Elspeth Probyn


On her book Eating the Ocean

Cover Interview of December 20, 2016

In a nutshell

My book explores how we eat the ocean, in many ways, every day, sometimes without knowing it. Of course we know when we consciously eat fish – battered, breaded, grilled, steamed, or raw - and when we tongue delicious health-sustaining oysters, or partake of steaming bowls of relatively sustainable mussels. What we may not be aware of is that 25% of the global ocean catch disappears into fish oil and fishmeal. In this form fish turn up in supermarket white bread fortified with omega 3, cosmetic products, pet food, and become food for farmed fish.

Humans have eaten the ocean for as long as we’ve been around. But we didn’t have the technology that now allows fishing boats to go further out, and to fish ever deeper down. Until relatively recently we thought that we could eat the ocean with impunity. Now we are at risk of eating it up, devouring it until there’s nothing left except the not-so-apocryphal jellyfish n’ chips.

While concern about the terrestrial production of protein has burgeoned over the last decades, it seems harder to get people to care about where their fish comes from. Perhaps it is because it is difficult to cuddle a cod. Though as readers will discover, there is a wacky FishLove conservationist site, which includes photographs of a naked Lizzy Jagger riding bareback on a yellowfin tuna. WWF’s campaigns resort to photoshopped images of bluefin tuna with panda or white rhino masks to trick us into caring. Fish just don’t have the anthropomorphic associations that seemingly make us care about whether our chickens are happy free-rangers or not. I think that it is also because fish inhabit a milieu that most humans find cold and wet and bewildering. What are these cold-blooded creatures for if not for human eating?

Across the book I try to engage readers in ways that will make them interested in the wondrous complexities of marine life, of the sea and her inhabitants. In my ethnographic travels to the north of Scotland, to the far south of Australia, and to points in between, I gather material about how people relate to fish, and how they tell their stories – and often deep care and love – for them. Fishers, marine scientists, fisheries managers, and people who live by and on the sea have related their concerns, which I then relate to some wider questions: how can we help fishing communities, fish, and the oceans be more sustainable? What are the gender relations in the fishing field? What are queer fish? I am deeply invested in teasing out the very different sorts of knowledge that construct what eating the ocean means. Who tells the stories, how, to whom and why is a theme that reverberates through my book.