Some numbers to consider this summer as you head down to the Cape or up to Maine to hit the beach and chow down on some seafood: America has 94,000 miles of coast and 3.5 million miles of rivers, but 91 percent of our seafood is imported. Sure, the lobster might be local, but finfish is a much harder proposition. The New England haul is a pitiful shadow of its once robust self — cod catches are under strict (and controversial) restrictions in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, and the Massachusetts ground fishing fleet has qualified for disaster aid from the federal government.
The news Paul Greenberg brings us in “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood” is not much better. The author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,” Greenberg, a longtime commentator on aquaculture and the oceans, again blends reportage, history, and advocacy, organizing one chapter each around three species — the Eastern oyster, Louisiana brown shrimp, and sockeye salmon. Greenberg’s footloose travels take him to New York’s Jamaica Bay for a dive; to the mangrove swamps of Vietnam, where shrimp farms dot the landscape; to the Gulf of Mexico and bayou country in the wake of the BP oil spill; to the vast salmon runs of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which face potential peril if a massive copper-mine project goes ahead.
Thirty nine percent of Americans call themselves coastal folk, but Greenberg argues we have lost touch with the complex ecosystems of the nation’s shores. Greenberg loves salt marshes and estuaries, those watery places where salt and freshwater currents meet. Home and breeding ground to oysters, shrimp, and crab, they are incubators of dozens of varieties of fish. He laments “our nation’s broken relationship with its own ocean” and urges us to “build a bridge back from the plate back to the estuary. This requires us to not just to eat local seafood. It requires the establishment of a working relationship with salt marshes, oyster beds, the natural flow of water from river to sea, and the integrity of the ocean floor.”
It’s an ambitious, perhaps unrealistic vision, one that faces considerable hurdles to achieve. In his home city of New York, where I live, Greenberg surveys how a coalition of nonprofit groups is rehabilitating the city’s once immense oyster beds. For Greenberg, the oyster is much more than something delicious and briny that goes well with a glass of Meursault. This incredible creature, which can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day and clusters together in reefs that slow storm surges, is a key missing piece of the city’s biological infrastructure.
The loss of some 75 percent of the city’s salt marshes, plus decades of pollution, all but destroyed New York oysters. Now, new beds are being sited across city waters, but progress is slow. Greenberg describes a wondrous moment — in the Bronx, of all places; while in search of reintroduced specimen he stumbles on “a real live, naturally spawned New York City oyster . . . [a] brave sentry from a lost kingdom.” Greenberg is at his best describing such epiphanies — he also writes beautifully about fishing for salmon in Alaska, which offers up similar reveries (in fact I must admit I wish there was more of this kind of writing on these pages).
The problems he outlines here are literally gigantic — he has multiple agendas, and sometimes is spread thin outlining the problems of the global seafood industrial complex. One feels almost defeated reading his section about Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Here, he explores the shrimp trade and the rise of the “Red Lobster commodity model.” This development, which relies on reliably cheap-farmed shrimp from the Far East, has undercut the market for wild shrimp. The degradation of Louisiana’s fecund marshlands has only made things harder for shrimpers; add the calamitous BP oil spill, and it’s a worst-case scenario.
All is not lost, however. Money from the still contentious BP settlement is being put into marsh restoration. And the fight against the Alaska mine is hanging the balance. Hedonists, beware: There is not much on these pages about the joys of eating seafood; but Greenberg highlights the efforts of small-scale, artisanal fisherfolk in New York, Alaska, and the Gulf selling directly to customers, hoping to reconnect them to product from American waters. Noble efforts all. Yet, from the findings presented here, the problem is likely to get worse before it will get better.
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.