April 28, 2021

Literary Resources

Reviewed by Madeline June Kass


The Book of Eels

Patrik Svensson (translated to English by Agnes Broome)

HarperCollins, 2020

Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels is a beautiful ode to an ugly creature. Beauty being in the “eye of the beholder,” my apologies to readers who find these “slimy and slithery” beady-eyed fish to be sublimity itself. I do not. So, ordinarily, a book about the life history of eels—particularly attentive to how they reproduce—would not be the first I’d grab off the bookstore shelf (or download to my iPad). And yet, I found this book to be quite lovely. An exploration of natural science, biology, zoology, history, philosophy, and even religion, Svensson interweaves a centuries old scientific mystery (the “Eel Question”) with an intimate story of familial bonds, memories of youth, and the relationship between father and son.

The Book of Eels is in large part a story about “the enduring mystery of where the European eel breeds, how it is born and how it dies” and our relentless quest to understand our world and ourselves. Svensson explains that

[s]cience has come up against many mysteries, but few have proven as intractable and difficult to solve as the eel. Eels have turned out to be not only uncommonly difficult to observe—due to their strange life cycle, their shyness, their metamorphoses, and their roundabout approach to reproduction—but also secretive in a way that come across as deliberative and pre-ordained. Even when successful observation is possible, even when you get really close, the eel seems to pull away. Given the inordinate amount of time so many people have spent studying and trying to understand the eel, we should, simply put, know more than we do. That we don’t is something of a mystery. Zoologists call it “the eel question.”

Challenged and captivated by the eel question, Svensson tells us that while many “prominent researchers” and “[s]ome of the most noted names in the history of natural science have tried in vain to find the answer to the eel question . . . [s]omewhere in the darkness and mud, the eel has managed to hide away from human knowledge.”

In exploring the eel question, Svensson examines what the mystery tells us about ourselves. The eels teach us, he writes, “something about the curiosity of humankind, about our unquenchable need to seek the truth and understand where everything comes from and what it means. But also about our need for mystery.” The eels’ mystique becomes “an echo of the questions all people carry with them: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?”

Along with the natural history comes a personal history. The Book of Eels tells an intimate story of Svensson’s relationship with his father. The story starts with boy and father fishing for eels:

My father taught me to fish for eel in the stream bordering the fields of his childhood home. We drove down at dusk in August . . . . We drove slowly along the rapids, where the stream rushed in a startled fashion between the rocks and past the twisted old will tree. I was seven years old and had already gone down this same road many times before. When the tracks ended in a wall of impenetrable vegetation, Dad turned off the engine and everything went dark and still, aside from the murmur of the stream. We were both wearing wellies and greasy vinyl waders, mine yellow and his orange, and we took two black buckets full of fishing fear, a flashlight, and a jar of worms from the trunk and set off.

Throughout the book, Svensson reflects on his relationship with his father as the mysteries of the eel unfold.

Although far from an environmental law book, Svensson’s does touch on environmental legal and policy issues. Svensson identifies as the final and “most urgent eel question: Why is it disappearing?” We learn the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the eel (Anguilla anguilla) as “critically endangered” and “‘facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.’” Svensson warns that the eel “could really disappear, in the foreseeable future, and not just from our sight and realm of knowledge, but from our world.” The book offers several likely (and familiar) explanations as to why eels are in trouble (disease, parasites, pollution, physical impediments to migration, over fishing, and climate change) and notes the one thing we know with greater certainty, “it’s our fault.” However, before accepting as inevitable that we will move on from “dead as a dodo” to “dead as an eel,” the book describes efforts to save the eel (European Union measures to forestall extinction and a Union-wide ban on eel fishing). As to whether the eel will be saved by such efforts, Svensson remains undecided.

Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer

Bren Smith

Alfred A. Knopf, 2019

Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer by Bren Smith is a grand manifesto on the future of food. A future reimagined with “regenerative ocean agriculture” where “kelp is the new kale” and “we eat like fish.” In this book, Smith offers a vision of the “blue-green revolution” of the future:

I see a future of reefs: hundreds of twenty-acre ocean farms dotting our shorelines, surround by conservation zones. I see a Napa Valley of ocean merroirs, producing ocean vegetables with distinct flavors in every region. I see farms that are climate farms, producing zero-input food while sequester carbon and rebuilding marine ecosystems.

This vision goes beyond sustainability. Regenerative ocean farming, he asserts, has “the power to breathe life back into the planet.” According to Smith, vertical ocean farming is sustainable—it requires zero inputs (no fertilizer, no feed, no land)—and also regenerative—seaweed pulls carbon from the environment at a higher rate than land-based plants, while oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops both filter and absorb nitrogen pollution from fertilizer runoff and can serve as organic fertilizer and animal feed.

Eat Like a Fish is not all food philosophy, it is also a how-to manual for future community sea farmers, a recipe book for adventurous foodies, and a story of redemption. Some of the chapters in the book are instructional. They describe “how to start your own underwater garden,” provide “the basics for building a farm, seeding kelp and shellfish,” and offer “tips on farm maintenance and harvesting.” Other chapters contain recipes for sea greens (aka seaweed) for those not quite ready to wade into ocean farming but courageous enough to eat like a fish. Readers can sample recipes such as barbecue kelp and carrots; brown rice salad with tahini yogurt, fried kelp, and pomegranate jalapeno syrup; kelp orzo soup; and the one I plan to try out, shrimp fra diavolo kelp.

Interwoven between the grand vision and the instructional strands, Smith shares his personal journey from fisherman to ocean farmer. Here’s a sampling:

So this is my story. It’s been a long, blustery journey to get here, but as I look back over my shoulder, a tale of ecological redemption emerges from the fog. It begins with a high school dropout pillaging the high seas for McDonald’s and ends with a quiet ocean farmer growing sea greens and shellfish in the “urban sea” of Long Island Sound. It’s a story of a Newfoundland kid forged by violence, adrenaline, and the thrill of the hunt. It’s about humility of being in forty-foot seas, the pride of being in the belly of a boat with thirteen others working thirty-hour shifts. About a farm destroyed by two hurricanes and reborn through blue-collar innovation. It is a story of fear and love for our changing seas.

But, most important, it’s a search for a meaningful and self-directed life, one that honors the tradition of seafaring culture but brings a new approach to feeding the country among wandering rocks of the climate crisis and inequality.

Eat Like a Fish is a story of personal transformation and a detailed roadmap for a healthier, more equitable world that I look forward to sharing with my environmental law students.


Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollutions

PEW Charitable Trusts

August 2020

The PEW Charitable Trusts, in collaboration with its partner institutions, has issued a report on ocean plastic pollution entitled Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution. Consistent with the growing chorus, Breaking the Plastic Wave identifies plastic pollution as both “economically imprudent” and “an environmental tragedy.” The report, however, moves beyond mere confirmation of a plastics crisis by offering a “map” for policy leaders, businesses, investors, and civil society leaders seeking “solutions to stem the flow of plastic into the ocean.”

Breaking the Plastic Wave addresses “seven strategic questions,” analyzes “six scenarios” for tackling ocean plastic pollution, makes “ten critical” findings, and outlines “the key roles” for stakeholder groups. Questions addressed include: whether we are on track “to end plastic pollution;” how bad the problem will get economically, environmentally, and for communities; whether we have the technology to solve the problem; what are the ways out of the problem and how much will they cost; who bears responsibility; which solutions are most attractive to stakeholders; and “where do we start?” The scenarios examined run from continuation of the status quo (“Business-as-Usual and “Current Commitments” scenarios), to upstream and downstream alternatives (“Reduce and Substitute,” “Collect and Dispose,” and “Recycling” scenarios), and finally to an integrated, systemic approach (the “System Change” scenario).

Based on these scenarios, the authors make ten findings about curbing the flow of plastic into the ocean. First, continuation of business as usual will result in three times more plastic in the oceans by 2040. This additional flow, the report finds, would not only pose risks to marine wildlife and ecosystems, human health, and business, but “further jeopardize our ability to mitigate climate change.” Second, moving forward with current governmental policies and industry voluntary commitments (such as plastic bans and recycling targets) may slightly reduce flow, but will ultimately fail to adequately address the problem. Third, “single-solution strategies” alone (such as scaling up recycling) cannot end ocean plastic pollution. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the authors find that a combination of eight complementary upstream and downstream interventions (identified in the “System Change Scenario”) can solve about 80 percent of the problem. Under this scenario, pollution reductions would come primarily from a combination of reduced demand, substitution, and recycling. Fifth, “innovation” is essential to reach the “ultimate goal” of near-zero plastics entering the ocean. Sixth, achieving the 80 percent reduction will require “a major redirection of capital investment.” Next, finding seven identifies new risks and new opportunities for industry if system changes move forward. Eighth, the report finds solutions should be differentiated and prioritized by geography and plastic category. Ninth, an integrated strategy offers better benefits not only for oceans, but for the climate, health, jobs, and working conditions) than continuing business as usual. And, last but not least, the report’s tenth finding warns against delayed action: “We have the solutions at our fingertips: If we want to significantly reduce plastic in our oceans, the time to act is now.”

After laying out these findings and identifying roles for various stakeholders, the authors leave us with a cup half-full summation:

Unless the plastics value chain is transformed in the next two decades, the compounding risks for marine species and ecosystems, our climate, our economy, and our communities will become unmanageable. But alongside these risks are unique opportunities for governments, businesses, and innovators ready to lead the transition to a more sustainable world with circular business models and new sustainable materials.


Reviewed by Madeline June Kass

Professor Kass is a distinguished scholar in residence at the Seattle University School of Law in Seattle, Washington; professor emeritus at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California; and a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. She may be reached at kassm@seattleu.edu.