American catch: The fight for our local seafood

American catch: The fight for our local seafood

Salmon image by Jeremy Keith via Flickr

It is a particularly American contradiction that the thing we should be eating most is the thing most absent from our plates.

Fish and shellfish are today widely recognized by physicians as central to our physical and mental health, and just about every contemporary diet — Paleo, Mediterranean, Atkins, South Beach (take your pick) — recommends seafood as a key animal protein. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, even low sperm count are all conditions that a fish-based diet may help ameliorate. And by all rights this most healthy of foods should be an American mainstay. The United States controls more ocean than any other country on earth. Our seafood-producing territory covers 2.8 billion acres, more than twice as much real estate as we have set aside for landfood.

But in spite of our billions of acres of ocean, our 94,000 miles of coast, our 3.5 million miles of rivers, a full 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.

Set against the backdrop of the larger American food system, the seafood deficit, is, well, fishy. Many of our most important landfoods are trending in the opposite direction. Corn, anybody? Plenty of it — surpluses of it, in fact. Beef? Enough domestic production to supply every American with around eighty pounds a year — five times the national per capita rate of seafood consumption. Meanwhile, the paucity of domestic fish and shellfish in our markets and in our dietscontinues even as foreign seafood floods in at a tremendous rate. In the last half century American seafood imports have increased by a staggering 1,476 percent.

It gets fishier still. While 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of the seafood Americans catch gets sold to foreigners. By and large the fish and shellfish we are sending abroad are wild while the seafood we are importing is very often farmed. Two hundred million pounds of wild Alaska salmon, a half billion pounds of pollock, cod, and other fish-and-chips-type species, a half billion pounds of squid, scallops, lobsters, and other shellfish is, every year, being sent abroad, more and more often to Asia; untold tons of omega-3-rich seafood are leaving our shores to help other countries lower their rates of heart disease, raise their cognitive abilities, and lengthen their life expectancy. American consumers suffer from a deficit of American fi sh, but someone out there somewhere is eating our lunch.

How did we land ourselves in such a confoundingly American catch?

 Penguin PressI first began contemplating this question one morning in the summer of 2005. I had recently moved to the far southern end of the island of Manhattan to what the seafaring Dutch had called New Amsterdam but which is now more sterilely christened the Financial District. This lifeless agglomeration of concrete and glass was not at first glance an ideal neighborhood for a writer like me whose subjects are nature and fishing and seafood. But I liked the fact that just on the other side of the skyscrapers the water lay in three directions. I was intrigued that the place where I now made my home was America’s original seaport, the very spot where some of the first American seafood had been landed.

I quickly realized I was deluding myself. For a week I followed the routes that most people traveled in my new neighborhood — up Broadway, past banks and brokerage firms, past the bare asphalt slab called Zuccotti Park. On the site of the New Amsterdam colony, there was now a depressing convergence of fast-food franchises and an oddly duplicative march of bad shoe stores. I stared into the empty pit at Ground Zero and tried uselessly to find some connection to the place like a mariner throwing out an anchor into muddy bottom. The tines found no purchase.

Finally, at the beginning of the second week in my new home, I rose early and set out by bicycle to get a broader feel for this empty-feeling place. Choosing the rising sun as my direction, I turned east, against traffic, at the street that in New Amsterdam days had been called De Maagde Paatje — the Maiden’s Path — so named because it was the chosen route for Dutch girls bringing their washing down to the East River on laundry days. Today called Maiden Lane, it brought me to Pearl Street — once Parelstraat — an appellation that derives from the time when the road was paved with native oystershell. As I coasted along Pearl, I skirted over landfill that had long ago buried a swatch of salt marsh known in colonial times as Beekman’s Swamp. At Dover Street, I headed east again until I arrived at Water Street. The street once marked the water’s edge, but now after landfill had widened the city considerably Water Street was several blocks from the water.

But just past Water the feel of the neighborhood started to change and the ghost of a former incarnation started to reveal itself. At the corner of Dover I came across a red clapboard building that I later learned was one of the oldest functioning public houses in New York. Beyond this distinctly maritime-looking tavern stood a row of crotchety old buildings, all from the early 1800s. Hazy stenciling could be made out on a few: “Joshua Atkins & Co. Shipchandlers,” “Joseph C. LaRocca & Sons Shellfish & Seafood.” From Dover I went east to Front Street and then tacked south to Peck Slip, a grand plaza in disrepair that petered away and dumped me out onto South Street.

There before me stood a metal warehouse built during the Great Depression. Weeping with water stains, it bore a straightforward, working person’s declaration of purpose on its facade:

FULTON FISH MARKET • CITY OF NEW YORK

DEPARTMENT OF MARKETS

I had happened upon what had been the most storied and voluminous seafood market in the world and nobody seemed to care that it still existed.

Once upon a time, before the island of Manhattan had any physical connection to the mainland, the Fulton Fish Market was the primary point of entry for nearly every piece of seafood New Yorkers ate. Clunky barges, flat-bottomed oyster skiffs, broad-beamed Hudson River sloops all made their way to this weigh station and docked at buildings that were inherently more geared toward the sea than to the land. There, all of this wild product was off-loaded and transformed into forms the public would recognize as usable food for the larder. Oyster shuckers by the dozens queued up in the stretch that is now covered by the FDR Drive. Prehistoric-looking sturgeon, five feet long and armored with weird cartilaginous shields, were stacked like cordwood in the hulls of fishing boats from as far away as Kingston and sold in pearly white chunks as “Albany Beef.” Shad-cutters with the particular skill to convert an intrinsically gristly mess into a smooth boneless fillet worked in the early-morning hours and laid out their product alongside the pinkish sacks of roe, smoked or raw depending on the taste of the client at hand.

New York’s fishing past is not as distant as one might think. As recently as 1929, an edition of the Fishing Gazette reported that a hundred fishermen were registered to live in “the village” of Canarsie in what has now been swallowed whole by the borough of Brooklyn. They all sold at Fulton. In that same report it was noted that Jamaica Bay, where Kennedy Airport now sits, was a “prolific fishing ground for scallops and many terrapin were found along its marshy shores.” Up until the 1920s, enough lobsters and shellfish were taken in Gravesend Bay off Staten Island to satisfy much of the city’s needs. In all, one hundred wholesale fish dealers worked Fulton and sold tens of millions of pounds of fish a year.

The Fulton Market that I found in the year 2005 was of course a different place. Most of that local product was gone, yet it was still a market. Forklifts unloaded boxes of blue crab hauled up from the Chesapeake Bay, their snapping claws and gyrating finlets poking through the crate slats. Elsewhere the new-moon crescent tails of the great pelagic wanderers — the swordfish and the tunas of the open ocean — jutted out over the edges of the cleaning tables. Restaurateurs kibitzed with the dealers jockeying for entire pallets of salmon while the occasional solitary elderly gentleman sidled up to a monger he had long known and came away with a single fillet of sole.

But on the fringes of the market in 2005, another kind of transaction was starting to rule the day. Here and there a few of the old buildings that formerly had housed smokehouses and salters and chandleries were getting a makeover. The newly mullioned window sashes and smooth-poured concrete stoops spoke of an occupation forthcoming that had nothing to do with the price of summer flounder. This was good waterfront real estate with all the old-timey trappings that make gentrifiers happy. Looked at from a developer’s angle, the Fulton Fish Market, with its blood, guts, and racket, stuck out like a smelly thumb. It had become despised and distrusted by the police and the health department alike. Every city ordinance it could violate it had violated. If you didn’t have a feel for fish, the whole thing seemed a terrible mess. No wonder the city wanted it gone.

But I didn’t want it gone. As I looked across the melee, my heart rose. Maybe my new neighborhood wasn’t so bad after all.

From fishmongers to freeways

My next visit to Fulton was part of a larger reconnaissance mission, a circumnavigation of the entire island of Manhattan. Setting out north, I rode up along the new Hudson River Park, a park that owes its very existence to fish. A multilane highway called Westway would have been built in the park’s place had scientists not discovered striped bass juveniles in the rotting piers of the West Side and demanded the then recently formed Environmental Protection Agency carry out one of the nation’s very first environmental impact statements, which would eventually halt Westway in its tracks. At the Hudson River Park’s terminus I pushed my bike through the untended trails of Inwood Hill Park, and then picked up the route again through Manhattan’s last remaining salt marsh. I then headed down the East River, excited to take another look at the Fulton Market at the end of my journey. But when I finally ducked under the triple necklaces of the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges, there was nothing to be found — no more banter, no more scales and guts sloughing off into the gutters. The Fulton Fish Market was gone.

In the time since I’d last been to Fulton, the city had finalized its deal with the fishmongers and ordered the market’s full-scale relocation to a far distant outpost in the Bronx. The island of Manhattan, which had once been home to dozens of waterfront markets, now had none at all. As part of the deal, all the fishmongers were required to sign a new market lease that included a pledge that they would never return to these premises and sell fish, ever again.

Few New Yorkers were upset by Fulton’s departure. It seemed unsurprising that an old, dirty market had been pushed out by white-collar commerce, much in the same way that French city fathers ripped the old Les Halles market from the heart of Paris. But looked at more closely, Fulton’s departure can be seen as a sign of a much bigger shift. In fact, it marked the end of a twenty-year transition beginning roughly in the early 1980s during which fish markets and individual fishmongers went from controlling 65 percent of the seafood trade to holding on to just 11 percent. Supermarkets, meanwhile, went from selling 16 percent of our seafood to selling 86 percent. Not coincidentally, it was during this same time period that the United States confirmed its status as a seafood debtor nation.

In 2005, the year of Fulton’s closure, seafood imports topped five billion pounds for the first time — double what we had imported two decades earlier. All the while as foreign seafood poured into our country, our American-born fish and shellfish were leaking out the back door. From 1985 to 2005, the same period during which our seafood imports doubled, our seafood exports more than quadrupled. Increasingly, what Americans eat from the sea has less and less to do with their own shores.

But the United States remains a nation of coasts, of oysters and shrimp and salmon and halibut the size of barn doors and bluefin tuna that swim faster than battleships. A nation where nearly half the population chooses to live less than ten miles from the sea. So what is keeping us from eating from our local waters?

The outsourcing of ecology

The answer lies in an intricate interplay of ecology, economics, politics, and taste. In one sense it is a story that resembles many in our country during the last quarter century, a story of a self-inflicted destruction of domestic production followed by a reckless and giddy outsourcing to Asia. But with seafood we are talking about a delete-and-replace of something infinitely more precious and ultimately irrecoverable. With seafood we are talking about the destruction and outsourcing of the very ecology that underpins the health of our coasts and our bodies.

This process reveals itself most clearly through three iconic American local seafoods: Eastern oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaska salmon. Each fishery is representative of a specific American seafood era, and together they off er a view into the mistakes of our past, the complications of our present, and the hopes for our future.

The fate of the Eastern oyster chronicles the destruction of one of our greatest wild foods and one of the key pieces of biological infrastructure that allowed America’s seafood abundance to exist in the fi rst place. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, oysters were a ubiquitous presence along the East Coast, both on our menus and in our estuaries.

They created a taste for the local ocean and a local habitat for the fish that swam at our doorstep. But beginning in the early twentieth century, the interdependence of Americans and oysters started to fail. This was particularly notable in what was once the heartland of American oysters: New York City. In just a few decades New York went from a place where New Yorkers consumed nearly all of their oysters from local waters to a place where local oysters were associated with the worst kinds of food-borne illnesses.

Once oysters ceased to be a local food source, New York City waters became a pollution free-for-all, with effluent continuing to pour into its bays and inlets largely unchecked until the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Today, despite measurably cleaner waters, the Eastern oyster remains severely depleted and the country’s entire oyster industry hovers at a mere 14 percent of what it had been at its peak in the early 1900s. This despite the best efforts of conservationists and oystermen committed to rebuilding the lost American oyster kingdom. The challenges oyster restorers face today prove just how difficult it is to rebuild a seafood system that has been destroyed, and impresses upon us the imperative to preserve the intact seafood systems that we still have.

Gulf shrimp reveal the quandaries of our immediate seafood present and the complexities of the modern global seafood marketplace. Unlike the Eastern oyster, which has declined by 80 percent since colonization, the several species of wild Gulf shrimp are still with us in great numbers.

Remaking our seafood economy

But the ramping up of the American shrimp appetite has caused us to completely remake our seafood economy. Over the course of the last fifty years Americans came to eat more shrimp than any other seafood by a substantial margin. Shrimp has become so popular that even the seemingly boundless productivity of the vast marshes of the Mississippi River delta have come up short. It was this bottomless American appetite for shrimp that caused us to start looking beyond our shores for seafood and in turn compelled marine scientists around the world to try to domesticate shrimp. And it is because of this shrimp domestication project that Americans today are able to cheaply consume more shrimp per capita than the next two most popular American seafoods — salmon and tuna — combined. But as I learned when I traveled to Southeast Asia’s churning shrimp-farming grounds, this transition from wild to farmed has come at considerable environmental and societal cost. In becoming Asia’s premier market for shrimp, the United States has effectively unhitched itself from its own seafood supplies and hollowed out its ability and rationale to protect its own marine resources.

Lastly, the sockeye salmon of Alaska’s Bristol Bay tell the story of the fights that lie ahead if we are to protect America’s seafood future. The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon grounds are an untrammeled latticework of rivers, ponds, and lakes that can generate more than two hundred million pounds of fish per year. In spite of that seafood wealth, Alaska’s leadership is seriously contemplating the permitting of Pebble Mine, a venture that would be the largest copper and gold mine in North America. If built, Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America placed in dangerous proximity to the most valuable salmon fishery in the world. Saving Bristol Bay from this development requires that we recognize the importance of the sockeye salmon fishery that is endemic to the place. But while the fishery is critical to the fishermen who catch it, Americans outside of Alaska are only now starting to be aware that it even exists. The disturbing truth is that 79 percent of Alaska salmon is exported, more and more frequently to Asia. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the salmon that Americans do eat is farmed and comes to us from abroad. This disconnect is a considerable obstacle to the fishermen and environmentalists working tirelessly to stop Pebble Mine: without valuing Bristol Bay as a food source, it’s impossible to understand why it requires our defense.

But lest this book read simply as a litany of doom and destruction, it’s important to point out that America, like a great ship that has been off course for so long, is ever so slowly coming about in the right direction. Forty years ago the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments aka the Clean Water Act of 1972 sought to end the degradation of our estuaries, prosecute the polluters of our waterways, and protect this country’s most vital seafood grounds from industrial development. Boldly it stated that it would “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” From the Clean Water Act sprang a great flood of ideas and hopes that has affected every piece of seafood we eat and even the seafood we don’t.

Through the act’s requirement for cleaner water, the recovery of the Eastern oyster has become a stated goal of municipalities around the United States, even in estuaries as polluted as New York Harbor. A single oyster is capable of filtering up to fifty gallons of water per day — a fact that is not lost on state regulators. Indeed, more and more, oysters and clean water are being linked in the minds of policy makers, and this linkage could create a positive feedback loop that leads not only to cleaner water but to greater supplies of other seafood. It could even lead toward a sounder ecological approach to coastal protection in the face of sea level rise and ever more frequently occurring superstorms.

In the Gulf, the Clean Water Act has the potential to help repair a century’s worth of damage the oil industry has visited on the shrimp heartland of the Mississippi delta. After spilling more than two hundred million gallons of oil into the shrimp-rearing grounds of Louisiana during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP could be liable for more than $20 billion in Clean Water Act fines and penalties. Properly applied, those funds could pay for the restoration of the Gulf ’s seafood heart and lungs: the extensive Louisiana marshes where 75 percent of the northern Gulf ’s seafood is born. Coupled with a growing seafood relocalization movement launched by bayou shrimpers, shrimp could end up being the motivation for saving the Gulf ’s marine ecosystems.

In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Clean Water Act could gird those fantastically productive salmon grounds in a permanent defense against harmful industrial development. We have a chance to forever protect Bristol Bay, America’s wild salmon epicenter, from becoming the site for a storage facility for billions of tons of mining tailings. Of all the fish fights that threaten our local seafood, nothing is bigger than the fight over Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine. Thanks to an unprecedented banding together of local native tribes, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservationists, and chefs, the Pebble Mine fight might just be a fight that, for once, the fish will win.

But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance, but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. Over the course of the last hundred years that intimacy has been lost, and with it our pathway to the most healthful of American foods. It is, in my opinion, our obligation to reclaim this intimacy and build a bridge from the plate back to the estuary. This requires us not just to eat local seafood. It requires the establishment of a working relationship with salt marshes, oyster beds, the natural flow of water from river to sea, and the integrity of the ocean floor. It means, in short, setting a new course that makes seafood not only central to personal health but critical to the larger health of the nation.

In heading out across the waters of my home city, my home coasts, and my home country, and in telling about that journey, I’m hoping I might be able to convey how such a course might be set, to find the bases for our nation’s broken relationship with its own ocean, and to understand finally how that breach might be mended.

Excerpted from American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood, by Paul Greenberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), a Penguin Random House company. Copyright Paul Greenberg 2014. Top image of salmon by Jeremy Keith via Flickr.