THE United States should be a very fishy country.
In all, we control 2.8 billion acres of ocean, more than any other nation. But despite all that ocean, nearly 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.
It gets fishier still: While the majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of what Americans catch gets sold to foreigners.
What all of this points to is a need to rethink the U.S. seafood system. The locavore movement has spurred on the production and consumption of food from local land beyond all expectations, but local seafood remains mostly a quaint curiosity.
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To be sure, the average eater in the Pacific Northwest is more aware than the average American about local seafood, given the importance of salmon to the region. But, the Seattle diner of today also has much less actual local salmon available to eat than a Seattleite of a century ago.
Re-localizing the U.S. seafood supply would have some very real benefits. On the health side, food safety standards on imported seafood are lacking.
Less than 2 percent of imported seafood is inspected. This is particularly relevant when it comes to shrimp, America’s most consumed seafood. In Southeast Asia, where the majority of the shrimp we eat is farmed, antibiotics are often used.
Antibiotics will continue to be an issue, especially after an outbreak of a new bacterial shrimp disease called “early mortality syndrome” caused our biggest shrimp provider, Thailand, to lose more than a $1 billion in revenue last year.
U.S. eaters should also be concerned about the ethical implications, after a Guardian news investigation revealed that part of the Thai shrimp industry might rely on slave labor to obtain fish meal for its farms.
On the environmental side, U.S. reliance on foreign seafood is putting serious pressure on ecosystems beyond our borders. A soon-to-be-released paper in the journal Marine Policy found that of the millions of pounds of wild seafood the U.S. imports, as much as 30 percent is caught illegally.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is one of the great scourges of ocean conservation and undermines managers’ ability to accurately care for marine resources. Buying stolen seafood directly contributes to the destabilizing of marine ecosystems around the world.
On an economic front, buying locally invests in seaside communities that have a professional interest in keeping the coast healthy.
Fish is one of the most-traded commodities on the planet. The average distance imported seafood travels to reach U.S. plates is a whopping 5,475 miles. Along the way, imported seafood changes hands multiple times. Every time seafood changes hands, a percentage is taken away from the people who caught it, forcing them to fish harder for a smaller paycheck at the end of the day.
Of course, there might not be enough fish in America to meet all of its needs. But this is part of my point. A reinvigorated local seafood movement would force Americans to confront the very real infrastructure problems we have created that keep our seafood books in the red.
Over the last century, Americans have drained away three-quarters of our nation’s original salt marshes — ecosystems upon which 70 percent of our commercial seafood species depend. Fishermen and coastal developers have removed 80 percent of our country’s wild oyster beds, and our oyster farming industry has plummeted to 14 percent of historical capacity. Major hydroelectric developers, as well as small farmers and petty industrialists of all stripes, have built 80,000 large dams and millions of other smaller obstructions on rivers and streams, eradicating runs of salmon, shad and herring that provided real food for the nation.
And our ocean policy makers have allowed our aquaculture sector to atrophy to the point where, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. now languishes in 15th place among seafood-farming nations, behind Egypt and Myanmar.
All of this can be improved, but the U.S. has to reorient itself toward the sea. Americans consume a scant 15 pounds of seafood a year in comparison with more than 200 pounds of industrially produced beef, pork and poultry. It should be a national priority to fix this imbalance. A fishier nation would be a healthier nation.
Paul Greenberg is the author of “American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood.” He is based in New York City.