Paul Greenberg: How American Seafood Can Change the World and What You Can Do

What Michael Pollan is to land-food, Paul Greenberg is to seafood. His books, which examine the way average consumers have feasted through what was once the ocean's bounty, have landed him on the New York Times bestsellers list. Greenberg's newest book, American Catch, paints a clear portrait of America's confounding import-export system for fish and seafood.

In his book, Greenberg details how America exports all of its fresh, wild-caught seafood, only to then import frozen, farmed varieties from around the globe to serve as our primary source of fish-based protein. The practice is so common that almost 90 percent of the seafood that we consume in the United States is imported and as the book states, often comes from "dubious sources."

We sat down to talk to Greenberg when he was in town last week about the current state of American seafood and what we can do to keep fish and seafood on our plates for the foreseeable future.

See also: A Coffee Date with Michael Pollan [Interview]

Hot Dish: American Catch tries to steer the focus back to American seafood. What is it specifically about American seafood that is so important and why should we focus on it?

There are a handful of countries that practice good fisheries management, science-based fisheries management. The United States happens to be one of them and while we have our failings, it's the easiest way to support science-based management. Also, I'm a patriot to a degree and I think that it's something to reward good governance.

There are exceptions of course, the most notable one being the cod fishery. We have not done a good job of our East Coast cod fish management and it is in decline. That's a situation where it might be better to buy it from Iceland or Norway where the cod stocks are in better shape and the management regime there seems to be better than the one we have here in the United States.

October has been designated National Seafood Month. How should we be celebrating responsibly?

Well, Americans really don't eat that much seafood on a per person basis, something like 15 pounds per person per year, compared to 200 pounds of land-food. I think that seafood is an opportunity for health. You know, you can debate the different studies, but I think that a seafood-centered diet, where you're getting most of your animal protein from seafood, in my mind, is a better diet than a land-food based diet.

But then of course people will say, "What do we do when we eat up all of the fish in the sea?" I think that's where aquaculture will clearly be part of our seafood future and needs to be a part of our seafood future. Some people have problems with farmed fish, but if you compare it to land-food meat production, if you look at cattle or if you look at lamb, those two are extremely carbon intensive, whereas farming seafood is not particularly carbon intensive and so there is a real opportunity to change the footprint of our protein.

The different types of seafood can be confusing for consumers: sustainable as opposed to non-sustainable, farmed versus wild caught, and imported versus local. What are some key things for people to keep in mind when it comes to buying seafood?

Sourcing locally is often a good thing to do. If the fishery in question is well managed, then there's no reason that you shouldn't be eating locally and I think it ties people psychologically to their immediate eco-system. My sort of pet theory is that if you're keeping local fisheries working, you're keeping people on the water who have a vested interest in protecting it. I'm big into local fisheries these days.

Beyond that, there are some broader distinctions that can be made, especially if you're talking about marine eco-systems. Eating lower on the food chain is a good thing to do, both ergonomically and economically. Mussels, kelps, and anything that is a filter based feeder is generally going to be better for the environment. Of course here you have your zebra mussels and your quaga mussels which aren't exactly seafood and you certainly don't want any more of those, but on the coasts we certainly could use more shellfish aquaculture and kelp and seaweed aquaculture.

Other things that are lower on the food chain are things like herring and anchovy, which are often fed to farmed salmon, you could be eating those directly. You can eat the larger fish as well, but they need to be well managed. You can look at NOAA's Fish Watch program which keeps track of different stocks, or you can use the Monterey Bay Aquarium or Blue Ocean Institutes [now the Safina Center] guides which also give you some guidelines. There are a lot of sources out there to help you choose your fish, but I think that this principle of eating locally and lower on the food chain, those are the two things that work across the board.

When you talk about eating lower on the food chain, things like anchovies, you've got some people who are completely fine with that, but the majority won't touch them with a 10-foot pole. How do you change their minds, and are there any good pointers that you can give?

A good place to start is your local cisco, which is a fish that's native to this area. I was speaking to a local speaker and he was telling me that mostly ciscos are harvested for their roe and that their meat, which is very good, is often shipped out of state and turned into gefilte fish. It's not a particularly bony fish, you can get a clean fillet out of it, so I think that's an abundant, local fish that makes its own case as a good fish to eat both culinarily and ethically.

There are certain species, especially here in the Midwest, that are difficult to find. What other types of seafood do you suggest people buy outside the typical realm of shrimp, salmon, and tuna?

I'm a big fan of American farm-raised catfish, although it has to be stated that American catfish farmers are partly responsible for introducing Asian carp to this country back in the 1970s, but you can't undo that.

American farm-raised catfish is nice because it actually creates wetlands. Ponds for catfish are good places for birds and the fish are fed mostly a vegetarian diet so you're not running into these issues of where you're spending more fish, you know, using two pounds of fish to get one pound of produced fish.

I'm also a big fan of the Alaska salmon fisheries, especially sockeye salmon. I'm often asked questions from mothers with kids or pregnant mothers, what can they eat? So then you kind of have to combine sustainability issues with toxicology issues and sockeye salmon are particularly good on both fronts because they're high in omega-3s. And because sockeye salmon, unlike say a king salmon, eat mostly krill and zooplankton, they're eating lower on the food chain and they have a lower overall toxic load. They have a very low mercury load, so I often recommend that as a good fish to buy. [page] You often describe yourself as an avid sports fisherman, so how did you get involved in the whole sustainable seafood thing?

I had never bought fish before, at least up until about five years ago. Almost all of the fish I ate, I caught myself. It was only when I started writing for the New York Times and just sort of relaying my experiences as a fisherman, when people started asking me what kinds of fish they should buy. That's when I started frequenting fish markets more often trying to understand what they dynamics were behind fish markets.

When it comes to promoting the sustainable seafood market, should people be paying more attention to sustainability in the household, when they're ordering in restaurants, or are both equally important?

I've heard 70 percent of fish is eaten in restaurants outside of the home, but just ordering something isn't necessarily going to change the dynamic. What changes the dynamic of restaurants is if you start asking your waiter questions. If it's not a particularly conscious establishment, the waiter will go to the chef and the chef won't know and then the next day the chef will ask the owner or the supplier and eventually the kinks in that supply line get revealed and I think you can have a big effect that way.

Purchasing at home, you know, that's just your family, although I do believe in right-practice, you know, just like Buddhists speak of right-speech, and that when you speak "rightly," out of kindness and generosity, your being is in a better place. If you eat correctly, you're making a better space for yourself.

In your first book, Four Fish, you wrote about the primary menu fish of the day: cod, salmon, tuna, and sea bass. Have you seen any major changes in menus since then?

There are a few things I've noticed. Shellfish, you know, oysters are just continuing to surge. The buck-oyster special, which was something of a rarity when I was working on Four Fish, is now somewhat commonplace in my hometown of New York, which I think is really positive. I also see a lot less Bluefin tuna on the menu and that could be the result of my having written about it and other people having written about it.

I've certainly seen more aquaculture species come online and get higher exposure. Certain new fish are starting to enter the marketplace through aquaculture that we haven't seen before, like cobia. We're seeing more barramundi than ever before and wild salmon is continuing to have a good place in the market. You know, another good thing that's happening is that a lot more wild salmon is getting directed back to the United States as people start to get a taste for it. They're starting to seem to think that it's worth paying a little extra money for wild salmon.

If you were all of a sudden going to open your own restaurant, what would be the "four fish" that you'd opt for?

I'd definitely have mussels because obviously I want to make some money and because mussels are so affordable, you can have a pretty nice price point there. I'd like to find a way to put Asian carp on my menu. I was actually sort of toying around with the idea of starting a line of invasive seafood called Greenberg's Invasive and I'd have Greenberg's Invasive gefilte and Greenberg's Invasive lionfish fish-sticks and a whole line of invasives.

This whole plan of Greenberg's Invasives was mostly just writers trying to figure out a way of writing, but I like that idea. So, I'd have Asian carp, I'd have some lion fish, I'd have mussels, I'd have kelp noodles, and I'd still kick in a few wild fish. Truth be told, I quite like American red snapper, which has had its declines in some areas and it seems to be a little bit on the upswing, and if I could get some line-caught red snapper through this Gulf Wild program where you can trace back each individual fish, I'd be all for that because I'm really into the red snapper.

If you were to leave our readers with one last thought that would help change the national paradigm for seafood, what would that be?

People always ask me for the Michael Pollan line, you know, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," and the more I think about it, I think the closest that I can come is this: Eat American seafood. A much broader variety of it than we currently do. And mostly farmed filter feeders.

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