The U.S. has 94,000 miles of coast and 3.5 million miles of rivers. In all, it has 2.8 billion acres of seafood-producing territory, which is more than twice the area set aside for landfood. Yet, roughly 90 percent of our seafood is imported. Conversely, about 30 percent of the seafood Americans catch is exported, with more and more of it going to Asia.
It’s this glaring contradiction that Paul Greenberg sets out to explain in “American Catch.” He devotes the book chiefly, to three kinds of seafood, each a representative of America’s relationship with fishing in the past, present, and future: the Eastern oyster, the Louisiana shrimp, and the Alaskan sockeye salmon.
Before New York City was the home of Batman or the Yankees, it was the home of the oysters. Its reputation as a dazzling urban jewel has all but eclipsed its geographic tag—that it lies on an estuary (a body of brackish water, where the freshwater of the rivers or creeks meets the saltwater of the sea.) It’s where the Hudson River spills into the New York Bight and the Long Island Sound, which, in turn, merges with the Atlantic. And such places are favored by oysters.
The Empire State’s waters were once paved with 224,000 acres of oyster reefs. Each year, they produced six trillion oysters. Today, they’re all gone.
For eons, they’d built themselves a sprawling marine kingdom. Generation after generation of oyster larvae fed on the algal blooms, and rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until an enormous underwater biological fence was erected around nearly every shore of greater New York, writes Greenberg in the New York Times op-ed, “An Oyster in the Storm.”
The arrival of the Dutch settlers in the 1600s marked the beginning of an oyster apocalypse. They began to mine out the beds faster and faster. After they ate the mollusks, they didn’t care to return the shells to where they came from. They ground them up for lime, and made them into roadbeds.
The 19th century was the height of oyster mania. Oysters were cheap, costing less than a penny apiece. “New Yorkers, rich and poor, slurped these little creatures in oyster cellars, saloons, stands, houses, cafés, and restaurants. They were eaten pickled, stewed, baked, roasted, fried, and scalloped; in soups, patties, and puddings; for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” writes Elizabeth Royte, in the NYT, in her review of Mark Kurlansky’s “The Big Oyster.”
As the feast went on, so did the frenzied pace of urbanization. As the city began to be developed, pollution reached alarming levels. By 1910, 600 million gallons of raw sewage were flowing into the New York waterways in a single day. Factories pumped harmful chemical waste into the rivers, poisoning the shellfish and their environment. Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay was a dumping ground for horse cadavers.
Dirty waters brought on a spate of plagues in the early 20th century. People were falling sick from eating tainted seafood. (Around the same period, people were also eating unclean meat, cranked out by Chicago’s meat-packing industry, as told in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”)
Even so, the oyster industry thrived. The presence of the half-shell appetizers in New York restaurants rose continually from the 1860s to the early 1900s. By 1910, the city produced 1.4 billion oysters a year. Up until the 1920s, the average New Yorker ate as many as 600 local (repeat: local) oysters.
Until 1906, oysters had been an export product as well. In the times before packaging, their watertight shell served as a kind of organic Pyrex storage box, enabling them to be shipped live, as far as London.
By the 1930s, after 400 years of gluttony, the bivalve population became a relic of the past. We’ve even forgotten that about 20 percent of Gotham is built on landfill—landfill that was created on top of oyster country.
As oysters were wildly popular, yesterday, so shrimps are today. But there’s no danger that we’ll overharvest them as we did our oysters. The trouble that bedevils them is of a different nature. Very little of the shrimp that we eat is “fished” in our own waters, but “farmed” in foreign ponds, dug out in mangrove forests, in Vietnam (and other Asian countries.)
Because we don’t eat what we harvest, we also don’t care what happens to it. The Louisiana marshland, the vast watery web of bayous and swamps at the delta of the Mississippi River, the richest shrimping ground in the U.S., is shrinking.
With the drilling of Louisiana’s first oil well in a rice field in 1901, developers began dismantling the ecological elements that underpin its stability. To make it easy to extract petroleum, and create passage for ships, more than 8,000 miles of canals have been cut through it. The deep ditches have enabled briny seawater to flow into areas that had typically, been less saline, in the process, destroying the aquatic grasses. Without live roots holding the soil together, it began to subside.
Since the 1930s, over one million acres of coastal wetlands—a swath nearly the size of Delaware—have submerged. The state continues to lose about 16,000 acres of land each year.
The engineering of the Mississippi River is also taking a toll. After the devastating flood of 1927, it was turned from a “lazy, wandering affair into a straight line.” Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised levees along its banks, and lined them with concrete, lopping off its numerous meanders, and shortening it by 150 miles. That curbed the deluges, but it also funneled the sediments directly into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. With not enough new deposits renewing the bogs and fens, they’re withering away, and the shrimp habitat with them.
The enemy of American wild seafood is foreign aquaculture.
In the 1990s, when a consortium of American southern states pushed for a tariff against [the Vietnamese catfish]—a fish with a very different taxonomy, but the same mouthful as American catfish—and mandated that it not be called “catfish,” but with the Vietnamese names tra or basa or swai, China began growing traditional American-born species of catfish on Chinese farms, and then selling them back to the United States at significantly lower prices than that of American-raised catfish.
Not only are Asian nations selling us products that are pushing out our own seafood from our plates, and throwing our fishermen out of work, they’re also buying from us the very resource that’s enabling that.
China alone imports 75 million pounds of fish meal derived from American wild fish, which it uses to feed its aquaculture industry.
Then, there’s the problem of American fish taking up residence in Asian aquaculture.
In the ostensible spirit of fostering closer collaboration between the U.S. and China, in 1982, a Chinese fisheries expert traveled to Martha’s Vineyard, and selected over 150 scallops from the Lagoon Pond in Tisbury, Massachusetts, boxed them, and shipped them to his laboratory. Of those, only about two dozen thrived. But they would go on to spawn an industry that’s now valued at $500 million. Those inexpensive bags of scallops that the bargain hunter may, on occasion, come across in the frozen seafood section of the supermarket are the direct descendants of that diaspora.
There’s one place in America that still has a heck of a lot of fish, and if we took care of it, we could get out of our dependency on seafood from the eastern hemisphere. Alaska produces 5.3 billion pounds of seafood a year. Bristol Bay, the eastern arm of the Bering Sea, contains a seafood treasure: the biggest sockeye salmon run left in the world.
But a sword of Damocles hangs over it. Pebble Mine, a gold and copper mining operation, which if developed, will create an industrial infrastructure that will release a copious output of sulphurous tailings that can pollute the nearly rivers (where the fish spawn) and lakes (where they luxuriate before heading out to the open ocean.) At particular risk is Lake Iliamna, which, at any given time, is residence to one billion sockeye salmon.
As with the shrimp, Americans are risking their salmon because they don’t eat their own salmon—because they don’t like its taste. Most of the salmon we consume comes from aboard, and is grown in tanks.
It’s this preference that’s benefitting China’s rising middle class.
Two-thirds of all Alaska seafood, much of it salmon, is sent abroad. And much of the Alaskan salmon that does make it to American consumers is flash-frozen whole, shipped to China, defrosted, filleted, and deboned. It is then refrozen, and shipped back to the U.S. as a twice frozen boneless product.
Nowadays, however, a big chunk of the seafood we send to China stays there for consumption.
While the locavore American movement has spurred the production and consumption of local landfood beyond all expectations, local seafood remains mostly a quaint curiosity. We are too confused or too preoccupied to widen the circle of localness to include the local ocean.