In “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” Paul Greenberg examines how a country with an enormous coastline and a majority of its population located within 10 miles of the ocean came to import 90 percent of its seafood, much of it raised on farms. “It’s a conspiracy of a few different things,” Greenberg says, noting the replacement of working waterfronts with private real estate, the damming of waterways, and the spiraling loss of fertile marshland among them. He tells the story of how Americans stopped eating seafood from its own waters by looking at the consumption of oysters, shrimp, and salmon.
Greenberg, who identifies himself as a fisherman based in New York, previously wrote the bestseller “Four Fish.” “The press always likes to shove me in the corner of the gloom and doom,” Greenberg says. Yet, he points to signs of hope for improving productivity along the US coast. “Oysters are a tremendous success. We’ve gone from 1 percent of historical capacity to 14 percent,” he says.
Q. Explain why Americans eat so little seafood in spite of our vast coastline.
A. Originally, America was a series of shore-side colonies. As the country penetrated into the center of the continent and people understood that a lot of money could be made from the commodification of land, we reoriented ourselves as land-food eaters primarily. We now export one-third of what we catch with more and more of it going to Asia. You’re talking about 35 pounds of seafood per person per year there, compared with our rate of about 15 pounds. As we get more and more distant from our marine resources and perceive them less and less as a food source, we’re more apt to let them go to pot with coastal pollution, degradation of marsh, degradation of oyster beds.
Q. Although we primarily eat farmed seafood from other countries, America exports much of our wild seafood catch. Why is that?
A. Since the 19th century, Americans lost their tolerance for fishiness. They like flavor-neutral things. Chicken is the baseline. If you think about the fish on the market now that are largely imported — tilapia, shrimp, farmed salmon — they’re all much more neutral than their wild equivalents. Also, they’re cheaper. Going in the other direction, fishermen from this country who find that Americans aren’t wiling to pay the high price for premium wild fish are finding that the Chinese are ready to pay $20 or $30 for black cod. Also for New Bedford scallops.
Q. Why did you choose oysters, shrimp, and salmon to tell this story?
A. What I really wanted to talk about was ecological infrastructure and each of these creatures represented a different aspect of it. New York City used to have trillions of oysters. All of those oysters physically shaped the near shore. They created pockets of habitat for a great deal of seafood. I chose shrimp because it’s the most consumed seafood in America: 4 pounds of shrimp per year per person, which is equivalent to salmon and tuna combined. We’re losing the great Mississippi Delta at the rate of a football field an hour. All those wetlands we are losing are necessary to have wild shrimp. I also wanted to look at the huge boom in Asian aquaculture. With salmon, the infrastructure issue is free-flowing streams, the presence that they once had in this country and the rarity of them now.
Q. How did farm-raised shrimp become so ubiquitous?
A. Dancing shrimp, which you eat live and pop in your mouth, is the inciting incident that got people eating shrimp in the first place. Dancing shrimp was this popular dish in Japan, mostly an aristocratic thing. The shrimp used at the time were valued at more than $100 a pound in 1940s money. It made a lot of sense then to start aquaculture. The person who started domestication saw the essential qualities of shrimp — that they are very fast growing and you can pack them in really densely — and thought that maybe they could be a protein source for people all over the world. He trained graduate students from many places in Asia and they sort of fanned out across the world and started domesticating other shrimp. Now farmed shrimp are a huge business. Ninety percent of the shrimp we eat are imported and about half are farmed.
Q. How can people support a healthier ecological infrastructure with the seafood they buy?
A. I think we could eat a lot more oysters and clams and mussels (see recipe, Page 10). Any of those farmed bivalves clean the water and provide habitat. One thing that jumps out at you from the research is the amount of sardines, anchovies, and herring that are caught here, yet none of it is eaten here. I kind of imagine a seafood pyramid where the base is farmed bivalves and seaweed. We grow our base, then eat foraged fish as the next step up. Near the top are swordfish, striped bass, and cod.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.