Editor’s Note: Before oil started gushing into the Gulf, years of large-scale commercial fishing and questionable environmental standards had already distressed water ecosystems, bringing many fish populations to the brink of extinction. Four Fish examines the state of our oceans today and explains why there’s hope yet: we can yet boost wild and farmed fish populations in ways that are environmentally and economically sound. Paul Greenberg is an award-winning seafood writer who regularly contributes to The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. He will be doing an event at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven on August 23. What follows is an excerpt from Four Fish; it appears here with permission from the author and Penguin Books.
In 1978 all the fish I cared about died. They were the biggest largemouth bass I had ever seen, and they lived in a pond ten minutes’ walk from my house on a large estate in the backwoods of Greenwich, Connecticut, perhaps the most famously wealthy town in America. We did not own the house, the estate, the pond, or the largemouth bass, but I still thought of the fish as my fish. I had found them, and the pond was my rightful hunting ground.
My mother had rented the house as she would three other homes in Greenwich, because it gave the illusion of magnificent proprietorship. She tended toward small cottages on large estates — converted stables, liverymen’s accommodations that were the unclaimed, declining appendages of older, fading wealth, unsold because of divorces or other family complications, rented out to us for a reasonable fee that would become unreasonable and impel our moving on to other cottages on other collapsing estates.
Fishing was the one constant during these years. Sensing in it a masculine, character-building quality, my mother arranged it so that the cottages we rented always had access to streams and lakes or abutted other properties we could trespass upon that had such resources. She trusted my instincts for spotting fishy water and used me as a kind of divining rod before signing a lease. And for most of my childhood, we were within a short walk of a potentially fruitful cast. Our longest residence was in the aforementioned house near the giant largemouth bass. In the first two years we lived there, I spent all my summer evenings and weekend mornings pursuing them.
In the winter of 1978, though, a fierce blizzard hit southern Connecticut. Temperatures were often below zero and at one point it snowed for thirty-three hours straight. Perhaps it was the cold that killed the fish, or the copper sulfate I helped the caretaker drag through the pond the previous summer to manage the algal blooms, or maybe even the fishermen I’d noticed trespassing on the estate one day, scoping out my grounds. But whatever caused it, after that winter never again did I spot a living fish. Of course I tried. I trolled pretty much every square foot after school the following year, often with a neighbor who had moved in after the era of the great fish. When two months of dragging lures up and down the shoreline produced not even a strike, my neighbor finally stuck a pin in my irrational bubble of hope.
“I don’t care what you say about what was,” I remember him shouting. “There is not a [expletive deleted] fish in this whole goddamn lake, and I’m never fishing here again.”
Like any hunter whose grounds have gone bad, I set out looking for new territory. I followed the outflow of the pond down a series introduction of cascades that in turn flattened out into a low, swampy meadow of deep oxbows. Only minuscule shiners, crawfish, and escaped goldfish swam here. Farther and farther I went, until the stream joined a larger river and passage was blocked by a fence that a wealthy landowner had erected. Inspecting a map at the library, I found that this was a significant juncture for my stream (as with “my” pond, I had annexed the stream and referred to it now as “mine”). The point at which it was no longer my stream was where it entered the Byram River, a flow that during the times of Native American sovereignty was called the Armonck, or “fishing place,” but which, according to one local legend, the English renamed because of the native tendency to pester white men with armfuls of shad and herring for trade and the endlessly repeated entreaty “Buy rum? Buy rum?” The Byram continued south for another ten miles after the juncture before widening and finally emptying out into the sea. The beginning of an idea came to me.
Several hundred dollars made it into my account after an ersatz bar mitzvah that my partially Jewish family cobbled together for me when I turned thirteen, and through a debt-leveraged matching grant from the depths of my mother’s complicated finances I was able to purchase a used aluminum boat and a twenty-horsepower outboard engine. Using her good figure and her ability to forge solidarity with the working classes (she had been a friend of the American socialist Michael Harrington and was an experienced strike aide-de-camp), my mother persuaded the Greenwich harbor master to let us jump the waiting list for a boat slip at the Grass Island Marina. By the summer of 1981, I had a boat, a place to store it, and several thousand square miles of sea for my own use. Better hunting grounds had been found at last.