Paul Greenberg grew up in Connecticut and he learned to fish on Long Island. But it was during his family vacations on the Vineyard that he first encountered the beauty of a functioning ecosystem, where fishing was not merely a symbolic act.
“The Vineyard was the first place where we actually caught stuff,” he said. “I can remember going to Lobsterville Beach as a 10 year old, when there were these tremendous runs of weakfish, and just having these amazing surf casting experiences.”
But weakfish (also called squeteague) are among the species of fish that haven’t been seen around the Vineyard in many years, Mr. Greenberg said. Once a part of the fishing derby, weakfish are now only spotted rarely in these waters. Mr. Greenberg believes they may have succumbed to overfishing, or, indirectly, to the overfishing of smaller fish in the food chain.
“Every American fishing system is compromised,” he said.
And while the Vineyard is no exception, its relatively intact ecosystems and fishing culture were a major influence on his career as a writer.
Mr. Greenberg’s 2010 best seller, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, examines our relationship to seafood through the lens of four species: salmon, sea bass, cod and tuna. It tells the story of how, by 2010, our consumption of farmed seafood was about to surpass that of wild catches.
His newest book, American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, delves deeper into the global fishing industry. He will give a talk about the book on Tuesday, August 26, at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.
The U.S. owns about 2.5 billion acres of ocean, Mr. Greenberg said, but more than 85 per cent of the seafood Americans consume comes from abroad. At the same time, one third of the American catch is exported.
“What it really came down to was a discussion about the outsourcing of this country’s ecological infrastructure and the consequences that has for our health and for our environmental health as well,” he said.
As with Four Fish, American Catch focuses on just a few species. This time the main characters are eastern oysters, Gulf shrimp and Alaskan sockeye salmon. Each one represents “a specific American seafood era,” he writes, “and together they offer a view into the mistakes of our past, the complications of our present, and the hopes for our future.”
Mr. Greenberg’s passion for fish extends beyond writing. He has testified in the Senate against genetically engineered salmon, and is an outspoken opponent of Pebble Mine, a proposed gold and silver mine in Alaska that would disrupt the largest salmon spawning ground in the world. That issue makes up the third part of American Catch.
His professional writing career began when he was 16. “My writing life is very, very tied to Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. The first article he wrote for money was about fishing for bonito and albacore in the waters off the Vineyard. “Bones and Albies in the New England Surf” ran in New England Fisherman magazine and earned him $60.
Years later, after taking some time off from writing to develop TV stations in the former Soviet Union, Mr. Greenberg wrote a novel. When it was published, the Boston Globe asked him to write a feature. A Tale of Two Fish was his first “serious” article, and it focused on fishing on the Vineyard. It looked at the peculiar tendency of anglers to favor one species over another when two species (such as striped bass and bluefish) cohabitate.
The Vineyard is home to many fishing writers, especially in the summer, Mr. Greenberg said. He remembers early fishing experiences with Jack Koontz, and is a perpetual fan of John Hersey’s 1987 bestseller Blues, about bluefishing on the Vineyard. Dick Russell’s 2005 book Striper Wars tells the story of the recovery of striped bass populations, which had plummeted in the 1980s due to commercial fishing.
After a short break in young adulthood, Mr. Greenberg now returns to the Vineyard every year with his family. They usually aim for the last week in August, after the height of the tourist season is over.
“If it were up to me, I would prefer to go in July when the fishing is a little better,” Mr. Greenberg said. “But I’m always happy to be there.”
Paul Greenberg will speak about American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, 35 Main street, Vineyard Haven on Tuesday, August 26, at 7 p.m.