With experts around the world recommending increased fish intake for health reasons, is there enough seafood to meet our needs? The global seafood supply is already under strain due to overfishing, unsustainable aquaculture practices, habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and the sidelining of fish for uses other than human consumption.
Another threat to the supply—a staggering one—is waste. A study from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, looked at waste at every stage of the seafood chain—from boat to table—between 2009 and 2013. Of 4.7 billion pounds of seafood destined for U.S. markets every year (from both domestic and imported sources), 40 to 47 percent ended up as waste (about 2.3 billion pounds), the researchers calculated. The USDA defines “waste” as “the edible amount of food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reasons” and it includes losses due to factors ranging from inadequate climate control to what’s discarded at stores and homes.
Some of the losses occur early on—for instance, about 573 million pounds were lost due to fishing methods that catch unintended fish (what’s called bycatch), which are then thrown back to sea or otherwise discarded, presumably dying or dead. In one example given by the authors, about three-quarters of what shrimp trawling vessels catch in the Gulf of Mexico is bycatch like flounder, sole, and halibut, which are edible but discarded because they are not the intended catch. Fish are also subject to high levels of loss because they spoil easily. But by far, the greatest seafood losses (1.3 billion pounds) happened at the consumer level. All in all, the amount of seafood wasted, the researchers calculated, is enough to meet the protein needs of 10 to 12 million people for a full year.
“A portion of the loss of seafood is unavoidable, especially because seafood can spoil quickly compared to other foods, but continuing to treat our aquatic resources as though they are limitless is unsustainable and detrimental to the environment and public health,” the paper concluded.
What to do: It is largely up to government, seafood processors, and retailers to institute policies that reduce unnecessary harvesting and production at the supply end. But consumers can do their part also—by better assessing the amount of fish they need and by purchasing more frozen seafood, which has a longer shelf life, as well as canned.
Also see The Case for Composting.