Why Aren’t We Eating the Best American Seafood?

Paul Greenberg talks about his new book, ‘American Catch,’ and the contradictions in our fish industry.

Paul Greenberg. (Photo: Courtesy Penguin Press)

Jul 7, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

If you spent the Fourth of July, the mightiest of summer holidays, grilling shrimp skewers or a side of bright red salmon, you, like many Americans, might not have given much thought to the provenance of your seafood. Sure, you purchased it at a nearby market—but chances are those items traveled thousands of miles before you punctured it with your bamboo skewer or gave it a rub with some tasty seasonings.

A whopping 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported from distant seas, according to Paul Greenberg’s new book, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, even though we control more ocean—2.8 billion acres of it—than any other country in the world.

How can that be? In American Catch, Greenberg explains what he calls “The Great Fish Swap” in which we send America’s catch abroad and get lesser seafood in return. Greenberg examines this trend in three American species: wild sockeye salmon from Alaska, eastern oysters, and Louisiana brown shrimp.

How did we lose touch with our own seafood? Why are we exporting species such as premium wild-caught salmon and importing lower-quality farmed species such as tilapia? In our interview with Greenberg, he explains why Americans should care about their fish, what to look for in the supermarket, and the most surprising things he learned while researching the book. (His responses were edited for clarity and length.)

TakePart: What’s been the reaction to your message in American Catch about our nation’s staggering seafood deficit? And why should people care?

Paul Greenberg: There are people who follow the seafood world and think it’s nothing surprising to learn wild salmon is caught in Alaska, sent to China, processed, frozen, and sent back here. But the vast majority of Americans don’t realize that. Should they care?

If we eat from our own shores, we’re much more inclined to protect our own shores, the water quality, and our own marine environment. There’s been a lot of outcry in the press lately over seafood fraud and mislabeling. Much of that takes place as a result of this multinational swapping. How do we truly manage wild fisheries if there’s an international fish-laundering system that completely disguises the origin of what we are eating?

TakePart: But I do see local fish at my market, so it’s there if we make the effort to look for it, right?

Greenberg: If you go to coastal communities, you will still see fish markets with local fish. However, when we talk about the huge amount of imports, those are coming through mass acquisitions from companies like Sysco or through purchases made by hospitals, schools, and food services. That’s a lot of foreign product. You could say, ‘That’s fine—let the seafood markets have the local fish,’ but those fish markets are disappearing. At one time, they controlled three-quarters of the seafood market. Today that number is less than 20 percent.

TakePart: So can I assume that if I buy a local fish, it’s sustainable?

Greenberg: What we know is American fisheries management over the last 20 years has really improved its record and is a better choice than trusting a foreign management system, which may include IUU [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fish. Another way of acquiring local fish that uses a broader array of hyperabundant species is through a CSF—a community-supported fishery. If you shop in a supermarket, what you’ll generally find are the commodity species: shrimp, salmon, and tuna. If you connect with a local CSF on the West Coast, you might get a fish like sand dabs, and on the East Coast, you’ll get a species like sea robin. They’re delicious, and it will help you broaden your seafood palate.

But there’s still a lot of fear when it comes to trying a new fish. A fishmonger once said to me that if a guy has a bad experience with fish once, he’ll never go back. There’s a lot of truth to that, but one of the other things that can make people feel burned is the cost of fish. It’s more expensive than chicken and often more expensive than some of the best cuts of beef. CSFs can bring that cost down, and they offer fish worth trying. The trick is, when you see a new fish, get an assessment on where it fits. There are four flesh archetypes: white and flaky, pink and succulent, white and broilable, and red and steaky. The other thing with a CSF is, you can usually be sure the fish is going to be fresh. Freshness is most important, not species. Nature generally makes good fish.

TakePart: What if you’re inland and a CSF isn’t an option? Should we head to the freezer section?

Greenberg: Frozen is an option too. One of the things that always confuses me are why places like Whole Foods will take a frozen piece of sockeye, defrost it, and put it on display. The vast majority of salmon is flash frozen at the processing plant. It’s much better to go to the freezer case and defrost your fillet carefully. You’ll get a much better product.

TakePart: You’ve covered seafood for a long time now. What surprised you most during the research for American Catch?

Greenberg: I’d always been an advocate of clam, oyster, and mussel farming, but I didn’t realize the huge ecological role it can play in coastal restoration and coastal fisheries populations. No one has done the legwork to talk to oyster farmer after oyster farmer in a scientific way, but it’s just remarkable what putting in oyster leases and mussel farms can do for water clarity, and the degree that they draw in finfish, which helps local fishing communities.

The other thing that surprised me? I had done an article for Prevention on good and bad choices when it came to shrimp. I talked to a lot of people, and everyone agreed shrimp from Thailand was number one [the best choice], but then we started digging into it. Early mortality syndrome hit Thailand, and more recently, news of slave labor in its production has surfaced. To me, it just shows we don’t have a very good handle on regulating foreign producers of seafood. While some companies, like Whole Foods, work on a purveyor-by-purveyor basis, the larger picture is we just don’t know.