Conservation news

Almost half of U.S. seafood goes to waste

  • A new study calculated the amount of seafood wasted at every step of the U.S. supply chain, from fishing vessel to table, between 2009 and 2013.
  • Of the country’s total annual supply of 4.7 billion pounds of seafood, the study found that roughly 2.3 billion pounds — or about 44 percent — went to waste each year.
  • That’s enough seafood to satisfy the annual protein needs of about 10 million men or 12 million women, according to the paper, or to fill the annual caloric needs of 1.5 million adults, according to the study.

Many wild fish stocks are under substantial strain, with overfishing being one of the primary stressors. In the U.S., the world’s second largest seafood importer, the government has recommended that consumers double the amount of seafood they eat for health reasons. Now new research shows that the country is squandering nearly as much seafood as it consumes, with about 44 percent of the seafood supply going to waste before it reaches consumers’ bellies.

“If we’re told to eat significantly more seafood but the supply is severely threatened, it is critical and urgent to reduce waste of seafood,” study leader David Love of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said in a press release.

Drawing on previous research and government reports, Love and three colleagues calculated the amount of seafood wasted at every step of the U.S. supply chain, from fishing vessel to table, between 2009 and 2013. Their study appeared online earlier this month in the journal Global Environmental Change.

The researchers began by estimating the country’s total annual seafood supply at 4.7 billion pounds, by subtracting exports from imports plus domestic production. Of the total, they found that roughly 2.3 billion pounds — or about 44 percent — went to waste each year.

A U.S. fish market. Photo by Kevin Harber via Flickr.

That’s enough seafood to satisfy the annual protein needs of about 10 million men or 12 million women, according to the paper, or to fill the annual caloric needs of 1.5 million adults, according to the study. Figured another way, the wasted food could fill 36 percent of the gap between current seafood consumption and levels recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The lion’s share of that waste — 51 to 63 percent — occurred at the consumer level, according to the study. That’s people throwing away an unfinished tuna sandwich or a fillet left too long in the fridge.

Bycatch—the unintentional capture of non-targeted species—accounted for a further 16 to 32 percent of the waste. And distribution and retail operations accounted for 13 to 16 percent, some of which, such as fish heads, bones, and innards, find their way into animal feed and fertilizer.

“While a significant portion of the loss could be prevented or recovered for human consumption, we do not intend to suggest that all of it could or should become food for humans,” the authors write. “Bycatch is generally best left in the water; some seafood loss is not culturally acceptable, marketable, nutritious or safe; and a portion of loss is also unavoidable.”

Graphic shows how seafood is wasted in the U.S. food supply chain, according to new research. Units are in billions of pounds. Graphic by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Nevertheless, the study emphasizes the economic, ecological, and health toll that seafood waste takes. “The loss exacts financial costs up and down the supply chain, and causes unnecessary losses to fisheries and other parts of our ecosystem needed for food security and our long-term survival,” the authors write, adding that “continuing to treat our aquatic resources as though they are limitless is unsustainable and detrimental to the environment and public health.”

The authors recommend a series of broad measures that governments, businesses, and consumers can take to reduce seafood waste. These include strengthening bycatch-reduction programs, marketing seafood in smaller packages, promoting the consumption of parts not typically eaten, such as soups made with fish heads, and encouraging consumers to buy frozen seafood

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