AMERICAN CATCH // the local food report

Did you know that up until 1928 the average New Yorker ate 600 local oysters a year? Local as in New York City local, and so common they were priced at a penny a piece?
Today of course all that's changed. There are still wild oysters in the shores off Manhattan, but no one wants to eat them—the waters they inhabit have been degraded by toxic waste and sewage waste and other unappealing human inputs. And so instead, New Yorkers eat oysters from places like here: Wellfleets and Hog Islands and Duxburys and other specimens from waters where oyster ecosystems are still functioning.

This shift is the focus of Paul Greenberg's new book—American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood. In it he profiles three fisheries—New England oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaskan salmon—to try to get to the bottom of a startling statistic he came upon a few years ago. The United States controls more ocean than any country on earth, something like 2.8 billion acres. Yet more than 85 percent of the seafood we eat is imported. 

At first, Paul wrote this off as a typical case of America taking more than its fair share of the world's resources. But then he discovered something else. We're exporting something like 3 billion pounds of seafood a year—high quality seafood, like New England lobster and sea scallops and wild Alaskan salmon. 

In American Catch he goes into why, and how this shift has affected the ecological health of our coastlines. Alex and I were lucky enough to get to get an early peek at the book—we met Paul when he came to Wellfleet for a talk last summer—and it's a fascinating read. The oyster chapter, in particular is full of great New England history and ecosystem facts, and much of it is full of cautionary tales for our local industry. Among other things, I learned that Manhattan's "Pearl Street" derives its name from a time when the road with paved with native oyster shells. And that oyster reefs make harbors more shallow, and can help stabilize a shoreline and soften the blow from storm surges like the ones that devastated New York and New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy.

The book is out now, and next week, Paul and his family are visiting the Vineyard. He'll be giving a reading and answering questions at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven on Tuesday, August 26th at 7pm. If you're on island, it'll be a fun night. If you can't get there, I highly recommend the book. There's still time for a little summer reading, especially when it's both informative and fun.

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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.