Brendan Bashin-Sullivan ‘15 writes about his recent trip to Tokyo and the way we conceive of efficiency in the food system:
If fish were self-aware, and had developed a notion of retributive justice, and could conceive of an afterlife, they might cast the Tsukiji Central Fish Market in Tokyo as fish hell. Approaching the market you see the small fry in the various outbuildings, those who have been gutted for a particular organ or chopped to pieces, or marinated, or hung out to dry. These are the outer circles, and you sense that the fish have gotten off easy because of their size. It is when you reach the final circle, through roofed, shabby, blood-slick wet concrete paths that weave between brightly lit stalls, that you see the tuna. They are maybe not fish anymore exactly. They are frozen solid. Their pectoral fins have been cut off, leaving a pair of huge handholds on their sides. Capable, bored-looking old men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths run the fish through bandsaws, cutting the frozen meat, nose to tail, into wedges and planks, which stay rigid. Some still have skin, fins, and spines attached.
Full disclosure: fish hell, to me, was awesome. It was the most fun I had in Japan. I got blood on my boots. I ate ramen standing on the street with the capable bored-looking old men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. I ate perfect cubes of fatty tuna. I got out of “lost in translation” angst-core mode and got a little goofy. This all happened at about 6 AM on a blisteringly cold late-December day in the largest fish market in the world, while tens of millions of dollars’ worth of fish were changing hands on the auction floor not a hundred yards away. Eerie calm and contained chaos and everyone trying to pretend that they weren’t having a great time because they were up against realness. Especially me.
And I guess that’s what I grapple about now. I would take a job there if you offered me. I would get strong and competent, good at driving tiny carts around tight corners, good at flensing and hacking tuna-bodies into manageable pieces. I would develop sixth and seventh senses, and never fall down on the job, or get cut on the bandsaw, and I would throw and catch the necessities of the job effortlessly. Tsujiki seems to allow states of grace to coalesce around, in and through it. It has the sublime rhythmic efficacy of an organ, a heart pumping fish through a vast network into every tiny corner of Tokyo. And for that reason I found it intensely beautiful.
But in another sense Tsukiji is emblematic of a deeply problematic relationship with the ocean. I read a phenomenal book this winter, Paul Greenberg’s “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food”, which complicated the excitement I felt for Tsujiki. It’s not as simple as “oh, killing fish is cruel, this is a murder-market, I will abstain.” I don’t think that. I think that any place so foundational to the life of a city is above that kind of reductive thinking. In providing a solution to the problem “distribute 2000 tons of fish to 13 million people”, Tsukiji has outpaced moral indictment by several orders of magnitude. My problem is one of trophic levels and efficiencies. I’d like to dig into them with reference to the frozen, finless tuna.
In Four Fish, Paul Greenberg engages in a sustained investigation of the way we extract nourishment from the ocean. The subtitle of the book is telling: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Greenberg astutely points out that we have never really progressed past a hunter-gatherer relationship with sea life. We are able to catch more fish in less time now, but we have yet to meaningfully domesticate, or even steward the sea life on which we most depend: tuna, salmon, cod, or bass.
Tuna are especially problematic in this regard. Tuna are apex predators who expend enormous energy to make catches. This is responsible for their fatty red flesh. But the same feature that makes them delicious also makes them a highly inefficient source of protein: Greenberg’s going estimate is that a tuna must eat 50 pounds of smaller fish in order to gain a pound themselves. In a sense, the frozen tuna blocks at Tsujiki are frozen chunks of lion meat: the culmination of a food chain. It is telling that the French phrase for seafood is fruits-du-mer: the fruits of the sea. We have historically underestimated the trophic level of seafood, because the processes that generate it are obscure to us. But we cannot continue to hunt and gather sea-protein as we have: it becomes clearer with every diminishing catch that our needs demand an extractive relationship with the ocean that is no longer sustainable.
Tsukiji’s impressiveness, then, stems not from its correctness but its efficiency. And the discord between how well Tsukiji does its work and how bad that work really is gets at a problem I’ve been trying to mull for a while now: why is industrial food able to monopolize the quality of efficiency? Conventional industrial food production points to an illusion of efficiency: it claims that it is able to get the most food to the most people with the least waste. A common thread of opposition to re-localized or de-industrialized food production revolves around a perceived loss of efficiency, and attendant food shortage.
But Tsujiki, properly understood, teaches us a more important lesson: the efficiency of industrial food is not absolute efficiency. It is an efficient fulfillment of a desire built on habit and preference that does not inherently account for the future. Tsukiji shows us that the processing, sale, and distribution of fish can be centralized and optimized in exciting and authentic ways, ways that speak to Japan’s history and culture as well as the lives and livelihoods of those who work the market. But that efficiency is more reason to ensure that the fish entering the market are harvested in an attentive rather than extractive relationship with the ocean.
We need to reinvest the efficiencies of distribution into maintaining efficient production: rebuilding aquatic ecosystems, pioneering oceanic farming and ranching techniques, protecting baseline genetic diversity, distributing our impact among species that can endure it, and aiming for greater trophic efficiency than the tuna’s abysmal 50-to-1.
We cannot see or predict the ocean nearly as readily as the land. This has meant that we pay less attention to it, that we consider ourselves subject to, not responsible for, the mysteries of the deep. Our impact, however, has long outstripped this mindset, and we have acquired industrial strength on the ocean without the corresponding advance in care or attention. There is a competence and a grace to be found here as a species. The sublime power and mystery of the sea is a reason to approach it with reverence and humility, not to excuse ourselves from our responsibility to act cooperatively with it.
Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.
Two big fish stories: Alaska’s King Salmon populations are diminishing every year— and no one knows why. Their decline threatens local economies which rely on the catch and the tourists who come to try their hand, as well as communities with traditional subsistence diets heavily dependent on a strong season. In better news, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue program is working with fishermen, processing centers and chefs to get underfished species on menus in the northeast, giving strained populations a break and encouraging people to eat locally and sustainably from sea as well as land.