were two sets of fins. One set of
fins was the swordfish and a big one. And the second set of fins was a
gigantic mako shark. Well, we watched a struggle between a mako shark
and a swordfish and the captain of the boat is wanting me to get the
boat onto the mako shark so he can harpoon the shark or the swordfish so
he can harpoon the swordfish.
We get up to the shark, harpoon it and then look around for the fish.
The fish is gone. And, of course, we're very disappointed the fish is
gone. A little while later the fins pop up bang. No. We miss it. The
fish is gone. So we missed a big fish. It was a huge fish. It was really
a day saver. We really needed that fish. So we haul back the shark, get
the shark on the deck, it's a big mako, and the guy cleaning the shark
is just amazed at this little tiny baby swordfish that was in the
shark's belly. And suddenly I felt okay about this big swordfish getting
away because I had a feeling that the swordfish and the shark were
fighting or, you know, struggling together, the swordfish was upset. I
mean the shark ate the swordfish's baby. So I felt good about killing
the shark and I felt kind of okay about the swordfish getting away.
DAVIES: Linda Greenlaw, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Ms. GREENLAW: Thank you for having me.
BIANCULLI: Linda Greenlaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Her book "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea," is now out
in paperback. And she's also written a cookbook with her mother, Martha
Greenlaw. It's called "The Maine Summers Cookbook."
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews two new movies "Larry
Crowne," which stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and the latest
"Transformers" sequel which doesnât.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Crowne' And 'Transformers': Fitting For The Fourth
(Soundbite of music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The two biggest film openings of the week feature shape-shifting robots
from outer space, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Hanks and Roberts star in
"Larry Crowne," which Hanks also directs. "Transformers: Dark of the
Moon," is the third feature directed by Michael Bay and based on a line
of Hasbro toys.
Bay is known for such big-budget action films as "Armageddon," "The
Rock" and "Pearl Harbor."
Film critic David Edelstein reviews both films.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The July 4th weekend brings textbook Hollywood counter-
programming. On one side of the multiplex you'll find the teen-male-
oriented blockbuster franchise sequel "Transformers: Dark of the Moon,"
in which giant mutating robots put their fists through one another amid
Over in the non-3D wing is the quiet grown-up comedy "Larry Crowne," in
which 50-something Tom Hanks, as a laid-off megastore manager, sorta-
almost romances 40-something Julia Roberts as his married community
college professor. The choice is stark. But I think both movies give a
surprising amount of pleasure.
"What? You like a movie by Michael Bay?" Yes, though Bay does make it
easy to hate him. He's a trophy director: the hottest actresses, the
hottest cars, the hottest cars that transform into the hottest robots
thanks to the hottest effects. The second "Transformers" movie was an
overblown hash. But this one, once you get past Bay's trademark sexism
and gigantism, is a stupendous piece of blockbusting.
There's a lot of plot, but it comes down to the bad Transformers, the
Decepticons from the planet Cybertron, attempting to enslave the
population of Earth, hitherto protected by the good Transformers, the
Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, friend to earthling Sam Witwicky, played
by Shia LaBeouf.
It takes awhile to get oriented. The simplest dialogue scenes are
confusing because Bay shoots nothing simply. And he'll rub some folks
the wrong way by introducing his new leading lady, lingerie model Rosie
Huntington-Whiteley, via the backs of her thighs. But once the humans
and Autobots go up against the Decepticons in a devastated Chicago, the
movie is like "War of the Worlds" on steroids. The vistas induce
vertigo, and as the camera plunges after our paratrooper heroes, down
massive skyscrapers toward robots mashing one another's heads and a
giant Decepticon octopus with incinerating tentacles, you'll feel the
elating transformative power - of Hollywood money.
"Larry Crowne" is low-tech, its characters human-scaled. Tom Hanks wrote
it with Nia Vardolos, whose "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" he produced with
his wife, Rita Wilson. It's a family affair and the movie is about
family - warm surrogate families in a cold capitalist climate.
Hanks' Larry Crowne has been laid off from a big box store because he
never went to college - he spent 20 years as a Navy cook - and can't
advance. So he enrolls in a public speaking course, taught by Julia
Roberts' bitter, brittle Mercedes Tainot, who's getting fed up with the
Internet porn habit of her indolent husband, played by "Breaking Bad's"
Bryan Cranston with a full head of hair. When Larry pulls up beside her
car on his vintage scooter, he leans over her and does what her husband
(Soundbite of movie, "Larry Crowne") (Soundbite of music)
Mr. TOM HANKS (Actor, director): (as Larry Crowne) It's Larry Crowne.
(Soundbite of car engine)
Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actor): (as Mercedes Tainot) Right. Hi.
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) I have you for speech (unintelligible) in
just a couple of minutes.
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Yes, you do.
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) I saw you singing.
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Oh, I'm just drowning out the GPS.
GPS Voice: Please enter your destination.
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) See, it never stops.
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) No wonder. That's a map genie. Back when I
sold you such things I would've steered you toward a vortex because the
map genie has - it's very complicated.
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Oh.
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) Well, no wonder, the auto on feature is
engaged. So, menu. Select features. Auto. Voice. Select. Change. Yes.
On. Off. Off. Change. Yes. Save and back, back, back, back. And exit.
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Oh.
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) How long was that broken?"
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Ever since my husband installed it
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) Well, it's all fixed now.
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Thank you.
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) What are you going to make us do today in
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) You'll just have to find out.
Mr. HANKS: (as Larry Crowne) Follow me.
(Soundbite of scooter engine)
Ms. ROBERTS: (as Mercedes Tainot) Interesting.
EDELSTEIN: That interesting is interesting, because as Hanks plays him,
Larry isn't especially interesting. I'm almost sorry he directed "Larry
Crowne," since he's so self-effacing. Another director might have pushed
him to be faster on the draw, less blandly accepting. But the movie does
have a generous feel, happy and bustling and multicultural.
The message is explicit. Capitalism can be cutthroat, but you can stay
afloat and not hurt others. Larry's second college course is economics
taught by the hammily(ph) stentorian George Takei, who helps him figure
out how to get by on what he earns. His friends live lightly, in
supportive communities, among them Cedric the Entertainer as a neighbor
with an ongoing lawn sale, and a vivacious actress named Gugu Mbatha-Raw
as a fellow scooter-rider who makes it her project to dress Larry better
- and then opens her own secondhand store. It's very cozy, and how badly
off can Larry be with Julia Roberts, always and forever a movie star,
coming to dinner? But Roberts is wonderful, as she often is, playing
characters for whom that wide Julia smile comes hard.
There's something fitting about "Larry Crowne" and "Transformers"
opening July 4th weekend. Both are about threats to American decency:
Decepticons, heartless employers - and people who make war or cultivate
inner peace to keep from being enslaved.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at
nprfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show at
For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(Soundbite of music)
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