NPR Story
3:06 pm
Thu July 24, 2014

Why Don't We Eat Our Own Fish?

Paul Greenberg‘s new book “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood,” explains how lopsided the U.S. fishing market really is.

Most of the fish Americans eat is imported — about 90 percent. At the same time, the U.S. is exporting about one-third of its catch.

So why aren’t we eating what we catch?

Greenberg joined Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss what he calls the “great American fish swap,” which he said is destructive to our environment and hurts our local economies.

“It boils down a lot to price,” Greenberg explained. “American do not like to pay a lot for their food in general, and their seafood in particular they are not so interested in paying a lot of money for.”

Thus, he said, we tend to import inexpensive products like shrimp and tilapia while exporting pricier ones such as salmon and black cod. But when Americans depend on cheap imports rather than our own environments, the value we assign to that ecosystem decreases.

“What I think it’s doing is effectively detaching the American citizen from his or her own coast,” he said. “We’ve abandoned a lot of waterways as food systems and instead we’ve turned them into waste disposal systems.”

“You have to think about your seafood choices based on the reputation of the seller.”
– Paul Greenberg

Greenberg mentioned one American ecosystem in particular — though its destruction happened long before our time. When they discovered the New York Harbor oyster reefs, Dutch and British colonists “mined them out,” leaving them empty by 1820. And as the harbor became polluted, the possibility of replenishing the oyster population diminished. Legislators have since considered reintroducing oysters to the harbor to make use of their natural filtration, but the worry that someone might ingest one and become sick has halted progress on the decision.

All this may sound dark, but Greenberg maintained that there is hope for the American fishing industry and for Americans looking to purchase responsibly.

“You have to think about your seafood choices based on the reputation of the seller,” he said, citing an annual Greenpeace report that audits grocery stores based on their seafood buying policies. In addition, some locations offer community-supported fisheries, which function like CSAs out of small fisheries instead of organic farms.

But legislators also need to take action, Greenberg said: “We need much better seafood labeling — we need to know where the fish was caught, we need to know where it was processed.”

Right now, a lot of American-processed seafood products are made with Chinese-grown fish and most Alaskan salmon sold in the U.S. is surprisingly processed in China.

Greenberg joked, “There’s salmon out there that have more frequent flier miles than I do.”

Guest

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