Demand for seafood and over fishing is leading to dramatic declines in sea life despite large amounts of seafood being thrown away.

A 2015 study published in Global Environmental Change estimates that every year, almost half the seafood supply in the United States is lost, amounting to nearly 500 million pounds of protein waste. Globally, we lose 110 billion pounds. Considering the US Department of Agriculture recommends that the average person consume at least 1.7 ounces of protein per day, this lost seafood is enough to feed more than 2.7 million people for an entire year. Relatedly, this particular form of food waste further contributes to over fishing, which has of course precipitated a steep decline in marine wildlife populations.

Getting fish from sea to table involves quite a few steps in a standard supply chain, and unfortunately, each tends to produce waste. When it comes to commercial fishing, especially those operations still using bottom trawls or gill nets, there’s substantial by-catch, i.e., other species inadvertently caught and fish that don’t meet fishers’ size standards. While by-catch by law have to be returned to sea, most creatures unfortunately do not survive due to injuries sustained during capture. Ten percent of fishery catch is discarded worldwide, and a 2014 report from Oceana estimates that 17 to 22 percent of fish caught in the US are discarded before reaching port.

Beyond that, many fish spoil during transport – which is a bigger issue in developing countries where transportation tends to be slower and refrigeration less commonly available. Then, as those fish that make it are processed, off cuts (trash bound, non-filet-able fish parts) are generated. The stream of waste follows fish to seafood markets, and to our kitchens, once they surpass their fleeting prime.

The good news is, a number of organisations are working to improve fisheries’ sustainability, and they’ve made headway in the forms of electronic monitoring to ensure a given species is not over fished and innovative by catch reduction devices, and through consumer education about which seafood species are more sustainable. However, seafood waste is much more than a fishery problem—in North America, the majority of waste actually occurs on the consumption and distribution end of the supply chain. (Globally, North America and Oceania trash the most seafood—almost 50 percent of total catch is wasted.) So while it’s important to spend our dollars on sustainably caught fish and call for government action to impose laws to minimize by catch, it’s all a moot point if you end up throwing away half the fish you buy.

Part of the problem is that as consumers, we’re typically more drawn to those whole fresh fish kept on ice at grocery stores and seafood markets than we are to pre-packed or frozen seafood. Yet a USDA study found that retailers displaying fresh seafood cases with fish on ice generate more seafood waste than those that only sell prepackaged fish. It’s a complex issue—as mentioned, plenty of off cuts are discarded during the commercial preparation of fish fillets. The filet yield after whole fish are processed depends on the type of fish but runs as low as 30 to 35 percent. The rest of the fish (off cuts) are usually turned into low-value products like fertilizer or pet food, or else discarded completely.

Combating seafood loss

Nick Mendoza saw an opportunity in off-cuts trashed during the fish-filleting process. In 2018, he launched One for Neptune, using such abundance to create fish jerky out of rock-fish from the Pacific Northwest and from wild Alaska pollock, thereby turning a highly perishable product into one with a year-long shelf life. (Mendoza specifically chooses white fish as a canvas for his recipes, which he says makes it taste more like beef jerky than salmon would.) The idea behind Neptune Snacks was not only to reduce waste but also to create higher value for fishermen. But despite having produced 75,000 packets of fish jerky, One for Neptune currently works with only a single fishery for each species, and its demand barely makes a dent on the fishery’s offcuts supply. Mendoza’s been getting calls from other producers trying to offload their excess cuts, which speaks to just how much excess supply there is.

Jerkifying is hardly the only way to up-cycle – in 2004, Louis and Lisa Strauss realized fish skin can be tanned into leather, creating a more sustainable alternative to cow leather. It’s why they started working with tilapia aqua-cultures to obtain leftover skin from processed fish to create accessories such as wallets and coin purses, and founded Col de Mar. The Strausses says tilapia is one of the most aquacultured fish, adding that its larger-scale pockets create beautiful patterns. And that may be just the beginning for fish skin’s potential—its high collagen content renders it promising as a skin graft to treat burn injuries (currently, Iceland-based Kerecis has the only FDA-approved fish skin graft).

In remote places like Alaska, it is too expensive to ship off-cuts off to, say, pet food manufacturers, meaning those salmon skin and crab shells that remain after seafood is processed for human consumption are typically ground up and discarded back into the ocean, creating additional environmental harm. It’s why Tidal Vision started creating wallets out of salmon skin and eventually grew to become the country’s first chitosan producer. A derivative of chitin, chitsoan is a polymer with antimicrobial properties. It’s produced from crustacean shells and has a variety of uses, from wine-making to medical applications. Tidal Vision uses a closed-loop, zero-waste process to produce chitosan from leftover crab shells. Other companies are sourcing chitin to make bio-plastics for fish packaging – its antimicrobial properties are said to extend the shelf life of fresh fish by 40 percent. It’s a solution that not only attacks the seafood loss problem from two fronts but also addresses the critical issue of plastic discards in the ocean.

Funneling off-cuts is only one part of the problem, though. Liwei Liao is on a mission to put a dent in the huge amount of waste that fish markets generate when unsold fish deteriorates on ice. Liao runs a zero-waste seafood market and cafe called The Joint in Sherman Oaks, California. His secret? Dry-aging his fish well before it starts to deteriorate. Yes, just like beef, dry-aged fish can be kept for weeks, or even a couple of months. Even better, Liao reports, dry-aging improves taste. “When [customers] eat it at home, they think this is fresh fish,” he says.

The dry-aging process removes the blood and moisture from the fish, which is typically associated with “fishiness.” At the same time, it breaks down muscle tissue, thus tenderizing the texture. The dry-aged fish is also easier for an amateur cook to prepare, as it’s more forgiving of overcooking. Liao offers fish bones and heads to any customer who wants to make stock, and whatever’s not sold at the market is used at the cafe.

In New York State, Dock to Dish started the original community-supported fishery (CSF), connecting local fishermen directly to consumers. As in a typical CSA, members subscribe to receive a certain amount of seafood – an arrangement that tells fishermen just how much demand exists. Dock to Dish also operates on a “whole haul” basis, meaning all fish caught are distributed among all customers, thus circumventing the problem of by catch.

While Dock to Dish CSF shuts down operations during the winter, co-founder Sean Barrett and his team use that time to travel around the country to help struggling fish communities set up similar programs. In recent years, Barrett has shifted to connecting fisheries to local restaurants rather than directly to consumers, which allows fishermen to sell whole fish rather than fillets. “Restaurants have a 90 percent utilization rate,” says Barrett, “since they have the culinary skills to work with whole fish.”

Original source: https://www.sierraclub.org