By Paul Greenberg
(A note from the editor: This is an excerpt from Paul Greenberg’s latest book, American Catch. Bestselling author of Four Fish, Paul Greenberg looks to New York oysters, gulf shrimp, and Alaskan salmon to tell the surprising story of why Americans no longer eat from local waters. Paul will be the keynote speaker for our annual event Bubbles & Bivalves on May 21st. Stay tuned for details!)
Long before New York was New York, it was the Hudson River estuary. Though we moved here and made our livelihoods here, did we have to cut out the city’s seafood heart? Did we have to destroy twenty-one thousand of the twenty-five thousand acres of oyster-laden salt marsh our estuary once possessed? If you run the numbers, you find that this marsh would have been capable of producing all the seafood New York City would possibly need. This is true for waterfront communities all over our country, San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Boston, Washington, D.C. — these are all cities built on salt marshes and seafood nurseries. We have established dense populations in places of great biological wealth, decisions that have caused great damage to our marshland and the species that depend on that habitat. Is there not a way to share the intertidal, the place where oysters and humans meet?
As the New York restorers suggest, maybe there is a different way of doing business with the waterfront. We’re at a moment of unique opportunity. All over the United States a lot of money is about to be spent as sea levels rise and storm surges become more prevalent. In New York alone some $50 billion may be invested in the waterfront post-Sandy. Of course many people are salivating over the possibility of getting their hands on some of that money. There is no shortage of desire to move back into the intertidal, to rebuild things as they were, claim damages, get a share of the superstorm pie.
But, moving forward, maybe something else could be done with that $50 billion other than a simple patch and fix. Around New York discussions now percolate of a “Blueway,” a girding of living, biologically friendly infrastructure that would serve as a new kind of edge to the terminus of the city. And it is high time for such a development, not only for New York but for every place humans build their settlements on the coast. The ocean is coming at us in a way it never has before, and very soon we will be forced to profoundly renegotiate a truce between land and sea. For millennia the typical way the Eastern Seaboard and the Atlantic drew their treaty was by establishing a living, biologically dynamic border called a salt marsh, which was protective of the coast and productive of seafood. Underpinning it all was the natural architect called the oyster.