Why We Import Our Own Fish

The American Catch is often mysterious

Paul Greenberg
7 min readJan 25, 2023

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Salmon filet by Paul Greenberg, American flag by Robert Linder on Unsplash

In 1982 a Chinese aquaculture scientist named Fusui Zhang journeyed to Connecticut in search of scallops. The New England bay scallop had recently been domesticated, and Dr. Zhang thought the Stonington-grown shellfish might do well in China. His visit complete, he boxed up 200 scallops and spirited them away to his lab in Qingdao. During the journey most of them died. But 26 made it. Thanks to them, today China now grows millions of dollars of New England bay scallops, a significant portion of which are exported back to the United States.

As go scallops, so goes the nation. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, even though the United States controls more ocean than almost any other country, on any given year anywhere from 70–85 percent of the seafood we consume is imported.

But it’s much fishier than that: While a majority of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, around a third of what Americans catch is sold to foreigners.

The seafood industry, it turns out, is a great example of the swaps, delete-and-replace maneuvers and other mechanisms that define so much of the outsourced American economy; you can find similar, seemingly inefficient phenomena in everything from textiles to technology. The difference with seafood, though, is that we’re talking about the destruction and outsourcing of the very ecological infrastructure that underpins the health of our coasts. Let’s walk through these illogical arrangements, course by course.

Appetizers: Half Shells for Cocktails

Our most blatant seafood swap has been the abandonment of local American oysters for imported Asian shrimp. Once upon a time, most American Atlantic estuaries (including the estuary we now call the New York Bight) had vast reefs of wild oysters. Many of these we destroyed by the 1800s through overharvesting. But because oysters are so easy to cultivate (they live off wild micro-algae that they filter from the water), a primitive form of oyster aquaculture arose up and down our Atlantic coast.

The decline of oysters and the rise of shrimp — US imports and landings

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org