One of the inevitable elements of the college experience—along with caffeine-infused all-nighters and cramped fraternity basements—is the dorm food. While some colleges boast extravagant spreads, replete with sushi bars and midnight sundae stations, most undergrads find themselves facing standard mass-produced fare when they arrive on campus. Pizza and grilled chicken: the perfunctory nod to ethnic cuisine in the form of a vindaloo or a paella: lots of grease—and once in a while, an endangered species.
I had never heard of swai before I began college, although it was a staple of my university’s dining hall. The chewy white fish was variously served in deep-fried chunks or as insipid fillets doused in some form of sticky, soy-based sauce. Although the general unpalatableness of the mystery seafood was once a point of comedy between my friends, my attitude changed from one of light-hearted queasiness to frank concern when I discovered that swai was, and remains, endangered.
This fact was difficult enough to discover given that swai (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus)—a species endemic to Southeast Asia and the Mekong River—goes by a baffling number of aliases: Asian catfish, swai, tra, sutchi, panga, creamy dory (yum!), and iridescent shark . Particularly confusing is the fact that swai (P. hypophthalmus) is often called basa, which is the informal name for another species: P. bocourti. There’s a reason for the litany of pseudonyms: as Vietnamese fish began to be exported to the United States at the dawn of the new millennium, domestic fishermen lobbied against allowing its sale as a type of “catfish” for fear of competing with the homegrown variety; hence the invention of vaguely exotic monickers. In fact, this trade conflict even has a name—the “Catfish War”—and shares many of the well-worn themes of 21st century economic disputes, pitting domestic protectionism against the cheap goods provided by neoliberalism .
Beyond the free trade debate, there remains the question of swai’s status as an endangered species, and although I believed I was well on my way to a Watergate-esque exposé (possible Washington Post headline: “College Receives Donation from Jeffrey Epstein and Feeds Students Endangered Animals”), my muckraking aspirations were foiled when the University stolidly informed me that the fish we were eating had actually been farm-raised. Barton Seaver, a celebrity chef who had been commissioned to curate our school’s menu (his quixotically titled debut, For Cod and Country, is an ode to eating lesser-known types of fish and was praised by The Atlantic as a “cookbook that can save the seas”) endorsed the stewardship of our swai distributor and lauded the new dining hall stalwart as a “lean, clean, delicious protein.” He never asked me or my fellow students if we agreed about its deliciousness.
Despite the reassurance of a onetime Esquire magazine “Chef of the Year,” I remained unsettled by swai. After college, I found the fish among the offerings at a soup kitchen where I volunteered, although it usually went nameless into dishes like “seafood gumbo” or “fish and chips.” Since then, wherever I’ve lived, it’s popped up on a handful of restaurant menus. And I’ve probably encountered it more often than that. It’s hard to know exactly where and when you’re eating swai because it can be billed as catfish, or served up anonymously in generic fish entrees. Every once in a while a major news outlet publishes a story about a fishy swap on a restaurant menu, but evidence of swai’s surreptitious presence on U.S. menus is more than anecdotal. A study conducted among 37 restaurants in an unnamed city in the southeastern United States found that over 20 percent of fish labeled as either “catfish” or “grouper” was actually the flesh of imported pangasius—the genus to which swai belongs. Moreover, in a finding that bodes poorly for the nation’s beloved fish tacos, researchers concluded that over 66 percent of dishes billed generically as “fish” were actually swai or basa.
An Oceana report confirmed the scale of this piscine deception, concluding that globally, members of the pangasius genus are swapped for over 18 other species of fish. And lest Europeans begin to feel superior in their gastronomic discernment, Oceana found that 98 percent of bluefin tuna dishes in Brussels’s restaurants were mislabeled as something else, while in Italy, 82 percent of the fish sold as grouper, swordfish, or perch were also misclassified—with half of those being substituted with a species that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) deems “threatened with extinction.” Cue the grave-rolling of nonnas across the Mediterranean .
The sheer amount of imported catfish in the United States is hard to fathom. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, with half of that amount grown via aquaculture—the practice of breeding and harvesting fish in controlled environments, rather than catching them in the wild. NOAA statistics show that the United States imported roughly 110,301 metric tons of Asian catfish in 2017, which cashed in at $380 million in sales. Most catfish comes from Vietnam, and much of what’s imported is swai; although it’s hard to prove definitively, if you eat fish, particularly at restaurants, you’ve probably had swai, too.
The IUCN continues to keep Pangasianodon hypophthalmus on its Red List of endangered species, citing fishing and overharvesting, the construction of dams, and pollution as causes for dwindling populations; the organization estimates that the overall wild catch of swai has declined by 68 percent—and possibly as much as 99 percent—since the 1980s. According to studies by the University of Hull, the Mekong River—from which swai has historically been fished—is one of the globe’s most polluted, and carries over 40 thousand tons of plastic into the world’s oceans each year. The Mekong has long been a subject of worry for conservationists, who for decades have decried not only the destruction of wild species, but also the obliteration of traditional fishing communities that has accompanied these diminishing populations. In addition to the threats of overfishing, dam building, and sand mining, there’s also the concern that the river is simply drying out. These devastating forces combine, often manifesting in dramatic ways: in 2019, a region of the Mekong delta turned pitch black due to spillage of “untreated effluent” from a local sugar factory.
Yet, when pressed, swai distributors in the United States will echo the same, unsatisfying, reassurance: Sure, the species might be endangered, but the fish you are eating—the one right here on your plate—was farm-raised. So relax, and dig in.
It’s simple to sense, if not easy to articulate, an eerie contradiction in the above sentiment. What does it mean—and what are the implications for environmental sustainability—when a species can be hunted to near extinction, protected by a host of conservation organizations, and yet scarfed by the ton each day? Is it not untenable for an animal to be both endangered and farmed?
One can envision an almost identical scenario that would elicit a far greater level of outrage. Imagine a farm in Vietnam that bred and raised giant pandas, only to sell them to adventurous steakhouses in the United States. Pandas are also a vulnerable species, but if, as distributors of swai maintain, farming was carried out “sustainably” (whatever that means—but let’s assume it implies without impact to wild populations), then what’s the harm? Panda farming would engender a lot of criticism, but perhaps only because we think differently about charismatic megafauna than we do about things with gills. Once one invokes the dispassionate framework of the market, farming a species and selling it for consumption even in the face of abysmal native populations becomes basically equivalent, whether there are thousands of creatures remaining in the wild, or only a dozen.
The irony, of course, is that although Americans farm and eat animals on such a large scale, we also spend immense time and energy caring about endangered ones. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which provided a framework for funding conservation efforts and proposed the necessity of safeguarding critical habitats. In fiscal year 2016, federal and state agencies spent at least $1.6 billion on threatened and endangered species. For better or worse, endangered animals like pandas are intertwined with our notions of conservation. We parade them as symbols of the environmental movement, and they provide us—along with annual global temperature and inches of sea level rise—with a clear metric for the state of our environmental collapse. When a species on the endangered list is brought back from the brink of extinction, its revival is hailed as a major success for environmentalism. Yet such ‘victories’ are dwarfed by the routine killing and eating that happens every year: at least 1.5 billion pigs, 500 million sheep, 400 million goats, and 300 million cattle are slaughtered and eaten annually in a global operation that, to most people, exists outside of the realm of environmentalism.
To better understand our society-wide contradiction between wanton consumption and performative preservation, it helps to start with the Enlightenment. The generalized objectification of the universe—where nature is reduced to discrete, constituent parts—is a relatively new one in the history of science. The philosopher Carolyn Merchant traced its origin in her famous book The Death of Nature, arguing that before the Enlightenment, most of the natural world was understood to be beyond human comprehension, the result of capricious gods or countless unknowable, living forces. This sentiment was captured by Alexander Pope, whose Essay on Man is a defense of humanity’s ignorance of God’s purposes:
“All Nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which though canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.”
This perspective on Nature—as distinctly separate from and impenetrable to human understanding—had formerly dominated Western thought. Pope was issuing his passionate defense in the era of the Scientific Revolution, a time in which, as Merchant explains, the early “natural philosophers” were now examining nature as a “system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces.” This mechanistic framework of the universe legitimated the manipulation of nature, and led to “a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism.”
Many of the early Enlightenment thinkers, Merchant tells us, were frank in their aspirations for this new science. Descartes, who famously argued that nonhuman animals were machines, devoid of mind, consciousness, and sentience, wrote in 1636 that through mechanistic inquiry, humans could “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.” Joseph Glanvill, a contemporary English philosopher, argued proudly in 1668 that the objective of natural philosophy would be to “enlarge knowledge by observation and experiment…so that nature being known, may be mastered, managed, and used in the services of human life.” Similarly, Robert Boyle, a founder of modern chemistry, would write in 1661 that although some men cared only to know nature, “others desire to command her” and “to bring nature to be serviceable to their particular ends, whether of health, or riches, or sensual delight.” Francis Bacon would, in promulgating the experimental method, go even farther, calling for nature to be “bound into service” and made a “slave” of mankind. (The sexual nature of these descriptions of “natural domination” is no coincidence; Merchant proposes that the conceptualization of the Earth as female in no small part contributed to its ultimate subjugation—and that the legacy of the Scientific Revolution can be seen in the contemporary subordination of women.)
Such lofty—and exploitative—aspirations for science did not go without criticism. Many of the early proponents of the Enlightenment felt compelled to defend their endeavour against classical and Renaissance thinkers, like the 16th century German philosopher Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa , who maintained that nature ought to remain beyond the realm of human manipulation, and that those seeking to “stop the flight of beasts and birds, the swimming of fishes, to charm away all manner of disease” contravened the creation of God. Centuries later, in a world of genetic editing and nuclear fission, it appears that Bacon won and Agrippa lost. There is no shortage of examples of the ways in which modern science, coupled with global capitalism, has manipulated the natural environment, enslaving her to service our “sensual delight.”
This is where swai—a species we at once breed, decimate, and protect—emerges as a perfect emblem of this Enlightenment-generated phenomenon: the gradual and persistent death of nature. The apotheosis of the Scientific Revolution is our ability to not only mechanize and understand, but to invariably consume nature (in this case, literally consume it), moving the natural world from a mysterious space beyond our reach into the orderly realm of capital.
In the era of factory farming, we have replaced our former belief in the internal life of animate objects with the possibility of profit. The oceans are no longer a home to billions of swimming beasts, but rather, a reservoir of cheap fillets; indeed, we speak of fish and their natural habitats as “ wild stock.” We have taken what was once the Other—a realm of creatures and plants believed to possess an agency of its own—and reduced it to a mere commodity. More recently than Agrippa, thinkers like Eileen Crist have challenged the pervasive view of human supremacy, contending that even more so than capitalism or modernity, it’s our belief in the centrality of the human species and our concomitant disregard for other biotic communities that drives modern ecological collapse.
The term Anthropocene, made popular by scientists like Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen (himself a Nobel Laureate), refers to a proposed new geological epoch in which human activity has begun, for the first time, to modulate the Earth to such an extent that our ecological footprint will be reflected in geological time. The concept has gained traction not only among Earth scientists and those in the humanities and social sciences, but has also wormed its way into mainstream discourse. John Green, a popular author and vlogger, hosts a podcast (perhaps the most anthropocentric form of contemporary media) called The Anthropocene Reviewed, in which he opines on various aspects of the human-altered universe. Although many are critical of the widespread adoption of the term, citing for instance the lack of definitive stratigraphic (rock layer) proof of human-caused effects on the Earth, there remains something culturally apropos about the Anthropocene. In his first episode, Green marvels at Dr. Pepper, which in contrast to prior fountain drinks does not attempt to replicate the taste of any naturally occuring food, but rather offers a completely artificial flavor. The fact that this ethereal, wholly unique taste is also delivered in a zero calorie form is, according to Green, proof enough of the Anthropocene.
The large-scale elimination of species perpetuated by humans (“The Sixth Extinction”) is also typically held up as evidence for the Anthropocene. It strikes me, however, that an even better piece of evidence for this proposed epoch than diet sodas or species die-offs—providing even more convincing testimony of the permanence and artificiality of modern ecology—is swai. Here is an animal that we annihilate, yet also allow to swim. That this species’ natural habitat is shifting before our eyes from the 12th largest river in the world to a series of artificially dredged ponds is a depraved corroboration of what our species, at the apogee of its technological prowess, can do.
One day soon, swai may go extinct in the wild, but we will continue to breed it in captivity—a gastronomic Jurassic Park starring a species whose raison d’etre is to be battered, deep-fried, and swept secretly into the gullets of millions of Americans. When this day comes, one would be forgiven for recalling the widely-quoted Nietzsche deadpan “God is dead,” although the more apt quote might be his lesser-known follow-up: “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?”
That’s because swai is also a reminder of the limits of human omnipotence. There’s a reason we sneak imported catfish onto our plates instead of local species or Chilean sea bass (although after over a decade, a research team claims this rare fish is nearly ready for aquaculture.) Despite our species’ interplanetary aspirations and our hopes of untethering ourselves from our physical forms with the help of AI, we rely on $4 per pound fish to feed the hungry mouths of both upper-crust undergrads and soup kitchen patrons. Swai disinflates our hubris. It demonstrates that we remain tied to the corporeal plane. Somewhere between ape and demigod, Homo sapiens are powerful enough to dam rivers and end species, yet still meager and glutinous enough to depend on cheap fillets bred in muddy brown run-off.
Swai also represent the uncomfortable circularity to which the Anthropocene has made us accustomed. We destroy the environment and overhunt species…so we farm them and continue consuming. We hunch over a screen for nine hours a day…so we run, demonically, on a conveyor belt of sweat, until we’re tired enough to recline on the couch. We hyperstimulate and addict ourselves to notifications and email, so we take “digital detoxes,” or buy branded “zen garden” receptacles into which our phones can disappear. We make ubiquitous sugary, salty, fatty foods…so we diet, painfully, or cut out part of our intestine to absorb less of what we eat .
The superfluity of these solutions embodies the ingenuity of the Anthropocene. We eschew difficult answers for Rube Goldberg-esque fixes, like taking the elevator up to an Equinox or buying an app for our gadget addiction. If we thought swai was tasty and worth eating, we might simply attempt to preserve its natural habitat. But that would require a level of self-control and stewardship that modern technology allows us to bypass. Environmentalism often looks banal and old-fashioned, even puritanical in its reduction of pleasures. There’s a simplicity to it, which in many ways is both much easier and more challenging than the quick, yet circuitous, solutions that 21st century technology has handed us.
In a provocative paper, The Trouble with Wilderness, environmental historian William Cronon illuminates the genesis of the modern dichotomy between humanity and ‘Nature,’ contending that far from being a sanctuary away from societal manipulation, “the wild” is as much a human construct as any other civilizational byproduct. While wilderness was once, as Merchant notes, a place that imparted fear and inspired awe—according to Burke, Kant, and Wordsworth among others, “the wild” was the closest man could get to the sublime glory of God—in the last two centuries it has been transformed into a destination for relaxation, reinvigoration, and escape. Cronon contends that the modern reification of the wild, an attempt to return to pre-Enlightenment ideals, relied on a certain frontier nostalgia, which envisioned the natural world as a barren locale meant for masculine, bourgeois recreation (most famously embraced by Teddy Roosevelt). This myth is problematic for many reasons, not least of which is that a belief in a “virgin wilderness” blithely erases the histories and perspectives of Indigenous peoples who have long called such places home.
But this dominant, Anthropocene-era conception of wilderness is also harmful insofar as it maintains a dualism between human civilization and nature . Cronon asserts, “If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not…” It is this perceived distinction that allows for such inane projects as voraciously farming species that we simultaneously safeguard. “Wilderness gets us into trouble,” Cronon further explains, “only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit.”
This wilderness ethos imbues much of the modern conservation movement, which deliberately seeks to remove civilization from natural ecosystems. Landmark pieces of legislation—such as the 1964 Wilderness Act—cordon off slices of the globe, returning nature to Merchant’s imagined pre-Enlightenment state: a separate space free from the meddling and subjugating hand of humanity.
But such attempts at conservation, while well-intentioned, perpetuate a false dichotomy between economic productivity and untouched wilderness. Wendell Berry, whose seminal work The Unsettling of America made a case for the cultural value of farming, argues that in sanctifying certain iconic pieces of the natural world, post-industrial conservationists disentangled nature from human existence. As he writes in his book The Art of Loading Brush:
“This version of conservation, industrial and romantic, orthodox and dominant for at least a century, simplifies and sentimentalizes nature as friend, wild, virgin, spectacular or scenic, picturesque or photogenic, distant or remote from work or workplaces, ever-pleasing, consoling, restorative of a kind of norm of human sanity. Conservationists of this order have thus established and ratified a division, even a hostility, between nature and our economic life that is both utterly false and limitlessly destructive of the world they are intent upon ‘saving.’”
This perceived division between nature and our economic life is what enables the pillaging of the Mekong alongside the mass breeding of Swai. We expect nature to be something far-off and picturesque—a place of snow-capped mountains and impenetrable rainforest—while we admit our own ‘unnatural’ world to be one of consumption and destruction. Hence, we are led to believe that a fish in a river = nature, while a fish in a tank = science. Such a dualism both unmoors humanity from the wild and permits nature’s subjugation. It also prevents any truly sustainable vision of environmentalism; we can either plunder rivers, or we can never touch them—there is no cohabitation in between.
Of course, in reality, endangered species lists and animal farming are two sides of the same coin. The global industrial network that eviscerates populations through deforestation and erosion and overhunting is the same one that maintains factory farms. The irony is that such a system’s strength could be leveraged towards restoring wildlife, as captive breeding programs have demonstrated in the past. By definition, the capability to grow millions of creatures in captivity implies a power that, although it may never be used this way, could repopulate the wild.
Cronon offers a solution: embrace nature everywhere, especially in our own backyard. “The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or a saw…the tree in the garden could easily have sprung from the same seed as the tree in the forest, and we can claim only its location and perhaps its form as our own.” A subconscious knowledge of this truth is no doubt part of the queasiness surrounding swai and other animals we eat. Endangered fish come from the same proverbial seed as those bred explicitly for consumption; both have an inherent claim to the wild.
So how then do we navigate a more comprehensive understanding of wilderness, and how do we protect it? Borrowing from Aldo Leopold, Berry posits an alternative definition of conservation: “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” Viewed in this light, the well-being of critical habitats, like the Mekong, is not measured by the presence or absence of certain flagship species, but rather by the biotic community’s ability to preserve itself. In this respect, what we are doing to swai—our dueling impulses to destroy and protect it—is wrong not only because it is self-defeating, but because it is unsustainable, in the fairest sense of the word.
This year, as the novel coronavirus emerged and popular conversation turned to wet markets and “exotic” Asian species, I found myself returning to swai and how it embodies our relationship with livestock, species destruction, and the wild. The inscrutable pangolin, which became a preeminent figure in the coronavirus origin story, is the most trafficked non-human mammal in the world; the four species found in Africa are listed as vulnerable, while the four in Asia are critically endangered. Here we have yet another example of the fallout of mankind’s interaction with the natural world.
Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the plight of swai demonstrate the interconnectedness of all species on this planet. Humans are capable of deforesting large swathes of the globe, unleashing never-before-encountered viruses, and bringing these pathogens to every corner of civilization. The same forces—population growth, unfettered consumption, intercontinental travel and trade—also drive us to plunder the world’s rivers and pollute natural habitats at exponential rates.
But we are also capable of genuine technological miracles: producing several novel vaccines in under a year, or breeding thousands of tons of cheap, endangered seafood to satiate a population that increasingly lusts for marine protein. A few decades ago, it would have been equally improbable to suggest inventing a vaccine for a virus within 12 months of its emergence and supplying 60 percent of “fish” items in restaurants with an animal that is not only not commonplace, but actually critically scarce.
Yet in keeping with the ethic of the Anthropocene, such impressive feats are undercut by undeniable follies and failures. At the time of this writing, COVID-19 has killed over 3.1 million humans, including nearly 600,000 Americans. In spite of our unprecedented technological prowess, we could not stop the mistrust, misinformation, denial, and poor management that undoubtedly contributed to thousands of needless deaths. And we remain unable to save the Mekong, or lower carbon emissions, or halt sea level rise.
Are we really “unable”? Or do we just not want to? There’s another endangered fish that humans continue to eat in droves, except this one is much more famous: bluefin tuna. Despite acknowledging for years that the species is endangered, the U.N. and the E.U. have both continually rejected bans on Thunnus thynnus because, well, people simply like sushi too much. There are important differences between the tales (tails?) of these two species: bluefin tuna continues to be caught in the wild, unlike swai, which when imported is mostly farm-raised. Moreover, being a staple of fine dining, tuna has faced both greater resistance to its protection and more widespread media attention as a cause célèbre than swai (hence why there’s already been a New York Times Magazine profile of the beleaguered scombroid, but only some odd-ball reportage on its catfish cousin.)
Still, the stories of bluefin and swai share a common theme: the power that commerce wields in driving political tastes and cultural attitudes. Bluefin tuna, like private jets and thousand dollar t-shirts, symbolizes capitalism at its most epicurean—a gaudy, high-bourgeoisie affront to moderation, the environment, and the 99.9 percent. Swai, on the other hand, represents 21st century capitalism in its mass-market form, evoking an interconnected network of Walmarts and sweatshops and teeming ponds of overcrowded fish.
In many ways, human ingenuity has been propelled by our unending rapacity, and it is hard to imagine significant changes to the status of swai (or bluefin tuna for that matter) any time soon. As much as the profit motive trumps environmentalism, so too does taste. Americans managed to save the previously endangered bald eagle, but I’m tempted to believe that this was because eagles do not play a particularly delectable role in our culinary history. If eagles tasted as good as a spicy tuna roll—or if they were as cheap and tasted as passably good as breaded-up swai and chips—we would probably be eating them to extinction, too.
But contemporary market trends show that consumers care about more than just price and taste; the widespread rise of farm-to-table and “eating local” proves that Americans are increasingly concerned about the provenance of their food. The recent explosion of meat alternatives, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (another Anthropocene invention—fake meat that tastes exactly like real meat) also proves that modern eaters are moving away from, if only gradually, the traditionally blind acceptance of farm-raised livestock. And, as more people balk at the fishy fish they are served at restaurants, demand for imports like swai could also tumble. If that becomes the case, we might see a future in which college students are not made to choose between eating something endangered and something merely conventionally gag-inducing. Everyone knows college kids are hungry and in debt—and while those conditions remain, they’ll eat about pretty much anything.