While reporting a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about the global fishing crisis in the 1990s for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, John McQuaid had an insight. The decisions people made at local supermarket seafood counters were triggering the collapse of fish populations around the world. Shrimp had gone from a niche product to a mass-market item thanks to the rapid proliferation of aquaculture in Asia, a trend that was destroying delicate coastal habitats there and ruthlessly undercutting American shrimpers. The scientific insights needed to manage fish populations, meanwhile, were routinely subverted by politics so that people could cash in on this chimerical fish boom. The popcorn shrimp or seared salmon on your dinner plate, in other words, mapped how the world works today.
Since then, McQuaid, who has also been a foreign correspondent, covered presidential campaigns, and investigated secret military contracting, has explored diverse topics as a science and environmental journalist, looking for similar “world maps” in which science, culture, markets and history intersect in everyday experience.
He found one in invasive termites from China that had invaded and were literally devouring the housing stock and infrastructure of New Orleans, at a cost of billions of dollars per year. The series, which delved into termite evolution and the emerging field of invasion biology, was a Pulitzer finalist and won awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Later, he explored the fields of structural engineering, storm surge wave modeling, and risk analysis to report that New Orleans was fatally exposed to hurricanes, collaborating on a series that predicted what would happen when Katrina struck a few years later. He worked on the paper’s Pulitzer-winning Katrina coverage, traveling to the Netherlands to look at that nation’s vastly-superior flood control techniques.
In 2006, he left The Times-Picayune and co-authored Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms (Little, Brown, 2006). Since then, he has written pieces for Smithsonian magazine about the terrible toll of mountaintop removal coal mining and, in another “world map” story, the global trade in cut flowers. He has written about the promises and risks of ocean aquaculture, which will mean lining our shores with giant underwater cages, as well as genetically-engineered salmon and other “frankenfoods.” His work has also appeared in Slate.com, Wired, The Washington Post and The Guardian, and blogs at Forbes.com, writing about the ways America got so dysfunctional and whether anything can be done about it.
He is currently working on a book about the evolution and future of the sense of taste, tentatively titled Gusto: Inside the New Science of Taste, to be published by Scribner.
McQuaid is a graduate of Yale. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife Trish and two children, Hannah and Matthew.
Contact: johnmcquaid at verizon dot net.