Study says U.S. consumers waste 1.3 billion pounds of seafood per year

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A fisherman in Piran, Slovenia, tends his nets. @bberwyn photo.

Discarded seafood could feed 10 million people

Staff Report

With food waste on the UN agenda this week, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future say that as much as 47 percent of the edible U.S. seafood supply is lost each year — mainly from consumer waste.

In the U.S. and around the world, people are being advised to eat more seafood, but overfishing, climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and the use of fish for other purposes besides human consumption threaten the global seafood supply.

“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,” said study leader David Love, PhD, a researcher with the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture project at the CLF and an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

By analyzing food waste at each stage of the food supply chain and at the consumer level, the researchers found that about 2.3 billion pounds of seafood are wasted each year, out of a total U.S. seafood supply of about 4.7 billion pounds.

That’s enough seafood to fulfill the annual protein requirements for as many as 10 million men or 12 million women, according to the researchers.

Some of the edible seafood supply is wasted as it moves through the supply chain from hook or net to plate, including about 330 million pounds in distribution and retail, and 573 million pounds when commercial fishers catch the wrong species of fish and then discard it (bycatch).

But the biggest amount of waste — 1.3 billion pounds — are lost at the consumer level.

Waste reduction has the potential to support increased seafood consumption without further stressing aquatic resources, said Roni Neff, PhD, director of the Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program at CLF and an assistant professor with the Bloomberg School of Public Health. She says that while a portion of the loss could be recovered for human consumption, “we do not intend to suggest that all of it could or should become food for humans.”

“It would generally be preferable for the fish that becomes bycatch to be left alive in the water rather than eaten, and due to seafood’s short shelf life, it may be particularly challenging compared to other food items to get the remaining seafood eaten or frozen before it decays,” she said. Instead, focusing on prevention strategies involving governments, businesses and consumers can reduce seafood loss and create a more efficient and sustainable seafood system.

The researchers offered several approaches to reduce seafood waste along the food chain from catch to consumer. Suggestions range from limiting the percent of bycatch that can be caught at the production level to packaging seafood into smaller portion sizes at the processing level to encouraging consumer purchases of frozen seafood.

Some loss is unavoidable, but the researchers hope these estimates and suggestions will help stimulate dialogue about the significance and magnitude of seafood loss.

The findings, published in the November issue of Global Environmental Change, come as food waste in general has been in the spotlight and concerns have been raised about the sustainability of the world’s seafood resources.

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