Americans eat less than 15 pounds of seafood per person each year, which is very little compared to the 202 pounds of red meat and poultry consumed annually. This amount of seafood is dismally small when you consider that the United States owns 94,000 miles of coastline and half its population lives within 10 miles of the coast. Despite Americans’ proximity to a domestic source of wild, nutritious seafood, a shocking 91 percent of the seafood that does get consumed is imported from aquaculture farms, mostly based in Asia. At the same time, a third of all U.S.-caught seafood is exported to foreign countries.
This is the deeply upsetting ‘American Catch,’ as Paul Greenberg calls it in his new book by the same name. The bestselling James Beard Award-winning author, who also wrote ‘Four Fish’, explores the intricacies of the United States’ seafood dilemma in ‘American Catch.’ From the destroyed and polluted former oyster empire of New York City to the increasingly unviable shrimping beds of Louisiana and the still-spectacular sockeye salmon runs of Bristol Bay, Alaska, Greenberg guides the reader through the past, present, and future of American seafood production.
The situation defies logic. Seafood has become a global commodity that, due to improvements in processing and freezing, can travel around the planet without having any real connection to a specific region. American consumers have lost touch with specialty items, preferring the generic breeds and less fishy-tasting products that come out of Asian seafood farms.
There are steep prices to pay when seafood becomes a mere cash crop, a commodity. Tremendous waste ensues because, in the case of shrimpers, no one wants to eat any of the other species that thrive in the Gulf of Mexico and are often caught as bycatch while trawling for shrimp. These could easily feed a family, “but they don’t fit into the Red Lobster commodity model.”
Aquaculture can have devastating effects on the environment. In Asia, shrimp farming has destroyed vast tracts of mangrove swamps. In the U.S., the environmental damage is more the result of lack of interest in local fishing. Real estate developers buy up waterfront and homeowners fight the presence of oyster beds within their views.
Agricultural pesticide and industrial waste runoff from the Mississippi River spews into the Gulf constantly, creating a dead zone in which no seafood can survive. In Alaska, a few people are battling against the potential construction of the Pebble Mine, worth an estimated $500 billion, that would likely destroy the last and biggest wild salmon run in the world. Already, 70 percent of the salmon from Bristol Bay is shipped abroad, never making it to American plates.
While the locavore food movement has spurred the production and consumption of local seafood beyond all expectations, Greenberg argues that local seafood remains mostly a quaint curiosity. It should not be that way. American attitudes toward seafood need to change.
“We can continue down the path of the last half century, treating the fewer and fewer seafood species we identify as food like so many widgets, domesticating them, farming them, and turning them into units of protein that fit between the two halves of a bun… Or perhaps we could take a pause and reacquaint ourselves with the specificity of the fish and shellfish on our plates… And in the process we might learn that this environment is as fragile as it is necessary.”
‘American Catch’ is a book I’d recommend to anyone who cares about local food production and environmental stewardship. It’s educational and inspirational, and it's precisely why I’m heading out to buy some local Lake Huron whitefish as soon as I finish this post.
Purchase 'American Catch' here on Amazon.