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Originally published Friday, July 4, 2014 at 6:31 AM

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‘American Catch’: the ruination of our seafood resources

Paul Greenberg’s book “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood” tells the story of the degradation of U.S. fisheries and the country’s increasing reliance on foreign fisheries to feed its seafood habit. Greenberg appears Thursday, July 10, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Paul Greenberg

The author of “American Catch” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 10, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.

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Among the San Juan Islands, in the 1970s, you could catch as many bottom fish (Rock Cod) and salmon as you could eat... MORE
To bad the author didn't mention the fresh-water lakes and rivers.Maybe not as much pollution, but they are constantly... MORE


The United States has ruined many of its seafood resources, continues to do so and will likely keep doing so. In “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood” (Penguin Press, 306 pp., $26.95), author Paul Greenberg demonstrates this past, present and future by visiting and writing about three U.S. fisheries.

The tidal beds surrounding New York City once produced 1.4 billion oysters a year, but by the mid 20th century were buried in sewage and industrial pollution and lost as a food source.

Shrimping off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico is under assault by shoreline real-estate development, the effects of commodity agricultural upstream on the Mississippi River and by the oil and notoriety released by the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

Lastly, the Bristol Bay salmon fishery in Alaska, the largest sockeye run left in the world, is threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine, which, if permitted, would produce 10 billion tons of highly sulfuric ore in digging out the gold, copper and molybdenum there. Unless the acidic mine tailings are forever contained, the “most valuable salmon fishery in the world” is at risk.

Rather than attempt to fix these environmental problems and restore and protect fish habitat, Greenberg writes, Americans have turned to foreign markets to take up the shortfall in supply.

The result, says Greenberg, is that 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, even though the United States has jurisdiction over more ocean — 2.8 billion acres — than any other nation. At the same time, one-third of the American seafood catch is exported, much of it frozen by U.S. fishermen, then thawed and repackaged overseas and sold back to American consumers. He argues that this process spreads environmental damage and that only a small percent of imported seafood is inspected.

The author uses a technique journalists often employ — examining a specific and using that to expand on a larger subject. But given the extent of the U.S. holdings and the problems Greenberg has laid out, readers would be justified in questioning if the three fisheries he highlights tell the whole story.

And while Greenberg has admirable optimism that the environmental damage can be reversed, local fish markets restored and the seafood-trade balance righted, his offered solutions seem puny compared with the problems — not to mention the American consumer’s desire for affordable food no matter the source.

At one point, Greenberg confesses that there may be a Pollyanna edge to what he writes in his effort to combat reader fatigue with gloomy news about ecological damage. He realizes readers might detect a “dark void beneath our feet” despite his positive spin.

A more honest book might have plumbed that void, which is as discernible as Greenberg feared.

John B. Saul is a former Seattle Times editor who has taught journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and the University of Washington.

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