This time last year, I found myself standing on the rocky shores of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to a world-renowned salmon fishery that brings in $1.5 billion annually. Lunchtime had just rolled around in the remote fishing camp I had come to visit—and when you’re sharing a body of water with 40 million sockeye, you don’t order a ham sandwich. One of my hosts, a bearded fisherman named Zach, strung a gillnet into the tea-colored water. Within seconds, three salmon thrashed in the mesh; 20 minutes later, we were plunging our forks into the most luscious red filets I’ve ever tasted.
Alaska’s bounteous fisheries could supply all of the seafood consumed in the United States, and then some. But even so, as Paul Greenberg reveals in his vital new book, American Catch, nearly 80 percent of Alaskan salmon ends up being shipped overseas—mostly to China. That emphasis on exports typifies our nation’s seafood consumption habits: we send fully a third of American-caught fish abroad, even as we import 91 percent of the seafood we eat.
Greenberg’s previous book, the best-selling Four Fish, explained how Americans came to develop a taste for certain species (think tuna and cod) over others. His latest book, by comparison, takes as its subject three examples of domestically caught seafood that we don’t consume in anywhere near the same proportions. “Increasingly,” he laments, “what Americans eat from the sea has less and less to do with their own shores.”
Greenberg begins his narrative in New York City, whose Pearl Street—once paved with oystershell—reflects the erstwhile centrality of seafood to city life. Back when Dutch settlers began arriving in the 1600s, New York Harbor is believed to have been home to as many as three trillion oysters; even as recently as the 1920s, the average Gotham resident ate 600 of the slimy delicacies each year. As Manhattan grew, however, oysters were suffocated by sludge, contaminated by sewage, and ultimately banned by health officials. When Greenberg decides to don a wetsuit and brave the filthy waters of Jamaica Bay in a search for latter-day oyster reefs, he sees for himself the extent to which these bivalves have vanished from local coastlines and local consciousness. And when Hurricane Sandy washes over a city whose shores have been stripped of the shellfish armor that once protected them from massive storm surges, the catastrophic environmental consequences of our absent oyster populations become painfully apparent to him, and to us.
In the Gulf of Mexico, the book’s next stop, the big problem isn’t pollution—surprising, perhaps, given the horrendous damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. There, local watermen are instead falling prey to the vicissitudes of global economics. Louisiana’s marshes are “the greatest shrimp-rearing ground in North America,” Greenberg writes, yet shrimpers there have been outcompeted by Asian aquaculture facilities that have torn out vast tracts of mangroves in places like China and Vietnam to grow the crustaceans at an industrial scale. Farmed Asian shrimp (sometimes derisively referred to as “gummy-bear shrimp,” for their artificial mouthfeel) may taste inferior to their wild-caught cousins, but apparently most American palates can’t discern the difference. “If we finally lose our shrimp,” Greenberg asks, “who will even notice?”
In New York and the Gulf, respectively, disasters—a hurricane and an oil spill—have helped expose the long-running deterioration of our seafood-producing ecosystems. But in Alaska, where American Catch concludes, many people are working together to preserve local salmon runs before disaster strikes. The primary threat to salmon in the 49th state comes from Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit copper mine whose toxic tailings could easily ruin Bristol Bay’s prolific fishery. Until relatively recently, Pebble was thought to be a fait accompli; but intense resistance from fishermen, environmentalists, and Alaskan tribes now has the mega-mine on the ropes. Mining companies are pulling out their stakes left and right, and the EPA is considering killing the project altogether. As Greenberg puts it, “the creaking levers of power [have] started to shift in Bristol Bay’s favor.”
The battle for Bristol Bay suggests that not every fish-fight is being lost by the champions of domestic seafood. Even so, other groups that seem to give the author grounds for optimism—the New York City schoolkids who want to plant a billion oysters in their harbor, for example, or the Louisiana shrimpers who are keeping their businesses afloat by selling directly to customers—simply may not be up to the immensity of the challenges they face. Grassroots actions are wonderful, to be sure, but government also has to meet advocates halfway, by restricting the offshore drilling that has amplified the economic harm to Louisiana’s shrimpers, for instance, or by reforming the Big Ag subsidies that have helped skew our diets away from wild fish and toward corn and beef. American Catch occasionally ventures into public policy prescriptions (for example, urging New York City to spend its hurricane-proofing funds on “oyster-tecture”); I, for one, would have liked to learn more about how our policymakers can go about creating the conditions for local fisheries to thrive.
One thing the book does make clear, however, is that the fork can still be a powerful tool for change. With American Catch, Greenberg—himself a lifelong fisherman, and one whose reverence for the ocean suffuses these pages—has written a passionate manifesto for restoring local seafood to its rightful place on American plates. And even if you’re not a fan of fish, his book will help you realize that you still have a stake in defending our oceans, marshes, and oyster reefs from the oil rigs, real estate development, and polluting industries that increasingly dominate our seaboards. Indeed, as he shows with numerous examples, our rededication to the maintenance of natural ocean infrastructure could very well be what saves us from the ravages of future storm surges and sea-level rise. “Whether we choose to embrace the ocean or not,” warns Greenberg, “it is coming to embrace us, faster than many of us can believe.”