Editor’s Note: This Q&A with Paul Greenberg originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Oceana magazine. Click here to download a copy of the magazine.
Your last book focused on four species of wild fish. What prompted you to focus on American seafood for your next book?
Most Americans are pretty much in the dark about where there seafood comes from and the stunning statistic that more than 85 percent of our seafood is coming to us from abroad was, I thought, worthy of a longer investigation. Add to that the fact that we control more ocean than any country on Earth and the disconnect is even more weird and perhaps profound. And then, on top of it, when you see that more than 3 billion pounds of American seafood is exported every year, you start to get the glimpse of a seafood system that is markedly out of sync with the move to more locally produced food. It was pretty low hanging fruit de mer.
Why did you choose to focus on New York oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaskan salmon?
I wanted to talk about the dismantling of America’s seafood infrastructure and each creature represented a different aspect of that. Oysters were about the dismantling of clean water and temperate reef structures that once held a lot more fish. Shrimp was in part about salt marsh and the incredible losses we have suffered. We’ve lost something like 60 to 70 percent of this country’s salt marsh and salt marsh is a key component to about 70 percent of our coastal commercial seafood species (like several species of shrimp). But the shrimp chapter was also about the loss of this country’s economic infrastructure — our declining market share of our own seafood supply and the economic effect farmed foreign seafood has had on the American seafood economy. Finally, Alaskan sockeye salmon was about the loss of the river/sea connection and the way the basic hydrology of this country has been and is being altered. We have done tremendous damage to our diadromous fishes (salmon, shad, and herring, for example) through damage to river based spawning habitat. That we could be about to do that again with the vast Pebble Mine project in the watershed of the largest sockeye salmon run on earth indicated to me that this is an issue that needed greater national attention.
You write about eating an East River oyster, straight from the Bronx mud. What was that like?
It was both thrilling and terrifying. I’ll never do it again and don’t recommend that others do it. But once upon a time people did all the time. There was once an oyster variety called a “Gowanus” named for the canal that served as its home. Today, the Gowanus Canal is a SuperFund site.
It seemed like there was support for sustainable, local seafood in all three locations you visited. How do you get those who don’t have a personal tie or history with an area to care about bringing back local seafood?
I think you have to get people down to the docks and out on the water. You have to educate children about how coastal ecosystems work. And lastly you have to educate palates to get people to be able to taste the local water or “merroir” as one oyster aficionado calls the taste of one’s local waters.
How does seafood fraud fit into the picture? Does it inhibit Americans from being able to enjoy their native catch?
It certainly makes it harder for the very subtle flavors of locally sourced seafood to be authentically experienced.
What did you think of President Obama’s recent commitment to fight seafood fraud and illegal fishing?
I’m all for it. I was really struck by the recent study in the journal Marine Policy that noted that as much as 30 percent of the wild seafood we import is coming to us through illegal fishing. That’s a huge burden we are placing on the oceans. Imagine if you told someone that the car they were buying at a dealership was stolen off the streets of another country? That is in effect what’s happening with a lot of imported seafood.
Do you have any tips for readers who want to eat sustainable, local seafood?
If you can, join a community supported fishery (CSF). There are not that many yet but the movement is growing. Readers should browse localcatch.org to see if there’s a CSF near them. If you don’t have a CSF near you it’s not a bad idea to look at Greenpeace’s supermarket seafood ratings. This won’t necessarily lead you to local seafood but it will help lead you to supermarkets that have sustainability practices in place and which try to have a handle on seafood traceability.
Are you hopeful for the future of our American catch?
The jury is out. I think that we can have a sustainable domestic seafood supply if we’re ready to pay for it and to widen the circle of conservation to include fishermen and aquaculturists. These are the people that spend by far the most time on the water. They need to be part of the solution rather than demonized as the cause of all the oceans’ problems.
Is there anything else that you want to tell readers of Oceana magazine?
I’ll be doing a symposia series around American Catch for the next year in the Northeast, Gulf and on the Pacific Coast. I’ll be posting the dates and locations of these events on twitter @4fishgreenberg and on Facebook at facebook.com/fourfish. It would be good to include Oceana readers in the discussion.