Elspeth Probyn


On her book Eating the Ocean

Cover Interview of December 20, 2016

The wide angle

This book is a passionate, sometimes critical and frustrated intervention into the current dominant politics of food. Public campaigns, and journalistic writing often dumb down complex questions into banal slogans: eat local, eat seasonally, etc. In terms of the global-local configurations of fishing, it is hard to “eat local” fish. If you want a slogan for fish it would have to be eat small.

Within marine the “simplification of the sea” refers fishing down the web – how we are eliminating the top predators, and then ever downwards. This allows for exploding populations of crustaceans and other invertebrates, which is good for lobstermen. But in the (not so) long run, this destroys ecosystems and threatens trophic collapse whereby we are back to the jellyfish scenario with seas filled with medusoza, and gelatinous zooplankton that nothing wants to eat. I hijack this scientific term and use it to talk about how in public debate the sea is being simplified. Numerous well-meaning NGO campaigns resort to simplistic devices such as the traffic light system, whereby red is bad. Even these have been further dumbed down now to only “green” ticks.

As a longtime feminist, and writer, my turn to fish has disconcerted many. It does, however, follow from my many studies of various aspects of eating. I also challenge how in current discussions about the Anthropocene, “age of the human,” gender seems to be passé. From a discussion of mermaids through to the lives of fisherwomen, I seek to elevate gendered and queer matters of human-fish entanglement. At a conceptual level I grapple with how gender and sexuality, as well as ethnicity and class, have been squeezed out of academic discussions about the Anthropocene, climate change and the more-than-human. I seek to recover the lost stories of the women who have followed fish, and to hear what happens to human-fish settlements when the fish disappear.

Two instances of this ground the chapter in history – the rise and fall of the herring industry in Scotland that lasted from the nineteenth century until post WW II, and the collapse of the cod fisheries of the Great Banks off Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. The women who form the overwhelming workforce in fish processing, as well as the fishwives who kept the books of family fish businesses could see that a crisis was looming. In the male-dominated world of scientists and fisheries managers, their voices weren’t counted; they didn’t matter.