Book review: American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood

“In 2005, the United States imported five billion pounds of seafood, nearly double what we imported twenty years earlier. Bizarrely, during that same period, our seafood exports quadrupled. American Catch examines New York oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaskan salmon to reveal how it came to be that 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is foreign.”

8/10 stars

In a world where people are beginning to care more about what they eat and where their food comes from, American Catch provides an eye-opening account on how the seafood industry has evolved under most Americans’ radar. “Fish is good for you,” many dietary experts claim. “Eat more seafood,” they recommend. But what happens when the fish we are eating are from unsustainable, foreign, or floundering fisheries? 

The stories highlighted in the book provide insight into several aspects of the American seafood industry. The New England oyster tells a tale of the interdependency between healthy waterways and flourishing oyster populations in our country’s largest city. The shrimp catch in the Gulf of Mexico shows how local fishermen are struggling in the aftermath of the BP oil spill and against the rising imports of foreign seafood. The sockeye salmon of Alaska face disruptions from companies eyeing Alaskan land as a honeypot of precious metal ore and oil. 

The issues facing the seafood industry are complex: political football between different states and administrations, decimation of vital habitat, man-made squabbles over private patches of coastal land, the overall lack of “contact” between the average American and their food sources, a nonchalance towards the quality of seafood, the “free” market bearing down on smaller fishermen, and much, much more. The author, Paul Greenberg, does a decent job of hitting many of these bases in a relatively short book. I would have liked for more discussion on how the perpetrators of these problems can be held accountable. It would have also been helpful for the readers to find out how they can continue to support sustainable American fisheries, especially if they don’t live on one of the coastlines, but it’s understandably not the point of the book. 

Sockeye salmon, a valued resource in Bristol Bay (Photo credit: bristolbaysockeye.org)

I appreciated how American Catch gives much page space to seafood — a sentient resource whose livelihood must be protected to ensure future reaping — but also acknowledges the human side of the American fishing industry. I found myself empathizing with those who found themselves tied to the seafood that inhabit the undulating waters of our coastlines, despite having minimal fishing experience. Despite differences in background and beliefs, the folks in American Catch were able to build a community with others who draw from the culture of harvest, tradition, or protection of the fisheries. 

American Catch was published in 2014, so it’s worth following up on a couple of the movements Greenberg focused on and seeing where they are today. In New York City, the New Amsterdam Market, a local farmer’s market regarded as a trove of regional food, closed in 2014 after failing to attract “influential backers” or enough funding. While one enterprise has scattered, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School continues to grow its oyster work through the Billion Oyster Project, which provides opportunities to learn about NYC’s oyster history and work to restore it. The project, started in 2014 by Murray Fisher and Pete Malinowski (who was heavily mentioned in American Catch), has involved over six thousand students, one hundred schools, and seventy-five restaurant partners to date. In the South, Louisiana Direct Seafood appears to be active and thriving, with a sleek website offering up-to-date market events in several ports. For the sockeye salmon in Alaska, a key victory occurred last November. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the key permit for the proposed Pebble mine in Bristol Bay, on the basis that the mine would cause significant degradation and adverse effects on the surrounding ecosystem. Mining developments in the area have been blocked — for now. Like Louisiana Direct Seafood, the Iliamna Fish Company continues to operate as a community-supported fishery today, shortening the distance between food producers and consumers.   

“If you happened to be wandering around lower Manhattan before the 1920s and were on a particularly tight budget, you could stop in at one of the many oyster saloons and purchase the ‘Canal Street Plan’ — all the local oysters you could eat for a sixpence.” (Caption credit: Greenberg p. 20, photo credit: Pixabay)

“But what is a hundred thousand dollars when compared with a mining executive’s salary? There is no way for the power of fishermen to concentrate itself enough to combat the wealth of mining and energy companies when conflicts arise” (p. 184). It’s easy to feel despair when thinking about all the forces at play that are out of one’s control, but the arc of success these local groups receive remind us that hope and activism, drawing on a shared appreciation for the world around us, can lead to positive and significant change.

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