What is the American Catch?

(an interview with author Paul Greenberg)

Q: What is the American Catch?

A: The US controls more ocean than any other country on earth. Something like 2.5 billion acres. And yet, more than 85% of the seafood we eat is imported. That to me is the American catch, all that ocean, so little domestic fish. That's why I used American Catch as the title of my book.

Q: So what happened? Did we just catch and eat all our fish and now we're reliant on other countries for our seafood?

A: Not exactly. What is bizarre (and here is another American catch) is that something like a third of what our fishermen land they send abroad. Alaska, all by itself, could supply America with all the fish it could ever need but we are trading it away.

Q: Wait, so you are saying the fish we eat are imported but the fish we catch we send abroad?

A: Very often, yes.

Q: But that doesn't make any sense.

A: I don't think so.

Q: Is there a difference between what we import and what we export?

A: Yes, a big difference. Almost all of what we send abroad is wild. The stuff we bring into the country is very often farmed.

Q: But why would we do that?

A: Because the farmed stuff is cheap and the wild stuff is expensive. Americans like a bargain, even if it's a devil's bargain.

Q: Was this always the way we did business with the ocean? Were we always importing this much seafood?

A: The so-called seafood deficit has grown steadily as the nation has grown. But prior to 1900 anecdotal evidence suggests that we probably ran a seafood surplus. You can see this etched in the very names of the places along our coasts. In New Jersey there was a town called "Caviar" because it was the nexus for a massive caviar exporting industry that emptied the Delaware River of its sturgeon. Elsewhere on the East Coast there are other fossil towns like that. There's a town called "Shellpile" and another one called "Bivalve". Both of them draw their names from the massive oyster industry that once dominated the East Coast. New York City itself was a net exporter of oysters in the 19th century.

Q: So how did we land ourselves in this American catch?

A: That's kind of the story of the book. What we did is consciously and unconsciously dismantle our seafood infrastructure. We did it by destroying our oyster industry on the east coast, outsourcing our shrimp industry to Asia on the Gulf coast, and designing an export dedicated seafood system for our salmon on the Pacific coast. Link by link we have detached the American consumer from the American coast.

Q: But isn't everything so globalized now that it doesn't really matter?

A: It actually matters quite a bit. When we lose track of our seafood system, bad things start to happen. One of the reasons our East Coast bays and estuaries got so polluted in the 40s, 50s, and 60s is that we stopped eating from them. On the Gulf Coast we've let the oil industry tear apart the Louisiana marshes that are the homeland of all that great Gulf shrimp. And in the Pacific we're contemplating permitting what would be the largest copper mine in North American in a place that supports the largest sockeye salmon run left on earth. And then there's the even bigger issue of the way we've step-by-step traded away seafood for landfood.

Q: Landfood?

A: Yes, landfood. If the food world continues to call all the thousands of wild species we eat out of the sea "seafood" then I think its fair to lump together the handfull of selectively bred domisticated plants and animals we eat "landfood". Corn, beef, poultry, soy--these are the cornerstones of that kingdom. And in building up that kingdom we have done really bad things to seafood. In the last 100 years we've drained away 70% of our salt marshes and other wetlands. And surprise, it's wetlands that contribute enormously to the nursery grounds for our seafood. Is it any wonder that today the average American eats more than 100 pounds of red meat a year but only about 15 pounds of seafood?

So can we reverse the tide so to speak? Can we reattach the American consumer to the American coast?

A: Yes, we most definitely can. And that's another theme of the book. Throughout the 20th century the American oyster industry plummeted to 1% of historical capacity. But now with the Clean Water Act backing it up, East Coast oyster farming is up to about 14% of capacity. And it's growing. That's a really positive trend. Oysters and other filter feeders like mussels are really great for the marine environment. They clean the water and provide important habitat for other fish we like to eat. There are other good trends out there. In the last five years dozens of what are called "Community Supported Fisheries" have sprouted up all over our coasts. These buying co-ops allow you to purchase a season's worth of seafood from a local fisherman. This helps small scale fishermen gear up at the beginning of the season and guarantees you a steady supply of good fish. And these all have different variations. In Louisiana there's a great new program called DelcambreDirectSeafood.com that allows fishermen to post what they've caught before they come into port so you can go down to the dock and know what's coming in ahead of time. In Bristol Bay Alaska the Iliamna Fish Company let's you buy your salmon for the year -- all of it caught in a very well regulated fishery by people who really care about the sustainability of that fishery.

Q: But just because it's local does it mean seafood is sustainable?

A: I think if you eat American seafood you have a better chance of having that seafood be sustainable. The US has put in place very good regulation in the last 20 years. We're rebuilding many of our overfished populations (and yes, there has been a lot of overfishing historically in US waters). So I think by buying into our own management systems we are supporting right behavior, especially if we can try to eat many different kinds of fish and shellfish and spread out our demand over a broader spectrum of species. When we buy seafood from abroad things are a little iffier. A recent study in the journal Marine Policy found that as much as 30% of the wild fish we import is caught illegally, i.e. outside of any kind of management regime at all.

Q: So what should we eat then? Are there any kind of seafood rules, boiled down that we can use? A Michael Pollan type "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" kind of thing?

A: The ocean is tricky. There are always exceptions to any rules you try to make, in large part because seafood continues to be the last wild food. It also happens to be the food with the fastest growing farmed sector in the world. So it's very dynamic, very changeable with good and bad things happening in the wild and on the farm.