After watching an episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats last night and the recent talk in the news about sushi and fish population depletion, I thought I would take on a less pop culture topic this week and get a little into the politics of sustainable fish. You may be asking yourself what this has to do with anything classical, but I promise you it has as much to do with the Ancient Greeks as it does the modern sushi trend. First let us look at the problem. Alton Brown lays the problem out pretty clearly in his Good Eats episode The Once and Future Fish (see it here). To sum up the problem though, we, humans, like to eat big meaty fish and we overfish them close to the point of extinction. We need to learn to eat smaller more common fish, something the Romans were actually fairly good at.
The depletion of fish populations around the world has been in the news often in the last two years, but it has not caught on as a popular cause yet (you know those popular causes that get beaten to death on college campuses across the nation). Actually it is quite the opposite. Sushi’s rise in popularity especially across college campuses in the US has led to even higher consumption of fish. The BBC reported that a record was set in 2011 for global fish consumption at 17 kg per person per year (for us Americans that’s 37lbs). For comparison the US estimated 57lbs of beef consumed per person per year in 2011. The same BBC article reports, “85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited.”
So again you are asking me what this has to do with the Ancient world. Thank you for staying with me. Here is the payoff. The same thing happened in Ancient Greece! In fact, the Ancient Greeks fished tuna (Greek: Thunnos) to near extinction. In a great lecture at Temple University when I was there a couple of years ago, Dr. Daniel Levine spoke about the overwhelming popularity of tuna in Ancient Greece and the over fishing of these tuna. It was such a popular food source that even Aristotle mapped out the migration patterns of the fish. The tuna was linked to the god Poseidon and prayers were offered to him by fisherman. Lastly, an important link to today’s problem, the Ancient Greeks fished with large nets which caught not only mature fish, but young fish. This is the problem today. Many fish not suitable for markets are dying instead of remaining in the sea and reproducing.
For more information from Dr. Levine about the Ancient Greeks and tuna see his research here.