Opinion

Mandy Thomas on Eating the Ocean

Mandy describes the transformative experience which comes from reading Eating the Ocean.

SEI in partnership with Macleay Museum hosted Mermaids and Herring Quines: Gender in the more-than-human, to celebration the launch of Professor Elspeth Probyn’s new book, Eating the Ocean. This blog was adapted from a speech given by Mandy Thomas at the lauanch. 

It is so affirming, enlivening and transformative to read a book that changes one practice, changes the way one thinks about, feels and acts in the world. This is one such delicious book. It will transform the way you think about and eat food from the sea. It demonstrates in delectable language that when we eat from the ocean, and understand and think about this act, it can catalyse enormous pleasure but can also bring anxiety, distress and anguish.

Elspeth Probyn employs wet ethnography – she sees herself as ‘a soft ethnographer who dredges oceanic tales.’ She paints herself subtly into the picture of the present oceanic encounters, plunging into the tuna cages in South Australia, or slipping an oyster down her throat. As Elspeth has previously argued, food and eating are earthy internally-felt markers of all the arenas that we live within. They mark out the scenes and conflicts involved in wider issues of concern to us and that we rotate through; key relationships and lifespan, social and ethnic differences and the wider social and political environment.

The central conundrum as to why food has attained such a privileged position in contemporary social analysis is understood by the ways in which food stands in-between our bodies and the world, being at the boundaries between our interiors and the external world, and also as the bridge between those two conditions (Atkinson, 1983:11).  At the same time as we are bombarded by a stunning rise in gastronomic images of delectable taste sensations, slow cooked pure food or the lure of healthy eating we are also viscerally more anxious about swallowing or absorbing food as it becomes more polluted, as climate change impacts the food bowls of the world as seafood becomes more scarce in our oceans and as travel brings food and disease much closer.

Although terroir speaks to land-based associations, something that few writers have focused upon is the relationship between seafood and specific areas in the ocean. Elspeth explores merroir the sea-based identifications that give each specific watery environment its particular flavor. Merroir, referring to this connectivity and affinity of seafoods to areas of the coastline or ocean becomes radically altered as seafood becomes more and more farmed from acquaculture – or ‘fish farming’ –  and less connected to the area that it is caught. As the catch of wild seafood declines, aquaculture will provide close to two-thirds of global food fish consumption by 2030, and merroir will become a distant memory. At the same time as anxiety has arisen in relation to food and eating, from the impact of food anxiety and our sick oceans on seafood to the polluting of land, so too has the focus been harnessed back to the local, and the celebration of terroir and merroir.

And in the complexity of analysis that is involved in Eating the Ocean Elspeth writes against ‘simplistic notions, solutions.’ In essence, food from the sea has become more and more imbricated into plays of power as it both unites and divides people. It allows us to explore many of the boundaries between us and the wider social world that we live within, and it is the everydayness of it that enables us to analyse the dimensions of social change in every society in which we live, travel and work. She says ‘against the man-made significance of la plage, the ocean itself seems so unworldly, so foreign to us landlubbers that we cannot turn it into facile meaning.’ The ocean itself is an integral part of the story that Elspeth weaves.

The beautifully documented tale of how tuna became valuable and went global, from a fish that was chopped up for cat food in the 1970s to when it was used to fill empty cargo holds on planes returning from carrying electronics to the US. This was the brainchild of Akira Okazaki, a young JAL cargo manager. Suddenly the tuna went global, from being a pet food to one of the most valuable natural resources in just two decades. And now tuna has become one of the most seriously depleted food stocks in the world. But it is also the story of how global tastes can change – and it is here where we turn to the ocean defenders of our times, and one in particular, Patricia Majluf from Peru, who works for Oceana, a body aimed at protecting and restoring the world’s oceans.  She found that up to 98 percent of Peru’s massive haul of anchovies are destined to create fish oil, and fishmeal for livestock and farmed salmon. Majluf has championed efforts to encourage people to eat anchovies directly, as doing so would make available a protein rich food source. By engaging fishing industries, activist chefs, and the international sustainable seafood movement, Majluf is working to lift the profile of anchovies worldwide and in so doing is set to improve the sustainability of fishing.

Elspeth also takes us on a grand tour through the gender blindness of the relationship between fish and human. The battle waged against fish and the sea is about men, a ‘manly struggle.’ And on this International Women’s Day it’s important to remember that wars have no winners, and the struggles between men and fish have only losers. With cod, for example, skirmishes have been waged over it and revolutions triggered by it. There are accounts of ships which were slowed down by the amount of cod swimming below their hulls. Now the delicious cod are commercially extinct almost everywhere. Modern equipment and technology along with the invention of frozen foods meant that cod were fished almost to the point of extinction.

So the gender blindness has led us at smashing speed into a cod-free existence. But there is hope. In some small areas there has been a modest return of cod. Perhaps one day they will return in abundance.

When I finished reading Eating the Ocean I immediately went out to my local favourite food store and bought sardines and anchovies in olive oil. And I decided, as far as is possible, never to eat farmed salmon again. I remember back to my childhood and the local fish shop which had the most extensive and extraordinary selection of seafood. As a child I never thought that I could possibly remember all the names of all the fish that were available. I realise how dramatically this has all changed, that in Brisbane farmed artificially coloured salmon now dominates all seafood stores, with virtually nothing else for sale except for sad farmed barramundi. This global transformation of what we eat and can eat from the sea has been dramatic in our lifetimes.

In this book Elspeth sears into one’s thinking the nature of these changes and the richly embodied way that we experience them. As Levi-Straus has argued in his oft-quoted and simple but lucid comment – ‘food is good to think’ indicating how valuable food is in representing the vast array of ideas and conceptualisations that link the wider word back into the body.

So, dive in, with a deep hands-outstretched plunge, and explore the acqua, refreshing clear blue channels of superb argumentation as well as the dark nether regions of sadness for the loss of our oceans’ wealth in this magnificent, joyous and revelatory book. Enjoy!

Atkinson, P. 1983 ‘Eating virtue’ in A. Murcott (ed), The Sociology of Food and Eating. Gower: Aldershot.


Mandy Thomas is the Executive Dean of the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT. In this present role since February 2014, Mandy is responsible for leading the Faculty in an important stage in its development as it consolidates its position as one of Australia’s premier locations for study across such fields as Architecture, Visual Arts, Film, Media, Journalism, Interactive Visual Design, Acting, Fashion, Music and Dance. Prior to this she was Pro Vice Chancellor – Research, at the ANU. Mandy worked at the ARC from 2005-7 when she was Executive Director of Humanities and Creative Arts.

An anthropologist by training, Mandy has undertaken research both in Vietnam and Australia, and published widely on living under a communist regime, and on the migration experience. She did her PhD at the ANU and then went on to an ARC research fellowship at the University of Western Sydney where she worked closely with different migrant groups to try to understand the issues related to young people growing up in two cultures. She has published numerous books as well as many journal articles, and curated an arts exhibition.

Image: Women and fish, Morgan Richards © Elspeth Probyn