Since human beings first took up the plow about 10,000 years ago, most of our food has come from the farmer's hand. We grew fruits, vegetables and grains to feed ourselves and support those domesticated animals we relied on for meat and dairy products. But there was an exception. When humans fished, we still went out into the wild, braved the elements and brought back decidedly undomesticated animals for dinner. There was a romance to fishing that was inseparable from the romance of the sea, a way of life — for all its peril and terror — suffused with a freedom that the farmer and rancher would never know. Though the fishermen who roved the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' time and the factory trawlers that scrape the ocean floor today couldn't be more different, they share a common link to our hunter-gatherer past. "Fish are the last wild food," says Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, one of the best books on the state of seafood. "And we're just realizing it."
But we may be coming to that realization too late, because it turns out that even the fathomless depths of the oceans have limits. The U.N. reports that 32% of global fish stocks are overexploited or depleted and as much as 90% of large species like tuna and marlin have been fished out in the past half-century. Once-plentiful species like Atlantic cod have been fished to near oblivion, and delicacies like bluefin tuna are on an arc toward extinction. A recent report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean found that the world's marine species faced threats "unprecedented in human history" — and overfishing is part of the problem.
To the average shopper, farmed fish is barely distinguishable from its wild cousin — except, often, in price. Without the growth in aquaculture, many of our favorite kinds of seafood would likely be much more expensive than they are now. And chances are, you get what you paid for: farmed seafood can be inferior to wild fish in taste and may not always have the same nutritional value. Salmon raised in an aquaculture environment, for instance, often have lower levels of cardiovascular-friendly omega-3s than wild fish, and farmed fillets would actually be gray without a pink chemical dye. And if you're eating farmed seafood, you're almost certainly getting it from overseas: U.S. aquaculture accounts for just 5% of Americans' seafood consumption. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program mostly discourages consumers from choosing farmed fish, both for health reasons and because of worries over the environmental impact of aquaculture. "There's a real difference in the regulation you might see in other countries compared with the U.S.," says Peter Bridson, Monterey's aquaculture-research manager.
Related book: Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food