Monday, July 20, 2015

American Catch - Paul Greenberg

American Catch: The Fight for Our Local SeafoodI've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love food.  And of all the foods I love, seafood is at the very top of that list.  When I was in high school, if I got straight As, my dad would take me out for all-you-can-eat snow crab legs at one of our favorite restaurants.  In more recent times, I've dragged my boyfriend out on a quest for fried clams because I decided I had to have them right now, and then spent a week in Maine eating sea food at literally every meal.  Fish and chips (cod), fish tacos with a cilantro-lime crema (tilapia), lobster pots, crab cakes, steamed mussels, grilled trout, spicy crunchy yellowtail rolls, broiled scallops, blackened catfish...the list goes on and on.  If it dwells in water, I'll eat it.  I trace much of this back to growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, which was once the largest fresh-water fishing port in the world, mainly for one item: Lake Erie perch.  When I visit home these days, I make a point of ordering up some fried perch, one of the most delectable fried fish you can ever consume and one that came right out of the waters I grew up by.  Until now, it never occurred to me that eating Lake Erie perch--a fish that was caught within miles of where I ate it--was unusual.  But guess what?  It is.  It's very unusual.  And that's a very, very bad thing.

Greenberg uses American Catch to dig into all the problems with how Americans use and view seafood.  The US controls more fishing grounds than any other country, and we have an extremely long coast line, and yet the vast majority of our seafood is shipped off to countries like China--and most of the seafood we eat is imported from those same countries, which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.  Using three examples--New York oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaskan sockeye salmon--Greenberg illustrates how this came about and what the implications for it are.  We constantly decimate our coastlines and the salt marshes that comprise them in order to create more land for agriculture and more desirable places for the rich to vacation, all the while destroying the habitats and breeding grounds of local sea food; we did this to such a degree in New York City that it's actually illegal to eat the New York oysters that survive there, because the water is so polluted that eating said oysters can make people sick.  And we do this even though creating an environment that can sustain oysters is good for the city: oysters filter water and create reefs that can help lessen the effects of of storm surges, like the one that decimated so much of the city in Hurricane Sandy.  On the shrimp front, we allow industry, such as big oil, to pollute the Gulf of Mexico and destroy our coast and the shrimp that live and breed there, and mess with the Mississippi River until it's basically just shooting washed-off fertilizers from big agriculture into the Gulf and creating a deoxygenated dead zone where nothing can live.  And in Alaska, on Bristol Bay, the largest salmon run in the world with some of the best salmon there is, we ponder letting a huge mine destroy the area because it offers a faster payout than fishing does.  And for some reason, we don't see most of this as a problem.

Greenberg really digs into why this is; why we're blind to the problem of seafood because it doesn't present itself as a problem.  After all, I can still grab as many pounds of shrimp as I want from the grocery store, so why should the problem of the Gulf come to my mind?  Does it really matter that the shrimp I'm buying come from farms that are wreaking similar havoc in Asia, and that the shrimp are likely heavily dosed with antibiotics to avoid the diseases that can decimate harvests? probably does.  And if it doesn't, it should.  I can very easily see this book being painted as a tool of the "liberal media" by conservatives, who, as Greenberg points out, tend to see any attempt at regulation as an interference with their god-given rights to do whatever the hell they want, and screw anyone who disagrees.  But the fact of the matter is, the way that we treat seafood isn't sustainable, and if I want to be able to enjoy a big piece of salmon years down the road, our attitudes toward it have to change.  This isn't really a new idea, but it is an important one that nonetheless seems to get lost in the shuffle, and the more it's brought up, the more potential there is for people to listen and enact change.

This is a great book, one that uses a few solid examples in conjunction to make a much larger and powerful point, and one that brings in a lot of the people who are actually, personally affected in order to illustrate how the issues in the industry can drag us down.  It doesn't focus on just one geographic area, instead showing that our abuse of seafood truly is a national problem, from New York to Louisiana to Alaska, and that we need to consider the bigger picture of how we view seafood if we're going to fix it.  Because of the subject matter, it's a book that can come across a little preachy at times, which is typical for books like this and somewhat unavoidable, and Greenberg gets all cheery at the end in what I think was an attempt to avoid blatant fearmongering.  Still, after reading this one, I know one thing: I'll probably be looking into where my seafood comes from a little more closely from now on.

4 stars out of 5.

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