Q&A: Explaining the Decline of American Seafood

"American Catch" explains why that shrimp in your cocktail is most likely from Asia.

Author Paul Greenberg addresses the unraveling of the American seafood economy and what can be done about it.

Why did Americans stop eating seafood from their own waters? How are seafood economics and ecology connected? What do T-shirts and Thai shrimp have in common? And why does a proposed copper mine in Alaska threaten the world's most prolific sockeye salmon run?

Award-winning author Paul Greenberg set off with a fishing rod, a notebook, and scuba gear to find out the answers for his book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood. When we spoke with him, we learned about teenage oyster restorers, why Sarah Palin named her daughter Bristol, and what happened when a guitarist from Pearl Jam met Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the Supreme Court.

You describe the U.S. as a "seafood debtor nation." What does that mean?

More than 85 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported. In addition, we export one-third of what we catch, nearly three billion pounds. Alaska, for instance, sells 80 percent of its salmon catch abroad, a lot of it to Asia. So we're engaged in this fish swap, where we send abroad things like wild Alaska salmon or black cod. In return, we are getting these dubiously sourced fish like tilapia or swai. (Read "How to Farm a Better Fish" in National Geographic magazine.)

Your story begins with the eastern oyster.

The eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica, is the only species of oyster native to the East Coast of the U.S. It used to be tremendously prolific. We grew more than we could eat. And we ate a lot of oysters—something like 600 local oysters per person per year up until the 1920s. So it was a huge part of our local economy—and our ecology. One oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water a day. So if you can imagine New York having trillions of oysters, which it once did, the entire water column would have been turned over every few weeks.

The book is to a large extent a story of loss. But it's not all gloom, is it? Tell us about "oyster restorers."

New York Harbor's waters used to be so anoxic that ships would come in to the harbor covered in barnacles and sit there until the barnacles fell off.

Like a giant car wash.

[laughs] Exactly! But ever since the Clean Water Act came into force in 1972, we have seen a gradual improvement of New York's waters, to the point where there is now enough dissolved oxygen in the water to support oysters again. We are finding nascent oyster reefs in the Bronx.

And there is this great project called the Billion Oyster Project that is being done by the Harbor School [an innovative high school on Governors Island]. They have a plan to put a billion oysters back into New York City's waters by 2035. And they are well on their way. They have put a million back in over the past couple of years.

The second part of your book is about shrimp, which you say is a paradigm for the whole "unraveling of the American seafood economy." How so?

Shrimp are by far the largest part of the American seafood diet. We eat four to five pounds per person per year, which is almost as much as the next two seafoods combined, salmon and tuna.

At first we ate a lot of American shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and before that from San Francisco, before the gold mines destroyed the marshes upon which they depend. But once we had exceeded what America could provide, we started outsourcing that appetite. Now 90 percent of our shrimp is imported, the vast majority of it from Asia.

The outsourcing of the shrimp industry to Asia is similar to other kinds of outsourcing, like the garment industry in Bangladesh. Can you unpack some of the parallels?

The entire Western world lives on the back of unfair conditions, whether it's T-shirts or Thai shrimp. But we are not just outsourcing economic infrastructure to Asia. We are outsourcing ecological infrastructure too.

Things like shrimp and oyster require functioning estuaries, but because we are outsourcing so much of our seafood demand abroad, we are letting our estuaries here in the U.S. go to pot. We have lost something like 70 percent of our salt marsh in the past hundred years. And I think that contributes to our blindness about our own seafood independence.

In Europe, food awareness about sourcing or GMO labeling has become well established. The U.S. seems to be lagging behind. Why is that? Have Americans simply gotten too used to low-cost food?

I think Europeans are used to paying more money for the basic pleasures of life. Whenever I go to Europe, I am always struck by how much it costs to take a hot shower [laughs]. If you are living in an apartment in Paris and you take a shower twice a day, you will get a pretty sizable bill. Europeans take that in their stride. But Americans don't. They want a lot of it, really cheap, really fast, and really easy. And that applies to food too.

We've worked our way through oyster and shrimp—I'm getting hungrier by the minute—now we come to Alaskan salmon and the threat posed by the Pebble Mine. What's at stake?

The world's largest remaining sockeye salmon run, a run that can be up to 40 million fish a year, has its headwaters in a part of Alaska called Bristol Bay. The headwaters also sit atop deposits of gold and copper, worth an estimated $300 billion to $500 billion.

But to get the ore, you would have to pull out about ten billion tons of earth and rock. The deposit itself is very sulfurous, and once that sulfur is exposed to air and water, it could do great damage to the environment. (Read "Alaska's Choice: Salmon or Gold" in National Geographic magazine.)

And then of course there is the issue of what you do with all those mining tailings. There is no road access to the mine, so they would have to store the tailings in situ, in perpetuity. But the site is very seismically active. There could be an earthquake, which would disrupt all those tailings. So, overall, it's just not a great place to put a mine.

Bristol Bay has a Sarah Palin connection, doesn't it?

Well, she named her daughter Bristol, so you've got to think in her heart she feels close to the place.

Does she support the mine?

She's always walked a fine line. But she appears to generally support the idea.

One of the many colorful characters in your book is Alaska's state senator, Rick Halford. You ended up going to the Supreme Court together, didn't you?

Rick used to be this rugged, old-school Republican. He liked to say he never saw a mining project he didn't like. But when he saw the size of the proposed Pebble Mine, he did an about-turn. So he and I, and a bunch of other people trying to stop the mine, went to the Supreme Court to give a presentation ...

Including a guitarist for Pearl Jam, right?

Yes, Stone Gossard was there. We were a really motley crew. I usually lecture with my fishing hat on, and as we were going in to the Supreme Court this elderly lady came up to me and said, "What's this, young man?" And I said, "It's my fishing hat, ma'am." And she said, "Well, you'll have to take it off." [laughs] It was Sandra Day O'Connor!

How does your own story connect with the book?

I grew up fishing, in a suburb of New York. I had a little boat I fished out of on Long Island Sound. And when I was a kid, most of the fish we were eating came from the U.S. But then that all changed. Where I now live in New York is right near the old Fulton Fish Market. When I moved into the neighborhood, it was this very vibrant market. Two months later it was shut down and moved to a remote part of the city. So the public's connection to the fishing economy was severed.

We don't seem to want to have direct interface with real food. We want it all packaged up. When they do opinion polls about fish, Americans say there are three things about fish that prevents them from eating it: They don't want to touch it; they don't know what to do with it; and they don't want it smelling up their kitchens! [laughs] And until that changes, I think we are going to have this fractured relationship with what is the healthiest animal protein there is.

What can the ordinary consumer do to improve the situation?

If you live in a coastal community, you can join what's called a community-supported fishery. You buy a share at the beginning of the season, usually a couple of hundred bucks, and you get a delivery or have a pickup every few weeks or month. What this does is give the fishing community cash in hand at the beginning of the season, so they are not left high and dry when they have to buy gear and nets and stuff like that. It also means that more of the profits from the catch go to the fishermen themselves, rather than to someone who is, so to speak, just flipping flounder.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.