The United States likes to think of itself as the alpha and the omega of everything. In terms of seafood consumption, however, the U.S. woefully lags behind other seafaring nations like Japan and China.
Consider this: The U.S. imports 91 percent of its seafood from abroad, but exports most of its catch to Asian markets. Meanwhile, nearly half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the ocean, along 94,000 miles of coastline from Portland, Maine, to the tip of Alaska.
In “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood” author Paul Greenberg examines the economic and ecological underpinnings of this vast, and often bewildering, food system. Focusing on three species prominent in the minds of American consumers, he takes readers on a tour of briny destinations steeped in seafood lore, both past and present.
Divided into three sections, Greenberg dives into New York’s maritime past in search of oyster beds that once lined the city's harbor. The author delves into the lives of Louisiana shrimpers battling cutthroat competition in the global marketplace. And he witnesses the epic salmon runs of Bristol Bay while communing with savvy native Alaskans determined to preserve their traditional way of life.
Greenberg laments the loss of tidelands because of coastal development and neglect, but the prognosis for American fisheries isn’t all gloom and doom, either. Mostly, he’d like Americans to eat and enjoy fish in all their piscine glory.
MNN caught up with Greenberg via phone — amid the sounds of the preparation of the mid-day meal — to talk about his latest book.
MNN: What’s on the menu?
Paul Greenberg: I’m making fish spaghetti sauce. What you do is cook down a whole head, remove the flesh and run the rest of it through a food mill. It’s a way of using all the head, and it makes for a flavorful sauce.
You’ve dedicated a significant segment of your life to writing two books, “Four Fish” and “American Catch.” Where does this affinity for fishing and seafood come from?
Well, I grew up fishing more by accident than by design. My father took me fishing. Once he became a divorced dad, he really didn’t know what to do with children. He was one of those clueless dads from the 1950s and '60s. He sort of had this idea that one thing you should do with your son is to take him fishing. He didn’t know exactly what he was doing, which in the end turned out to be good. Humans like to acquire knowledge; I sort of took over as the person of knowledge when it came to fish. I could help my dad out, and it went from there.
Is there a watershed that you claim as your own?
My home waters are definitely Jamaica Bay [New York]. I really do like the bay a lot. I think it’s an interesting fishery. But the place I’ve treasured since I was a kid is Martha’s Vineyard [Massachusetts] because it reminds me of the way a fishery is supposed to look. The island is full of working salt marshes and salt ponds. Once upon a time, we had really extensive salt marshes in this country and — surprise — we had really amazing fisheries.
A refrain of “American Catch” is that the U.S. has abundant fisheries, with much of our seafood exported and in some cases processed and sent back to us. What’s wrong with that?
The larger question is, why does the United States export so much fish, which really has to do with the place seafood occupies in the American diet. We only eat 15 pounds per person per year, as opposed to 200 pounds of land-food proteins. And in Asian countries, they’re eating 35 to 40 pounds of it over the course of a year. They value seafood more. As one fisherman said to me, “American’s are just not hip to fish.” Things like Pacific cod, New England sea scallops and Alaska salmon are highly prized in Asia, and they’re willing to pay for it.
Greenberg espouses eating U.S. seafood, such as this sold at Seattle's Pike Place Market. (Photo: Dennis Brekke/Flickr)
Having said that, if seaport cities like New York or Los Angeles were to rely on local fisheries to meet the demand, isn’t the concern that consumers would quickly outstrip the supply?
In terms of what’s local, there is a limited supply, but if we widen the circle of localness to include places like Alaska and the Louisiana Gulf, which have abundant supplies of seafood, then there is enough to go around. We can’t localize fisheries, but we can Americanize them. "Local" is a bit of a catchword that everyone likes to use, and it’s one of the reasons why I used it in the subtitle the book. But really I’m talking about national (waters) and food sovereignty, actually.
“American Catch” is filled with salty dogs, but one of the standout is former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, who refers to herself as a fisherman. What’s up with that?
I’m not sure of her line of thinking, but I prefer it to fisher or fisherwoman. When I think of a fisher, I think of the animal — a fisher, related to a mink — or I think of a kingfisher. For me, "fisherman" rolls off the tongue.
You’ve stressed that U.S. consumers are kind of mystified about cooking fish at home. Are there any chefs doing an exemplary job of enlightening consumers about eating fish?
To me, the guy that really got it going is Rick Moonen. By far, my favorite seafood cookbook is called “Fish Without a Doubt" that he wrote. Rick was way ahead of his time in getting people to talk about seafood and sustainability, but also in confronting the real joy of cooking with fish. Think about it: When you’re cooking with land food, you’re really only dealing with six, seven, maybe eight animals, at most. But if you’re cooking with fish, you’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds of species, and that’s a joy!
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