About 10 million tons of fish—10 percent of the world’s total catch—are thrown back into the ocean every year, often dead or dying, according to an analysis by Sea Around Us, a research initiative at the University of British Columbia, as reported in the journal Fish and Fisheries.
Fish are discarded when they are too small to meet regulations, are damaged or otherwise have little market value, or are the “wrong” kind (what’s called bycatch), for example. This enormous waste—enough to fill about 4,500 Olympic-size swimming pools—occurs at a time when global fisheries have been subject to increasing strain due to rising demand for fish as a healthful source of protein.
The current figure is less than the amount discarded annually in the 1980s (about 19 million tons), but still is an increase from the 1950s (5 million tons). Discards may have declined over the past few decades due in part to improved fishing practices, but the investigators think much of the reason is simply that there are fewer fish being caught overall due to global fish stock declines—and thus fewer bycatch and other fish to toss back.
Other research cites the tremendous fish waste that occurs after harvesting, due to factors ranging from inadequate climate control to what’s discarded at stores and homes. According to a 2015 report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, by far the greatest seafood loss happens at the consumer level.
“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,” that paper concluded.
What to do: Action is needed by government, seafood processors, and retailers to institute policies that reduce unnecessary harvesting and production at the supply end. But consumers can do their part too—by better assessing the amount of fish they need and by purchasing more frozen seafood, which has a longer shelf life than fresh. Canned seafood is also a more sustainable option.
Also see Fish Fraud Runs Deep.