'The Great Fish Swap': How America Is Downgrading Its Seafood Supply
What's the most popular seafood in the U.S.? Shrimp. The average American eats more shrimp per capita than tuna and salmon combined. Most of that shrimp comes from Asia, and most of the salmon we eat is also imported. In fact, 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad, but one-third of the seafood Americans catch gets sold to other countries.
Shrimp and salmon are two case studies in the unraveling of America's seafood economy, according to Paul Greenberg, author of the new book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood. Greenberg tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about what's driving the changes in America's seafood economy and why you should buy wild salmon frozen when its out of season.
On what Greenberg calls "The Great Fish Swap"
What I think we're doing is we're low-grading our seafood supply. In effect what we're doing is we're sending the really great, wild stuff that we harvest here on our shores abroad, and in exchange, we're importing farm stuff that, frankly, is of an increasingly dubious nature.
We export millions of tons of wild, mostly Alaska salmon abroad and import mostly farmed salmon from abroad. So salmon for salmon, we're trading wild for farmed. Another great example of this fish swap is the swapping of Alaska pollock for tilapia and pangasius [catfish]. Alaska pollock is the thing in [McDonald's] Filet-O-Fish sandwich; it's the thing in that fake crab that you find in your California roll. We use a lot of pollock ourselves, but we send 600 million pounds of it abroad every year. And in the other direction, we get a similarly white flaky fish — tilapia or pangasius — coming to us mostly from China and Vietnam. They fill a similar fish niche, but they're very different.
On why the U.S. exports the best-quality fish
We only eat about 15 pounds of seafood per year per capita. That's half of the global average, so there's that. The other thing is that other countries really are hip to seafood. The Chinese love seafood; the Japanese, the Koreans — they love seafood. They're willing to pay top dollar for it. We just aren't willing to do so. We want our food cheap and easy.
All of this fast-food commodification of seafood protein — because that's kind of what it is at this point — adds to that general preference for cheap stuff. Kind of in tandem and in league with that is the American tendency to avoid taste. ... Foodies [talk] about flavor and texture and the food movement and that kind of thing, and that's true of about 5 percent of Americans, but 95 percent of Americans really are not so into flavor. ... If we don't like the flavorsome fish — like bluefish, mackerel, things like oysters, things that really taste of the sea — if we don't like that, then we're going to go for these generic, homogenized, industrialized products.
On sending American salmon to China and back for cheap labor
A certain amount of Alaska salmon gets caught by Americans in Alaska, sent to China, defrosted, filleted, boned, refrozen and sent back to us. How's that for food miles? We don't want to pay the labor involved in boning fish and more and more of that fish that used to go make that round trip is actually staying in China because the Chinese are realizing how good it is, much to our detriment. ...
The labor is so much cheaper that it makes the shipping cost-effective. When you ship things via freighter, frozen, the cost per mile is relatively low compared to, say, air freighting or train travel or truck freighting.
On why you should buy wild salmon frozen, not fresh, if it's out of season
It's going to be frozen anyway. I sometimes will go to a supermarket in January and I'll see fresh, wild Alaska salmon sitting out there on ice and I just shake my head at it because I know that if it's January, there's a very little chance that that fish is fresh.
Nearly all of the salmon, when it comes into the processing plants in Alaska, gets immediately frozen. And that's great because if you freeze a fish right out of the water it will be of the highest quality that you can get out of a frozen product. So when you go to the supermarket in January, don't go to the fresh seafood counter for your salmon; go to the frozen bins and get those nice vacuum-packed Alaska salmon things. They're just going to be of higher quality.
On slave labor and the Thai shrimp industry
The largest shrimp producer for us right now is Thailand. ... It turns out, a certain amount of the shrimp that come to us from Thailand seems to be coming to us in part as the result of slave labor.
Shrimp are fed wild fish ground up and turned into meal — trash fish, they're called, just random fish that are trolled up in the South China Sea. It turns out, a large amount of that fish is being caught by boats in which the labor onboard are slaves and that fish gets ground up and sold to Thai shrimp farms.
On the decline of local fish markets
We don't want fish markets in our view shed. We don't want to smell them. We don't want to look at them. So they really have been banished from the center of our cities and sequestered to a corner of our supermarkets.
This is a process that aids all of the facelessness and commodification of seafood. ... Seafood has been taken out of the hands of the experts and put into the hands of the traders, so people really cannot identify the specificity of fish anymore. Because supermarkets rely on mass distribution systems, often frozen product, it means that the relationship between coastal producers of seafood is broken and so it's much easier for them to deal with the Syscos of the world, or these large purveyors that use these massive shrimp operations in Thailand or China, than it is for them to deal with the kind of knotty nature of local fishermen.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. See if you know the answer to this. What's the most popular seafood in the U.S.? The answer is shrimp. Americans eat more shrimp per capita than tuna and salmon combined. Most of that shrimp comes from Asia. Most of the salmon we eat is imported too. But while we're importing so much seafood, two thirds of all Alaskan seafood, which includes a lot of salmon, is sent abroad. And those are examples of why my guest Paul Greenberg says we have a seafood deficit. In his new book "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood," he uses shrimp and salmon as two case studies in the unraveling of America's seafood economy. And he tells the story of how oysters became the first local seafood to disappear. Through these three seafoods, Greenberg examines ecology, economics, politics and taste. Greenberg is also the author of the bestseller "Four Fish: The Future Of The Last Wild Food."
Paul Greenberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
PAUL GREENBERG: Thanks, Terry. Great to be back.
GROSS: So I want to start with a statistic that is just so mind-boggling, that 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat come from abroad, but one third of the seafood Americans catch gets sold to other countries. Or to put it another way, our seafood exports more than quadrupled, but during that same period, our seafood imports doubled. And like - boy, does that make any sense at all? That we are shipping...
GROSS: We're sending our fish overseas and importing our fish from other countries?
GREENBERG: Yeah, the great American fish swap. I do not think it makes sense. And in fact, what I think we are doing is we are low-grading our seafood supply. In effect, what we're doing is we're sending the really great wild stuff that we harvest here on our shores abroad. And in exchange we're importing farmed stuff that, frankly, is of an increasingly dubious nature.
GROSS: Give us a sense of which fish we're exporting and which we're importing.
GREENBERG: Well (laughing), one fish is salmon - for both. We export millions of tons of wild - mostly Alaska salmon abroad. And we import mostly farmed salmon from abroad. So salmon for salmon - we're trading wild for farmed.
GROSS: Give us another example.
GREENBERG: Another great example of this fish swap is the swapping of Alaska Pollock for tilapia and pangasius. Alaska pollock is the thing in the filet of fish sandwich. It's the thing in that fake crab that you find in your California roll. We use a lot of Pollock ourselves but we send 600 million pounds of it abroad every year. And in the other direction, we get a similarly kind of white flaky fish, a Tilapia or a pangasius, coming to us mostly from China and Vietnam. So they - they fill a similar kind of fish niche but they're very different.
GROSS: Is pangasius like the catfish?
GREENBERG: Pangasius catfish, yes. They are an air breathing catfish from Vietnam. They originally appeared because you can put them right underneath the outhouse and they would eat the effluent.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for that.
GREENBERG: (Laughing) Sorry. And then they get - but it turns out they are actually a very good fish for aquaculture and that you can cram them into a pond until they're - look almost like an M.C. Escher painting, like one on top of the other.
GREENBERG: I mean, its surreal...
GROSS: You're making my day.
GREENBERG: Yeah, sorry. (Laughing) And when their ponds get too crowded and they don't have enough oxygen in them, they stick their little faces above the surface of the water and they breathe air. So they're kind of miraculous in one sense and they'd be great if we could be sure that they were well inspected and so forth. But they're not. Only 2 percent of the seafood we import gets any kind of look from the FDA at all.
GROSS: So why are we exporting so much of our fish?
GREENBERG: Well, it's a complicated answer to that. I was just recently out in California interviewing a fisherman. And his reason was, hey, Americans just aren't hip to seafood. We only eat about 15 pounds of seafood per year per capita, that's half of the global average. So there's that. The other thing is that other countries really are hip to seafood. The Chinese love seafood. The Japanese, the Koreans - they love seafood. And they're willing to pay top dollar for it. We just aren't willing to do so. We want our food cheap and easy.
GROSS: And - and how much is like fast food fish contributing to that? Whether it's like frozen fish sticks in the supermarket or fish chains like Red Lobster - not to single out Red Lobster, but just as an example...
GREENBERG: No, no, no (laughing).
GROSS: ...You know, Mcdonald's has their fish sandwiches. All of those places have their fish sandwiches now.
GREENBERG: All of this sort of fast food commodification of seafood protein - because that's kind of what it is at this point - adds to that general preference for cheap stuff. Kind of in tandem and in league with that is the American tendency to avoid taste. I mean...
GREENBERG: ...You must've had, like, your share. Sorry, it's true. You must've had your share of, like, foodies on your show, you know, talking about flavor and texture and how Americans - the food movement and all that kind of thing. And yeah, that's true for about 5 percent of Americans. But 95 percent of Americans really are not so into play flavor. I've heard fish people talk about things like tilapia as dough delivery systems. You know (laughing), it's just a way to get a fried thing onto your plate. And so if we don't like the flavorsome fish, like bluefish, like mackerel, things like oysters - things that really taste of the sea. If we don't like that, then we're going to go for these generic, homogenized, industrialized products.
GROSS: I had to eat a lot of mackerel as a child.
GROSS: And to me it was just a joyless fish. It was kind of bitter. It was thin. It was kind of like black in part of it. It didn't even look like a fish I thought was supposed to look.
GREENBERG: I feel for you. Was that out of a can?
GROSS: Oh, God. That would've been even worse. The vegetables were, but...
GROSS: ..The fish was from a fish store. Which...
GROSS: ...As you point out, they don't exist anymore.
GROSS: But yes, the neighborhood fish store. But it's not - it's not a fish I think a child would enjoy very much.
GREENBERG: You know, a fishmonger once said to me - up in the Bronx he said a guy has a bad experience with fish once, they're ruined for life.
GREENBERG: So clearly, you know, mackerel is ruined for you. You know - but mackerel I actually think is a - is a delightful fish if it's...
GROSS: Delightful, wow. OK.
GREENBERG: Yes. I do, I do. In fact, in your native Sheepshead Bay, there is a boat called the Brooklyn Six that goes out for mackerel for the two weeks that they're in our waters. And I love going out on the mackerel boat. I'll come back sometimes with 50 pounds of mackerel. I eat some of it super fresh and you can have it as sushi and it's delicious. Some of that I smoke, some of it I pickle. Some of it I do, you know, weird kind of - well, it's too long to go into (laughing). Suffice it to say, I do a lot with mackerel. I think it's a good fish - also very high in Omega threes - maybe the highest of all the fish that we eat out there.
GROSS: So we should talk about salmon because that's one of the main fish - one of the three fish you write about in the book.
GROSS: Sockeye salmon - wild salmon from Alaska...
GROSS: ...Which we export a lot of (laughing).
GROSS: So why - salmon is such a popular fish. Why are Alaskans exporting so much wild salmon because wild salmon is very prized, isn't it?
GREENBERG: Wild salmon is very prized. Part of it has to do with the history of Alaska and its proximity to Asia. Long before Americans were really, as I say, hip to seafood, Asians were. And very early trade routes developed, particularly between Japan and Alaska. But as people started opening their doors to Alaska and Asia, it wasn't just the Japanese. Now it's the Chinese. Now it's the Koreans. So there was this sort of natural conduit. But a weird thing is that a certain amount of Alaska salmon gets caught by Americans in Alaska, sent to China, defrosted, filleted, boned, refrozen and sent back to us. How's that for food miles?
GROSS: Confusing. Why is that happening?
GREENBERG: Mostly because we don't want to pay the labor involved in boning fish. And I think that - actually - well, another thing is that more and more of that fish that used to go make that round-trip is actually staying in China because the Chinese are realizing how good it is, much to our detriment I would say.
GROSS: So when Alaskan salmon is sent to China to be de-boned and then it's sent back here. It's frozen twice because it's frozen on the way to China.
GROSS: Then it's frozen on the way back to the states from China.
GREENBERG: Yes, yes.
GROSS: I thought - I've been told that you do not re-freeze meat, chicken or fish.
GREENBERG: I wouldn't. I think that probably most of the time, this is done under sanitary conditions and so it's permissible. I think it's really home chefs that are discouraged from that. But still when you double freeze something, you know, every time you freeze a piece of fish, you more or less rupture the cell membranes if you don't freeze it quickly enough. And then when you re-freeze it and freeze it again, any cell membranes that weren't, you know, ruptured the first time around have a chance of being ruptured again. So that double frozen salmon you get can have a kind of flaccid, unpleasant texture to it, which is why sometimes there's an inconsistent nature to Alaska salmon.
GROSS: Isn't it expensive to ship the salmon back and forth like that, even though the labor is cheaper?
GREENBERG: The labor is so much cheaper that it makes the shipping cost effective. And actually, when you ship things via freighter frozen, the cost per mile is relatively low compared to say air freighting or train travel or, you know, truck freighting.
GROSS: So if we buy what we think is wild Alaskan salmon, do we know if it's been frozen, shipped to China, de-boned then re-frozen and sent back to the states?
GREENBERG: We don't always know. I tend to focus on supermarkets where I kind of trust their seafood sourcing and traceability issues. And I do buy it frozen because, you know, there's only this very small window during which time - wild salmon is available fresh. Right now, actually. This very month of July is the most beautiful month for fresh wild Alaska salmon. Get beyond June, July, August and you're - really only should be buying frozen salmon.
GROSS: So when you say you should buy frozen salmon most of the year - are you referring only to wild - domestic salmon?
GREENBERG: Yes. I am talking only about wild salmon, should you buy it frozen out of season. The reason being is that it's going to be frozen anyway. I sometimes will go to a supermarket in January and I'll see fresh wild Alaska salmon sitting out there on ice. And I just shake my head at it because I know if it's January, there's a very little chance that that fish is fresh. All of the salmon, nearly all of the salmon, when it comes into the processing plants in Alaska gets immediately frozen. And that's great because if you freeze a fish right out of the water, it will be of the highest quality that you can get out of a frozen product. So when you go to the supermarket in January, don't go to the fresh seafood counter for your salmon, go to the frozen bins and get those nice vacuum-packed Alaska salmon things. They're just going to be of higher quality if you can defrost them carefully in your refrigerator.
GROSS: OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Greenberg and his new book is called "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk more about fish. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Greenberg, author of the new book "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood." And he focuses on salmon, oysters and shrimp. And in telling their story, he tells the larger story of the endangerment of American seafood. Let's move on to shrimp.
GROSS: When I was growing up, shrimp was a luxury food. Like, a shrimp cocktail with a few jumbo shrimp, that was, like - that was a very special-occasion kind of food because it was expensive. And shrimp were a delicacy. And now it's like, all-you-can-eat shrimp. Join us at the shrimp bar. Like, how did shrimp go from being this, like, expensive delicacy, to being this, like, you know, all-you-can-eat thing?
GREENBERG: Well, you know, I can first say that I had the same experience in my family. And, in fact, my in-laws had almost broke up their family, which is partially kosher and partially not, because the site of Thanksgiving got changed to a place that would not permit shrimp cocktail. So anyway, that's just an aside.
GREENBERG: But the breach was mended, and now shrimp cocktail is back in our lives. But the answer to the question of why shrimp is just everywhere now is very simple. It's aquaculture. And it has to do with one individual in particular, Motosaku Fujinaga, a Japanese aquaculturist who broke open the shrimp world somewhere just after World War II. He was an idealist. He had this idea that we could farm the seas and that we could feed everyone that way. And also, though, he probably was interested in making something that was profitable. There was a dish at the time in Japan called dancing shrimp. And it was made out of something called the Kuruma prawn. It was a live shrimp that you dipped quickly in sake and then popped in your mouth while it was still wriggling. So obviously, for a dish like that, you need to have a good supply of live shrimp. So he figured out, over the course of the '40s and the '50s, how to domesticate those shrimp. And as I say, Fujinaga was - he was an idealist. He was an internationalist. He trained many foreign students. He published his PhD dissertation in English, which in postwar Japan, was kind of a heresy. And then he trained all of these international students to farm shrimp and to develop his methodologies. And they fanned out all over Asia. And now, after 40 or 50 years of this Fujinaga diaspora, we have a situation where 90 percent of our shrimp is coming from abroad. Half of that is farmed, and most of it is coming to us from Asia.
GROSS: Is that why you say shrimp tell the story of the unraveling of the entire American seafood economy?
GREENBERG: Yes, very much so. Shrimp were kind of like - I call it the Manchurian crustacean. They slipped in as this...
GREENBERG: They've just now been activated.
GROSS: (Laughing) "The Manchurian Candidate" reference.
GREENBERG: Yeah, exactly. Sorry, you know, I'm dating myself. But the shrimp slipped into our economy and opened up this conduit to Asia and to Asian aquaculture. And I should note, you know, I am not anti-aquaculture. And China is the largest fish and seafood farmer in the world by far. But once we had those trade routes opened to China and to Southeast Asia, we started looking at other products. So, for example, this is a funny story. That pingasius catfish I mentioned earlier - so there was a whole trade war in the United States where Americans didn't want Vietnamese pingasius being called catfish because it was messing up our domestic catfish market. Well, then, what the Chinese did is they brought over some American catfish and farmed them in China and then sold them back to us at lower the price than what we've been selling our own catfish for.
GROSS: And a lot of our shrimp comes from Vietnam now.
GREENBERG: It does. Although, you know, for the purposes of the book, I liked Vietnam because - and I visit Vietnam in the book because it's an interesting country. It's a dynamic country. But I will say, the largest shrimp producer for us right now is Thailand. And I'm not sure if you've sort of followed the news lately. But it turns out, a certain amount of the shrimp that come to us from Thailand seem be to coming to us, in part, as the result of slave labor.
GREENBERG: So shrimp are fed wild fish, ground up and turned into meal - trash fish, they're called - just random fish that are trolled up in the South China Sea. Turns out, a large amount of that fish is being caught by boats in which the labor onboard are slaves. And that fish gets ground up, sold to the Thai shrimp farms.
GROSS: Well, that's just very disturbing about the slave labor. You just don't know what you're buying, usually.
GREENBERG: You don't. It's hard. I mean, there are...
GROSS: And especially in a restaurant, you don't know.
GREENBERG: The restaurant is a real problem. (Laughing) You know, I sometimes torture waiters and send them back multiple times to figure out what exactly was the providence of the fish that they're serving me. And the poor servers don't know. Sometimes the managers don't know. And sometimes even the buyers don't know. Seafood fraud is a huge, huge problem. There was a recent report by the nonprofit group Oceana that implied that, you know, somewhere, anywhere - it depends where you are in the country - but 20 to 70 percent of seafood sold in restaurants may be mislabeled - in other words, not even have the correct species identified with it. And to me, you know, all this trading, back-and-forthing, you know, wholesaling stuff through China, that's part of the reason that we have this fraud problem because the traceability is so difficult.
GROSS: Another problem that you write about with shrimp is that - you flew to Vietnam to research this. And you write about how there were various bacterial infections that killed off a lot of shrimp, but also killed off the ponds that the shrimp were being farmed in.
GREENBERG: Yes. Well, so shrimp are ancient creatures. And they don't really have much of an immune system, if any at all. So they're very prone to disease. And there have been wave upon wave of epidemics. First there was vibriosis. Then there was white spot, then yellowhead. Just recently there's a disease called early mortality syndrome, which wiped out a billion dollars of the Thai shrimp crop. What happens when this kind of disease outbreak occurs is, oftentimes, you can't really clean up your pond. And so what they'll do is they'll abandon the pond, chop down more mangrove forests - and I should add that mangroves are critical to coastal protection and also to the propagation of wild seafood. So they'll cut down mangrove forests that are just right on the edge of the ocean, dig more ponds, grow shrimp there until the next disease infection breaks out. Now, many countries have gotten better and better at this. There are these biofloc systems out there that now seem to allow them to clean ponds more efficiently. And there's not as much pond abandonment as there used to be. On the other hand, there are tens of thousands of little shrimp producers all over Southeast Asia. And to monitor them and to understand exactly what it is they're doing is actually impossible. So, you know, to me, that's a huge hole in trying to certify and ensure that everything out there is green and safe.
GROSS: Paul Greenberg will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Paul Greenberg, author of the new book "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood." It uses the stories of shrimp, salmon and oysters to explain what's gone wrong with our seafood economy. Greenberg is also the author of the bestseller "Four Fish: The Future Of The Last Wild Food." You point out an interesting focus group and I don't know how big or significant this focus group was...
GROSS: But it was a focus group about fish. And people were complaining they don't like fish that tastes fishy - that they don't like how fish stinks up the kitchen when they cook it. And so they're afraid to like, buy and cook fish. And therefore rely on fish that you can just like - this process to be microwavable or it's like frozen fish, you know, that's already breaded or whatever. How significant was that focus group?
GREENBERG: Well, I go to these conferences of IntraFish and it was industry professionals saying this was in fact actually multiple focus groups. That whenever they try and figure out why it is that Americans won't eat more seafood, the three issues that come up again and again are I don't know what to do with it, I don't want to touch it and I don't want to it smelling up my kitchen. And I heard that across the industry from many, many different people. And I actually think that, for example, that tilapia is a direct result of that kind of research. You think about tilapia - it doesn't really taste like anything and it doesn't really smell like anything and you can do anything with it that you want. And now tilapia has gone from completely unknown - in fact, an aquaculturist I knew said that the first time he heard the word tilapia, he thought it was a stomach disease. But anyway, tilapia has gone from a completely unknown fish to being the number four most-consumed seafood in America. And almost all of it is imported and most of it is from China.
GROSS: Well, something about tilapia - I mean, I buy tilapia because I guess I'm one of those people - I don't - I'm not a very good cook. I like - if there's a lot of splatter and I'm cooking fish, it does really, like, smell thing's up a little bit.
GREENBERG: Smells up your kitchen (laughing).
GROSS: And, you know, I'm not very good at dealing with that.
GROSS: And like - Tilapia is one of those fish like - you can't - you can't harm it. Like, you can overcook it. You can...
GROSS: ...do whatever you want to it and it survives intact.
GREENBERG: Yes. Yeah, I mean, listen - tilapia, in a big global sense, tilapia is kind of a good aquaculture product in that, you know, it grows really fast, it doesn't require a lot of feed. You don't have to feed it fish. You can feed it all kinds of things. But I might say rather than calling it fish, I'd say - like instead of having chicken, maybe have tilapia, not instead of having salmon have tilapia. And the reasons are twofold. One is that, you know, it doesn't really have a connection to our local health of our coasts. But the other thing is that tilapia do not offer - hardly any - I don't think they offer any omega three benefit at all. People assume that if they are eating fish that they're getting omega three's. And it's just not true - things like tilapia don't have them. Unfortunately Terry, your mackerel is where your omegas are. So there are many great things that have omega threes. You know, mussels turn out to have great amounts of omega threes. Unfortunately, 90 percent of the mussels we eat in this country - or more than 90 - are coming from abroad. But they're coming from Canada mostly and New Zealand, places that I think are pretty good with regulation. But mussels are a great, great seafood that we should be eating more of.
GROSS: So one of the three types of seafood that you write about in your new book is oysters. And you point out that New York City used to be a capital for oysters and now it's illegal to harvest oysters in New York City's waters. Why?
GREENBERG: Well, New York City was the capital of oyster culture, up until about the 1890s. And Mark Kurlansky - he was saying to me that it used to be if you were going to New York, people would say to you oh, you're going to New York? Enjoy the oysters. That was just (laughing) you know, what New York was known for. But two things happened. You know, there's always kind of a one-two punch when it comes to seafood eradication. The first punch was delivered long before our grandparents were born - when the Dutch came here, they found New York City literally ringed with trillions and trillions of oysters. So many oysters that, you know, the average oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day per gallon...
GROSS: What does that - what does that mean?
GREENBERG: It means that a gallon of water - or 50 gallons of water would actually pass to the siphon of an oyster, through its whole body, and it sifts out algae and other things in the water, basically clearing the water. It's like having a little pool filter, only it's an oyster. Once upon time, when there were trillions of oysters in New York waters - New York City waters - they would turn over the entire water column in the course of a few weeks. So it was like constantly - we had a giant pool filter for New York. I mean, it was amazing.
GROSS: Can I just stop you? So what happens to the stuff that they're filtering out? Where does that go?
GREENBERG: What oysters live off of is algae. And that's mostly what they're - they metabolize that. In fact, actually omega threes, we always associate those with fish, but omega threes are actually synthesized by - by microalgae, by phytoplankton. And oysters will eat that, mussels eat them, claims eat them. It becomes, you know, part of their musculature and part of their energy system. So once they filtered out the water and they continue to filter the water, it's a kind of self-enforcing kind of thing. The water stays clean, more oysters can grow. And more oysters filter and the water stays clean. It's a great feedback loop.
GROSS: But - but the oysters weren't good at filtering out raw sewage (laughing).
GREENBERG: No, they were not good at filtering -- but let's back up a second. Up until 1820 - in New York - most of the oysters we ate were wild. But the Dutch, and then English after them, went crazy with oysters and mined them out to the point that the natural reefs collapsed. But oysters - because all they need to grow is algae were very easy to farm. And so oysters started being chucked around from bed to bed, even as far south as the Chesapeake, to make up for the lost wild oyster reefs. So we had a huge oyster industry in this country. I think we - we harvested like 2 billion pounds of oysters per year - similar, actually, per capita to what we do in terms of shrimp. So all that was good - oysters were booming in New York, the farming industry was great. But then, you know, the population just grew and grew. We actually switched over from having outhouses, which kind of in a way were better for oysters because when you pooped into a hole, that stuff would filter through the soil before it hit the water column, but when you had a sewage system that directly rooted sewage directly into the water, that's when people started getting sick. And so you had outbreaks of hepatitis. You had outbreaks of cholera - huge, huge problems. And so eventually by the 1920s, the last oyster beds of New York City were closed by the Department of Health.
GROSS: Because they traced all of these epidemics to oysters?
GREENBERG: Back to oysters. So once oysters no longer could be eaten in New York, then it was like a pollution free-for-all. Then it was like - let's just throw everything in the water. So that's when the era of modern industry comes in and you start seeing, you know, heavy metals like chromium going into the water, PCBs as a - you know, PSBs are this chemically neutral thing that is used as a coolant. And they were dumped en masse into the waterways. All of these kinds of persistent organic pollutants made it into the water column and people just abandoned New York as a food source. It was like well, this is just too gross. We're not going to eat from it. And the ecology declines along with it. So it's the reverse of the positive feedback loop we had at the beginning, with oysters cleaning the water and clean water allowing more oysters - if you see what I mean.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Greenberg and he's the author of the new book "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood." Let's take a short break and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're talking about seafood. My guest is Paul Greenberg, the author of the new book "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood." I have to say that the low point of your book...
GROSS: ...In terms of like, this is just horrible - you were describing how oysters used to thrive in an area that became known as Dead Horse Bay...
GROSS: ...Because that's the site where the bodies of old carriage horses were dumped after salvaging what could be used for glue and gelatin.
GREENBERG: Yes, well, the city is dotted with places like that, you know, with those kinds of names. But it's also dotted with the names of lost seafood. You know, Sheepshead Bay is actually named - people think it's named after the head of a sheep 'cause somehow maybe it's shaped like that - but it's actually names for a fish called the sheepshead porgy. And if you look at a sheepshead porgy, it has big kind of gnashing chompers. And what did they use those chompers for? Eating oysters.
GREENBERG: So - yes - so...
GROSS: I remember - so this is fascinating.
GREENBERG: So, yeah, so - I mean, it used to be you would fish in Sheepshead Bay and what you caught in Sheepshead Bay - surprise, what sheepshead. Take away the oysters, you're going to lose the sheepshead. So, you know, these are these weird scars - we have - instead of Sheepshead Bay, we now have Dead Horse Bay, if you see what I'm saying.
GROSS: So because New York's waters became so polluted, it became illegal to harvest oysters because they were just very unhealthy, but were oysters continuing to survive in spite of all the pollutants in New York City waters?
GREENBERG: So, you know, they're kind of like the last survivors from the apocalypse, you know? They're sort of scattered around little places, you know, lurking, waiting for their return. But recently, you know how they're rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge? I don't know if you saw that, but they're rebuilding Tappan Zee Bridge which spans the Hudson. And they sent down a diving crew to check and see that - basically to make sure there was no wildlife they would be disturbing when they put in these new stanchions. Well, surprise, they found tons and tons and tons of oysters down there below the Tappan Zee Bridge, which actually presents a real problem for the core and for everyone trying to redo the bridge.
So yes, oysters are coming back. They do still exist. Even in the two or three years I was researching this book, there's a place I went back to several times called Soundview in the Bronx. And the first time I went there, we saw an oyster here, we saw an oyster there. But then a couple years later after hurricanes Irene and Sandy, both of which - hurricanes have a tendency to distribute oyster larvae and can actually be good for oysters. When we went back to Soundview the last time I went there, there are radial tires tossed into the bay all over the place. Well, it turns out that radial tires are just perfect for oysters. And it was like these beautiful rings of oysters completely encrusting these radial tires. So it was kind of a weird Mad Maxy sort of moment.
GROSS: So one of the things you did for research for your book is to dive in Jamaica Bay and in the New York City area and look for oysters. You found an oyster and you ate it. I mean, you just told us how polluted these waters have been, how you can't eat the oysters there. Why did you eat it anyways?
GREENBERG: Well - and truthfully when I did the dive in Jamaica Bay, we didn't find any oysters. It was rather in the Bronx in Soundview that I ate the oyster.
I ate the oyster kind of on a dare to myself. I was really irritated with the way that laws have been passed - not just in New York City but around our coasts, that make shellfish culture harder and harder. Like, for example, in New Jersey several years ago, they had a great oyster restoration project. And they used this statute called attractive nuisance, which is basically saying that if something in the environment can lure an unsuspecting person into endangering themselves, like eating an oyster, than it presents a liability. So the state ordered New York/New Jersey Baykeeper to haul up all of these oysters and throw them in the garbage. And I was just - you know, over the years of hearing story like this - story after story, I kind of almost at the oyster in Soundview in protest. And I should say very clearly, you folks at home, don't try this at home. This was done by a professional writer, so...
GREENBERG: But no, I - so, seriously, I mean - I actually hesitated to even put it in the book because, you know, I don't think people should be eating oysters out of New York waters. It's a definite no-no. But I was curious and as I say, I don't really have too much to lose. And I didn't get sick, but not long afterward, somebody from the Hudson River Foundation who I had regularly gone out to the grounds with got a cut in Soundview Beach - cut himself on a rock and got a horrible, horrible, horrible bacterial infection. So that was enough warning for me to never ever eat a New York oyster from New York City waters.
GROSS: OK. Good luck with your writing career.
GREENBERG: Well, you know how it goes. I mean, I'm branching out, new media.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Greenberg and he's the author of the new book "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood."
So, you know, you've told us about why Americans are eating more and more seafood from other countries and why we're also exporting a lot of seafood to other countries in spite of the fact that we're importing so much seafood. Another statistic that you point out is that most people now buy their fish in supermarkets - whether it's the health-food supermarket or the old-fashioned supermarket - fish sellers have more or less disappeared. You say in the early '80s, fish markets and individual fishmongers controlled 65 percent of the seafood trade and now it's 11 percent. What happened?
GREENBERG: Well, I can tell you exactly what happened in my neighborhood. I live down in lower Broadway, actually a block or two from ground zero. And when I first moved in, and, you know, I moved in mostly for a woman and also for the real estate, but I went down towards the river and I stumbled upon the Fulton Fish Market. It was 2005 and there it was - this incredibly interesting, vibrant market. When I went back to visit it again a few months later, it was gone. It had been banished to an outpost of the Bronx. And, in fact, talking to a fishmonger up there, he said to me, you know where they put us? And then he shoved his hand into his arm pit - he goes, that's where they put us, up there. So, you know, we don't want fish markets in our viewshed. We don't want to smell them. We don't want to look at them. And so they have really been banished from the center of our cities and sequestered to a corner of our supermarkets. This is a process that aids all of the facelessness and commodification of seafood.
It's also - because supermarkets rely on mass distribution systems of often frozen product, it means that the relationship between coastal producers of seafood is broken. And so it's much easier for them to deal with the Ciscos of the world or these large purveyors that use these massive shrimp operations, say in Thailand or China, than it is for them to deal with the kind of naughty nature of local fishermen.
You know, some would say that that is just the natural progress, you know, the de-fanging of the natural world. But if that's the world we're headed for, maybe I'll just eat a few more New York oysters and be done with it.
GROSS: Well, Paul Greenberg, it's been so interesting to talk with you. Thank you so much.
GREENBERG: Thank you, Terry. It was really fun.
GROSS: Paul Greenberg is the author of the new book, "American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood."
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers attempts to make computers more human. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.