America’s seafood nightmare: Why the USA needs to rethink its fish

Paul Greenberg, bestselling author of "Four Fish," takes on the bizarrely illogical global seafood chain

Topics: Seafood, fisheries, salmon, Gulf Oil Spill, Pebble mine, Clean Water Act, Editor's Picks, ,

Why are we importing our own fish? That’s the question posed by Paul Greenberg, author of the bestselling “Four Fish,” in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. The query also served to underscore an issue that many people were totally unaware of.

The U.S. controls more fishable ocean than any other nation, Greenberg writes, and yet most of what we eat — a full 86 percent — is imported. Meanwhile, a third of our own catch is shipped out to other countries. In many cases, we’re exchanging high-quality, sustainable wild fish for farmed Asian alternatives. Even more bizarrely, we send some fish, like pollock and salmon, halfway around the world only to have it processed in Asia and then shipped right back to us.

It’s easy to throw your hands up in exasperation at the Rube Goldberg-esque complexities of a globalized marketplace; the next step is to seriously consider the larger implications of a system run amok, and to make a convincing case for simplification and reform. ”American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood” is Greenberg’s attempt to do all of the above. By charting the evolution of the seafood chain as it’s now experienced and detailing the long list of what we’ve lost in the process, his new book calls for a food movement that would boost the profile of protein source that’s long played second fiddle to land-raised meat in the American diet, and return our gazes to the fish swimming closer to our own shores.

It’s with three fish, this time, that Greenberg makes his case. New York’s wild oysters (up until the 1920s, the average New Yorker ate up to 600 local oysters annually — a feat that today is both illegal and potentially deadly); the wild shrimp of the San Francisco Bay (destroyed by the gold mining industry) and of the Gulf of Mexico (reeling from a major blow to its reputation caused by the BP oil spill); and Alaskan sockeye salmon (which exist in more abundance than we know what to do with — yet whose existence is threatened by the proposed Bristol Bay Pebble Mine). Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

We met at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Food Institute, where I was leading a panel about seafood traceability and we were trying to wrap our minds around how complicated it is to know where fish are coming from, or even what kind of fish they are. After reading your book, I feel like maybe the question should have been: Why isn’t the seafood chain simpler to begin with?

It’s an excellent question. It’s like, they say that capitalism always is endeavoring to find hidden efficiencies everywhere, but sometimes you get so “efficient” that it just is no longer recognizable. There’s an old Russian anecdote where you ask somebody to show me where your ear is, and the person reaches with their right arm over their head and touches their left ear. And that’s sort of what’s been going on with the seafood system.

This whole idea of us catching fish in the U.S. and sending them abroad to be processed and then getting them back — or the other way around — is that benefiting anybody? Or have we kind of just fallen into this trap?

It’s benefitting, I suppose, emerging economies that are looking for high employment, even if the wages are low. Aside from that, and the people who trade it, I really can’t figure out who it’s benefiting.

Has it just gotten so complicated that maybe people just can’t see the bigger picture, or have forgotten that there could be a better way to do things?

Well, keep in mind, this whole system was created long before there was anything called the local food business. This is an infrastructure that was conceived of in the ’60s and ’70s, and it comes out of, I think, there being so much initial Asian interest in Alaskan product, just as simply an export product. But then when that sort of channel opened up, you could start going, “Well, not just to Japan, but what about China, what would China do with our fish?” And you know, that’s when China started opening up as a labor market and I think it flowed from there. The ships were already there, so you just had to add the labor component.

How has your understanding of the global seafood industry evolved since “Four Fish”?

I think when I did “Four Fish” I was less experienced, and I looked at it purely from a species perspective — in other words, what is the most efficient fish to farm out there, and there’s no doubt that tilapia, Pangasius and probably even shrimp [all of which we import from Asia] are extremely efficient. But I didn’t look at the whole international trade of it, and I also didn’t realize that aquaculturists — who I support by the way, because I think aquacultures is a thing that we need to have — but they will always make this global argument that we’re running out of fish and we need to replace it somehow. But from an American perspective, we as a nation are still relatively unpopulated, we’re still relatively wild, we still have a lot of wild products. So when I really ran the numbers and saw that it wasn’t just aquaculture making up for a deficit but rather, oftentimes an outright swap, that’s when it made me feel like aquaculture had overstated its case, at least in the United States.

You argue there’s this perception that we need farmed fish, but there’s still so much wild fish available.

Right, look at salmon, for example: It’s almost one to one; salmon going out, salmon coming in. And two-thirds of the salmon that we eat is farmed. Granted, Americans probably, given the choice between eating a pink salmon, chum salmon or even sockeye salmon [all abundant wild species], would probably choose farmed Atlantic because it’s more neutral: It’s fattier, easier on the palate. But it’s still salmon. It still has lots of great benefits to it. So I don’t really quite see the logic of doing it the way we’re doing it.

In the book, you drive home the idea that we’re this ocean nation — we control more sea than land — but we also have a ton of people who are living in the middle of the country, who are very far from the coasts. Do you think that at all contributes to what you see as our lack of connection to seafood?

That’s a very true point. But demographically, 39 percent of us live within 10 miles of the coast, and the coastal population is looking only to grow relative to the interior. That said, once upon a time, we had a pretty vibrant inland, fresh water, commercial fishery in this country. In the book, I talk about the Fulton Fish Market and all that history, but I think I didn’t get a chance to mention that there’s an entire square block, with probably 30 to 40 percent of the overall territory of the market, that was devoted entirely to freshwater fish: things like trout and walleye and all the different carps. All that stuff was available and wild and plentiful, but when we switched over to wide-scale agriculture, then we really caused serious damage to a lot of those freshwater ecosystems.

So do you see a local seafood movement as something that could happen everywhere in the country?

I do. What is interesting is that there are these increasingly interesting opportunities to do aquaculture inland. And now there are several aquaculture operations in shrimp in the middle of Illinois, so I think that’s really interesting. More broadly, though, on the coast, I think the rise of community supported fisheries — and we already have something of a movement, there were only a handful of them 10 years ago and now there’s dozens and dozens — speaks to it. But in order to really, truly have a local seafood movement in this country, we have to reorganize the means of distribution and the identifying and the labeling of products in a much better way.

How would all of that — changing the way we import seafood, doing more local aquaculture — affect the price of seafood?

Well, you know, there are economies of scale. Potentially if we could open up better avenues for people to sell their fish directly to consumers in this country, we could end up possibly at a reasonable price point. Also, things like aquaculture — once upon a time, when we had a real aquaculture industry in this country growing oysters, oysters were a penny apiece. They’ve come down in price lately, they’re now a dollar apiece, but I think the idea of a goal of having oysters being in the 10 to 20-cent price point would be great, and I think it’s doable. It’s doable certainly in the South.

I wanted to ask you more about how the oyster strategy can work: They’re something that can help clean the water, but in New York, at least, part of the reason why there are fewer oysters, aside from over-harvesting, is that the water is just too polluted for them at this point. So where would we even start?

So I should say that when I use New York as one of my key examples in the book, I had a lot of back and forth with my editor. She kept saying, “Well, we’re never going to be able to eat these oysters from New York, why are we focusing on them?” And that was kind of my point: that this was a food system and it stopped being a food system, and in fact, there are a lot of places that risk not being food systems anymore. The Connecticut coast, which still has a fair amount of oyster growers, had a situation where you had so much coastal gentrification going on, that people can’t afford to be oyster growers anymore, and once people stop being oyster growers then the whole infrastructure of the village falls away. In one Connecticut town, they didn’t even bother to have a shellfish constable, and when you don’t have a shellfish constable you can’t grow shellfish even if you can grow them, if you see what I mean. So what happens over time is you lose the shellfish, then you lose the imperative to keep the water clean, and it’s a never-ending dismal circle, and that happens in coastal towns all over the country. So New York is the worst-case example where it totally got obliterated, but there are all these marginal communities that could have more shellfish production but which don’t because we’re ceding the coasts over to these moneyed, yachty interests.

So New York is more of the cautionary tale.

It is the cautionary tale, although as I point to in that chapter, we’re starting to see oysters growing again in City Island, in the Bronx, in some parts here and there. I don’t know that we’ll have an edible oyster in New York in my lifetime, but what we can do is reduce the blast zone of New York, so that closer and closer to New York, like Greenwich, Connecticut, where I grew up, for example, we can grow oysters that we can eat again.

You write about how the Clean Water Act has a lot of potential to enact some of this change — also in the Gulf with the BP spill, and in Alaska with the proposed Pebble Mine. Do you think that it will be used as intended, or what are the barriers to that?

The barriers are mostly having to do with enforcement. I mean, the laws are there. They’re very clear. The 404c section says you can’t do industrial development in an area where it will adversely affect fisheries and spawning grounds and that kind of thing. And that’s clearly what’s happening — so if we enforce that, it won’t happen. In order for any law to have any effect, you have to keep it on the books. You have to have people for whom it’s important. That’s why I think if we can empower an army of aquaculturists who are really into oysters and shellfish, that is the economic argument for clean water. If they have an economic interest in enforcing the law, the law will be enforced.With salmon producers in Bristol Bay, that’s actually what’s happening: They don’t want their salmon fishery ruined and so they found this part of the Clean Water Act and they’re ready to stand up for it. 

At one point I was having a back and forth over email with this fisherman in Alaska, and we were talking about how, you know, maybe we need to have smaller-scale fisheries that are a little less damaging to the environment — hook-and-line and stuff like that — and I still think that that’s true, but he raised this kind of interesting counterpoint, which is that sometimes we get this impression that this country was kind of like Grover Norquist was when he’s talking about government. In other words, make it small enough that you could drown it in a bathtub. And I think that’s what’s happening to a lot of fishing and aquaculture enterprises around this country, is that it’s being drowned by this foreign product, and also those moneyed interests who would like to keep the coasts to themselves.

So how do we get Americans to eat more American seafood instead of importing it?

I think it’s labeling, to begin with. We have to first of all know when our products are American and when they aren’t, and that includes processed products, which completely disappear down the maw of the industrial fish machine. So number one, labeling. Number two, I think there’s always this white tablecloth phenomenon of chefs at high-end restaurants driving taste. It’s been used to good effect in the past in stopping people from eating things, like when the Give Swordfish a Break and the Chilean Seabass campaigns went on. But since my solution to a lot of this stuff is more shellfish, more farmed shellfish, but also a greater variety of fish, I think that if chefs can get out there on the cooking shows and show consumers how to cut fish, how to use fish, how to eat fish, that would be a very significant thing to do.

There’s also the issue of price. One of the reasons all of the good stuff goes abroad is you have huge Asian markets ready to pay for it. I feel like there needs to be some way to meet the consumer halfway in pricing. And I don’t know if that happens on the subsidy end … I don’t want to subsidize fishing, I don’t want to build up the fleet, because the fleet has been reduced to the right size that’s appropriate for the fish we have out there, but I do think there could be some kind of subsidy to the consumer to encourage them to eat American fish. We’re subsidizing corn out the wazoo, and soy, so with this much healthier choice the consumer could be given a break. Especially now after the USDA just came out with these new fish recommendations. How do you get consumers to honor those recommendations if they’re outside of the consumer’s price point?

It can definitely seem like a luxury product, so how do you make fish more like chicken?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think we’ll ever get it to be like chicken, but I think we could get it to be a reasonable choice once or twice a week.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email

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