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A photo of the cover of "American Catch" by Paul Greenberg

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

Photograph courtesy of Penguin Group

Simon Worrall

for National Geographic

Published July 13, 2014

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?

Book Talk

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.

17 comments
Jay Bird
Jay Bird

Sadly, I think we are going to get to the point where profit from extractive industries will need to be tied to investment in living systems. Sadly, because it will be like giving up crack.

Donald Willoughby
Donald Willoughby

Isn't it true that the shrimp bloom we've experienced over recent decades is a bellwhether of overfishing of predator species? 

Kat Monroe
Kat Monroe

 No one has mentioned the numerous rumors of the radition leaking into the Pacific ocean from Fukushima. I see postings about  it weekly with comments from people  that that is why they arent buying Pacific seafood...

Jay Clemons
Jay Clemons

Great to hear about the Billion Oyster Project! Just hope they don't get hit with the acidification problem that is impacting oyster fisheries in the Pacific Northwest...

Patti Duff
Patti Duff

I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Sylvia Earle a few years ago, which was so eye-opening, I consciously avoid consuming seafood, although I've always had a weakness for halibut.  Regarding the statements made about the habitat needed for shrimp farming, there are a number of factors that play into not purchasing shrimp/prawns from Asia - or anywhere, for that matter. In order to create shrimp farms, large swaths of mangrove swamp and other coastal habitat have to be cleared, which has occurred, Ecologically, these areas have served as protective barriers during hurricanes and other weather events, preventing or helping to protect areas further inland from devastation. Everything on this planet is interconnected - try to remember that when you're enjoying your shrimp cocktail or throwing another one on the barby. The cost is much higher than what you took out of your pocket!

Kelvin Thomas
Kelvin Thomas

Americans may want it cheap and fast. But I'm more concerned with the overall ecological picture. We can eat from many different food sources. But in the end if we don't take care of the source they come from, its all moot. Is anybody looking at the overall picture of what our consumption, however it occurs, is doing to the planet as a whole?


I personally don't care where my seafood comes from. Even though I grew up eating from the fish markets in Kemah, Texas. Bad press did put me off seafood for awhile but my need for a balanced diet brought me back. I would be willing to eat from any where that I knew was supporting an ecologically healthy system. That in the end it the most important point in my opinion.

Donald Kelley
Donald Kelley

I wonder if shrimp consumption would be as high as it is without the availability of farmed shrimp.  It would likely be rich-people-food.


The labor-issues in Thailand are systemic and have little to do with shrimp specifically.  Overall the shrimp trade with developing countries has been a positive in enabling economies generate cash and letting more Americans access shrimp.

Gloria A.
Gloria A.

I live in Washington State which should be Fish Central -- but sadly it is so not. There are no fish markets around. If people want fish here, and they do, they catch them. 

However since I saw a PBS special on the truly dangerous level of PCB and other toxins in Puget Sound showing up in salmon, I only buy Alaskan or farmed fish. Except that for reasons i wish someone would explain, it is cheaper to buy West Coast farmed salmon in NY state than here  where it comes from. 


the author has not expanded on the role of fish in the national diet. It was once a staple, like when he and I were growing up, because it was affordable.

Now, i live in a place where halibut caught just a few miles away  is $26.00 lb. And salmon is often over $10.00. 


Blue collar families are not going to be eating much fresh fish.  Another thing I am really curious about is this foreign farmed fish thing. You couldn't pay me to eat fish from China.... But  that's all there is to buy in places like Walmart . And it's all frozen so you can't see it. Even things labeled The Great American Seafood Co in a flag wrapped package are actually from China.... right there on the label.


Why aren't we actively farming our own fish?  Catfish is a perfect answer for the Southern economy. Walmart should have it's own fish farms in Walton.... but not as it is now at $8.00 a pound. If catfish costs more than steak, why not eat steak? 

Fast food chains should make catfish a tasty substitute for some of the increasingly crappy beef it is trying to peddle


And if you can farm shrimp in Chin a why not do it here or in Mexico? 

As a fellow Long Islander i well remember going down to the dock and buying my dinner 40 years ago. Why is that such an impossibility now? 

Tu Fur
Tu Fur

California Fish and Game did an audit on the health of the fish in the state. In the San Fransisco bay area, the fishing license gives limits on how much fish one should eat in a two week period due to mercury contamination. In San Jose, there is still a barely readable rusty old sign on Guadalupe River at W.Alma Ave that says 'Do not fish, Mercury contamination.' The sign pre-dates the audit. That killed my appetite for local fish. There are some good crawdads and salmon is coming back.8(

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I think a lot of the reasons that they are not buying from here is because we are always inundated with news, Bad news about our areas. Like the New Horizon oil rig tragedy. Everyone knew that there were millions of gallons of crude oil pumped into the whole Gulf of Mexico and now they are worried about the quality of the seafood comming out of that whole area. And then back in the 60's and early 70's there was all of. The bad news about the water in the Great Lakes and parts that actually caught fire, So the people stopped eating seafood from that source. And this keeps happening ALL THE TIME Until they finally give up and buy it from an area that they have not ever heard and bad press from. If they want to turn this around then they have to get the POSITIVE NEWS out about our waters. Ever since the introduction of the invasive species called the ZEBRA MUSSLE in the Great Lakes they have had a surprising effect of cleaning up the waters A LOT!! So much so that the local fish populations have trouble finding suitable spawning grounds since there is so little algae in the water. And now the fish from the Great Lakes Are WONDERFULLY CLEAN and TASTY!

So let's get the word out about more of these locals that are helping bring back our locally sourced seafood or else someone else from some where else is going to beat them to it.

Jo Beans
Jo Beans

So, does that mean that there are no poor people in Paris? Or does it mean that poor people cannot afford to shower? I'm confused. It seems quite unfair to just state that Americans "want a lot of it, really cheap, really fast, and really easy. And that applies to food too."

Billie Sue Hulsey
Billie Sue Hulsey

Very Informative - stats disturbing -- may have to read the book.

Donald Kelley
Donald Kelley

@Gloria A. We don't farm our own fish because our land and water resources are used for what is culturally important to us:  Beef, poultry, grains....  Of which we are net exporters.


As far as marine culture, we have decided that an unobstructed ocean front view is more important and valuable than cages of fish floating just off the coast.


And we can add fish cleaning and boning to a list of "Jobs that Americans do not want to do".


Greenburg mentions much about the export of our whole fish for processing in China.  And I think if American would just eat fish with bones and skin like most of the rest of the world, that business would go away. 


Wonder Mike
Wonder Mike

Sounds fair to me. Sounds exactly what Americans want and they prove it with every walmart, drive through and online puchase they make.

Donald Kelley
Donald Kelley

@Wonder Mike Not sure where I stand on this.  Sure its true that business will react to consumer preferences but it is also true that the consumer gets to choice only from what is available.  The supply chains much prefers low cost farmed fish for menus and retail ads to erratic wild caught species.  So the consumer gets less choice.

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