Nearly half of U.S. seafood supply is wasted

Part of the waste problem, Roni Neff says, is seafood's short shelf life. "It may be particularly challenging compared to other food items to get … seafood eaten or frozen before it decays," she says. (Credit: iStockphoto)

As much as 47 percent of the edible US seafood supply is wasted each year, primarily at the consumer level, researchers report.

The findings, published in the journal 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.

People in the United States and around the world are being advised to eat more seafood, but overfishing, climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and the use of fish for purposes besides human consumption threaten the global seafood supply.

(Credit: Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future)

“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,” says study leader David Love, a researcher with the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture Project at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future.

The study focused on the amount of seafood lost annually at each stage of the food supply chain and at the consumer level.

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Using data from many sources, the researchers estimated the US edible seafood supply at about 4.7 billion pounds per year; that includes domestic and imported product minus exported product. The amount wasted each year, they found, is roughly 2.3 billion pounds.

Of that waste, 330 million pounds are lost in distribution and retail, 573 million pounds are lost when commercial fishers catch the wrong species of fish and then discard it (a concept called bycatch), and 1.3 billion pounds are lost at the consumer level.

Enough protein to feed 10 million men

To illustrate the magnitude of the loss, the authors estimate this lost seafood could contain enough protein to fulfill the annual requirements for as many as 10 million men or 12 million women.

They also calculated that enough seafood is lost to close 36 percent of the gap between current seafood consumption and levels recommended by the 2010 US Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines recommend seafood consumption of 8 ounces per person per week and suggest substituting a variety of seafood for some meat and poultry. Achieving the recommended levels would require doubling the US seafood supply, the Johns Hopkins researchers say.

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Waste reduction has the potential to support increased seafood consumption without further stressing aquatic resources, says Roni Neff, director of the Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins. While some wasted seafood should be recovered for human consumption, she says, “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,” she says, “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.”

The researchers offer 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 to packaging seafood into smaller portion sizes to encouraging consumer purchases of frozen seafood.

Source: Johns Hopkins University