Why Are We Importing Our Own Fish?

Let’s think about and compare the claims of the capitalist supporter of the “efficiencies” of the fictional free market to a market based on the needs of human beings. ~Via

IN 1982 a Chinese aquaculture scientist named Fusui Zhang journeyed to Martha’s Vineyard in search of scallops. The New England bay scallop had recently been domesticated, and Dr. Zhang thought the Vineyard-grown shellfish might do well in China. After a visit to Lagoon Pond in Tisbury, he boxed up 120 scallops and spirited them away to his lab in Qingdao. During the journey 94 died. But 26 thrived. 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 any other country, 86 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, 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.

Photo

An American man in the 1890s with a pile of oyster shells.CreditBuyenlarge/Getty Images

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 microalgae that they filter from the water), a primitive form of oyster aquaculture arose up and down our Atlantic coast.

Until the 1920s the United States produced two billion pounds of oysters a year. The power of the oyster industry, however, was no match for the urban sewage and industrial dumps of various chemical stews that pummeled the coast at midcentury. Atlantic oyster culture fell to just 1 percent of its historical capacity by 1970.

Just as the half-shell appetizer was fading into obscurity, the shrimp cocktail rose to replace it, thanks to a Japanese scientist named Motosaku Fujinaga and the kuruma prawn. Kurumas were favored in a preparation known as “dancing shrimp,” a dish that involved the consumption of a wiggling wild shrimp dipped in sake. Dr. Fujinaga figured out how to domesticate this pricey animal. His graduate students then fanned out across Asia and tamed other varieties of shrimp.

Today shrimp, mostly farmed in Asia, is the most consumed seafood in the United States: Americans eat nearly as much of it as the next two most popular seafoods (canned tuna and salmon) combined. Notably, the amount of shrimp we now eat is equivalent to our per capita oyster consumption a century ago.

And the Asian aquaculture juggernaut didn’t stop with shrimp. In fact, shrimp was a doorway into another seafood swap, which leads to the next course.

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