Book Review: The Fish Market

The complex story of sustainable seafood and the systems that make it possible.

Published February 10, 2017

Journalist Lee van der Voo lost a bet. After vowing to colleagues she’d never write another fish story, claiming too few people read them, a fellow reporter bet he could pique her interest in catch shares. Five years later, her exhaustively researched book, The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate, is the fascinating result of that fortuitously lost wager.

Catch shares—a management system that allocates specific areas or amounts of a fishery’s total catch to individual fishermen or associations—have a far-reaching impact on the ecosystem and what types of products make it to market. Though as van der Voo discovered, the general public is largely unaware of the systems supporting how their favorite fish gets from the sea to the supper table.

Regulating fishing was once based on set seasonal dates rather than catch share systems, which van der Voo calls “cap and trade for fish.” The system was instituted to help keep overfishing at bay and promote the ecological health of the marine ecosystem, as well as improve conditions for fishermen and make it easier to deliver better products to seafood lovers. In theory, ownership is meant to produce better stewardship. But privatizing the oceans comes with a tangled net of complications.

Van der Voo’s in-depth reporting includes a case study of the nonprofit traceability organization Gulf Wild. After grouper stocks collapsed from overfishing in the early 1990s, Gulf Wild formed with the mission to set traceability standards for domestic sustainable seafood products. Every Gulf Wild product can be tracked back to the boat, the fisherman, and the fishing method. Undoubtedly, Gulf Wild helped grouper rebound, as well as transform from a Filet-O-Fish ingredient to a white tablecloth entrée. The property rights responsible for such a makeover also forever changed the seascape in North America.

The Fish Market is a fast-paced, thorough account of the American sustainable seafood market’s evolution over the past 25 years, touching on everything from the slow fish movement to how reality television shows such as Deadliest Catch have made the public aware of the dangers of crabbing during short, brutal seasons. There is one chapter on New Zealand, but the book otherwise focuses on the US coast, with particular emphasis on Alaska and the Bering Strait. Van der Voo respectfully recounts colorful stories about the individuals behind the massive, sprawling system in a way that snags readers with even the slightest interest in the complex networks that supply their favorite seafood.

The Fish Market: Inside the Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner Plate
By Lee van der Voo
288 pp. St. Martin’s Press