Why Americans Stopped Eating Their Own Seafood

Rachel Tepper Paley
June 26, 2014

Book jacket credit: Penguin Press

"How do you feel about the fact that 91 percent of America’s seafood is coming from abroad?” asks Paul Greenberg in the first pages of his new book ”American Catch,” which hits shelves June 26th. He’s talking to Herb Slavin, a fishmonger at New York City’s storied Fulton Fish Market. 

"Who’s the broad?" Slavin deadpans.

It’s a great line. But Greenberg’s question also underpins the central issue plaguing the national seafood industry: Americans aren’t eating from their own waters, and it’s hurting us on both environmental and economic fronts.

Greenberg is a seafood expert with serious pedigree. He’s also the author of “Four Fish,” which earned him a James Beard Award, and a regular contributor to The New York Times on the subject of seafood sustainability. 

When we chatted with Greenberg about his most recent book, here are his points we found most fascinating:

You shouldn’t be afraid of canned salmon. "One really crazy thing is that we export just as much wild salmon as we import farmed salmon," Greenberg said. "And most of the wild salmon that we do have comes to us in a can—it’s actually one of the greatest sustainability swaps you can do." Unlike tuna, which roam the open ocean, wild salmon return to the same river and stream beds each year, and their numbers are easily tracked and regulated. "Drop the tuna can; pick up the salmon can," Greenberg suggested.

Americans eat only 15 pounds of seafood a year, compared to the 35 pounds that Chinese people consume annually. “It is the Chinese who insist upon whole fish, fresh fish, fish that is, actually, quite fishy,” Greenberg writes in “American Catch.” “And while Americans wring their hands about sustainability, the Chinese are surging ahead.”

Ninety percent of the $108 million in mussels Americans eat each year are imported. "It’s so easy to culture mussels," Greenberg told us. "The fact that we’re not actively farming them is crazy." Mussel growing operations are difficult to get set up, largely because the necessary government regulation in this country is severely lacking. "If you want to have a mussel-growing operation inyour town, [that town] needs to pay an inspector," Greenberg explained. "People are much more interested in parking a yacht… it’s a really a one-percent issue, to be honest with you.”

For every pound of wild shrimp caught in the United States, two pounds of bycatch—seafood caught unintentionally—are thrown out. “We should be eating all of the bycatch that’s coming out of the shrimp industry,” Greenberg said. Flounder, black drum, and blue crab—all delicious catch often snatched by shrimping nets, thrown overboard, and wasted.

Can America’s relationship with its own seafood be mended? Greenberg thinks so. Community-supported fisheries and efforts to combat seafood fraud are all steps in the right direction. Time will tell if they pay off.