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Q&A With Paul Greenberg, Author of American Catch

Posted On June 27, 2014 by

Ocean Conservancy was honored to interview Paul Greenberg about his newly released book, American Catch, which hit bookshelves yesterday. We hope you enjoy our interview — and we hope that you’ll want to help ensure healthy fish populations by taking action today.

1) What made you decide to explore American seafood for your next book?

Originally I’d planned to write a book about the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  It had happened just as my earlier book, Four Fish, was coming out and I kept being asked about it on the radio and it struck me as a defining moment for the ocean.  And so I’d actually even sold a proposal called “Under the Horizon” to Penguin and got to work on it as soon as the book tour was over.

But scarcely a month into my research, a flood of books started coming out.  Many excellent books like Carl Safina’s “A Sea in Flames” and Rowan Jacobsen’s “Shadows on the Gulf”.  Many not so excellent books too.

At that point I ran into Carl Safina and I said, “I’m supposed to write this oil spill book . . . “ and before I could even finish saying what I was saying he said, “Don’t do it!  Don’t! The people are all talked out, the scientists are all caught up in the NRDA process and won’t talk, and it will be years before we really know what kind of damage was done.”

Nevertheless I soldiered on.  I researched the oystering community.  I went out shrimping.  But on a dark night while pulling nets in Lake Pontchartrain, I started getting into a conversation with a shrimper about how his market had been severely disrupted by Asian shrimp.  The Spill, for him, was just kind of a sideshow.  A freak show even.  What was really at play was American food security and the prevalence of cheap imports had completely upended his world.  It was then that I realized that the Spill could be part of the story but just one part.  What we were really talking about was the disconnection of the American consumer from the American coast and all the consequences that resulted from that disconnect.

2) In your last book, Four Fish, you highlight cod, salmon, tuna and bass.  In this book you highlight the Gulf of Mexico shrimp, Alaskan sockeye salmon and the New York oyster.  Of those seven seafood delicacies, the oyster stands out—partly because it’s not a fish, but also because few people associate New York with oysters these days.  What made you want to highlight oysters?  What is your hope in promoting them in your book?

An oyster grower from Maine named Carter Newell told me during an interview back in 2012, “Shellfish aquaculture is the economic argument for clean water.”  He meant that because things like oysters, mussels, and clams eat by filtering the water they must de facto have clean water to be edible for humans.  This was a real “a-ha!” moment.

It meant that if we as a nation could become reliant on bivalves again (as we were magnificently before 1920) it could create a positive feedback loop.  We would want to eat from our waters and therefore we would want our waters to be clean.  We would clean our waters and then we would have more food.  And a not small part of this feedback loop is the amazing things shellfish aquaculture does for the marine environment to encourage the presence of more fish.

That really clicked in when I interviewed Bob Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association,  who told me: “We took a patch of 2.3 acres of black, eutrophic, anoxic bottom—unproductive and virtually barren, and after a few years it was transformed into one of the most vibrant dive spots in Rhode Island. We sent a few scientists to document the diversity and abundance of species. We found that our pissant little 2.3-acre farm was now home to a thousand baby lobsters, thousands of juvenile sea bass and other fish. We set up traps for scup around the perimeter because fishing on the lease was so good. We slammed them. We would catch keeper striped bass on the lease many months of the year, attracted to the lease by the forage fish and structured habitat around the oyster cages. When I took my kids fishing we went to the lease because I knew we would catch fish.”

That was pretty damn convincing.

3) It seems much of your book can easily speak to Americans who either live near a coastline, or spend a great amount of time there.  What about Americans from the inland states, or those who don’t get to visit the beach on a regular basis?  What message do you have for those who are part of this country with deep ocean roots, yet they may be detached from this history and local seafood in particular, on a day-to-day basis?

Once we had a vibrant freshwater seafood economy and infrastructure.  New York’s old Fulton Fish Market, which features prominently in my book, once had an entire city block devoted to freshwater fish ONLY.  Now there is very little freshwater seafood production in large part because we have drained so much wetland, rejiggered so many rivers and overfished larger bodies of water.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  There are 3,000 dams in the state of Connecticut alone.  Useless dams that impeded the migration of once important food fish like alewives, shad and eels.  We are experiencing massive eutrophication events in the Great Lakes due to poor application of fertilizers.  We can reverse that.  We also can do a lot more inland freshwater aquaculture.  In Illinois there are now shrimp containment farms up and running.  And then there’s the Asian carp, which we should eat out of existence.

4) The reception for your previous book, Four Fish, was incredibly positive – what are you hoping to achieve with American Catch?

As I think I did with Four Fish with respect to aquaculture, I’d like to pull back the blanket on the weird world of imports and exports.  The New York Times op-ed that just ran went a little bit viral, and I was getting flooded with emails and twitter responses that were like, “What? We’re importing as much salmon as we’re exporting?  And some of that is making a 10,000 mile round trip to China?” It’s a weird, weird, weird world.

Most importantly, I’d like people to eat from their own shores and invest their energies into making sure their shores stay safe to eat from.  That requires us to keep the water clean, manage our fisheries well and restrict coastal development.

5) You’ve written about taking your young son fishing – are you concerned or optimistic for the future of American seafood when he’s an adult?

I think if we can maintain solid management and curb coastal development there can be a good future for American seafood.  That said it will likely be a different seafood economy that what we’ve got right now.  My home, Long Island Sound, will be a lot more like the Chesapeake in terms of species composition than like New England.  Already blue crab is much more common than lobster in the Sound.  And there will be much more epochal shifts.  But nature adapts and I think we can adapt with it.

6) You seem like you’re a bit of a foodie and very well versed in cooking seafood. Do you have a favorite seafood dish or recipe?  How about your son?

I am not being lazy when I say that these three recipes that I already did for the Washington Post last month are among my favorite.  I make the fish fillets in spicy vinegar sauce, Beijing style regularly and if I’m having people over I really like to do the Hanoi style fried fish with turmeric and dill with all the various fixings.  It’s a beautiful preparation and fun to eat wrapped up in cabbage or lettuce leaves.  For my son I keep it simple.  Fish dusted in flour, fried and then finished with juice of half a lemon.  He loves that.

6) What is the one thing Ocean Conservancy members can do to help support American seafood?

Eat as many farmed American mussels, clams and oysters as you can.  There are of course other American seafoods you can eat, but farmed mussels, clams and oysters actually improve the marine environment.  By eating them you’re encouraging their propagation, which will lead to cleaner water in the end.

To learn more about American Catch, or to purchase the book, visit http://www.paulgreenberg.org/