Is sustainable seafood still sustainable if you throw it away?

“[We] need to internally point fingers at ourselves…” -Michael Tlusty, Director of Research New England Aquarium

A comprehensive analysis of what it means to purchase sustainable seafood may well lead to some surprising and perhaps uncomfortable conclusions. Data I saw at the SeaFood Business Summit on Monday showed that 2.28 pounds of fresh finfish must be produced for every pound consumed. That’s a lot of waste created along the chain from fishery to fork.

Peter Tyedmers of the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University presented the data during a panel discussion titled “Food Waste Solutions” at the Seafood Expo North America (#sena14) in Boston. While loss occurs along the entire supply chain, Tyedmers’ data show the waste created after the point-of-purchase is significant. According to the study, for every pound of fresh fish eaten by the consumer, 1.67 pounds is purchased. As Michael Tlusty of the New England Aquarium said during the session, there is a “need to internally point fingers at ourselves.”

As sustainably-minded consumers (at least many of us like to give ourselves that moniker), we seem to spend a lot of time pointing fingers elsewhere.

During big picture discussions concerning sustainability and seafood, there is much hand-wringing and strategizing about how to encourage sustainable production in fisheries both at home and half a world away. Who should pay for it? Who should enforce it? Even when a fishery is deemed sustainable, there continues to be a significant amount of energy expended discussing how to make that sustainable production traceable through the supply chain to the point of sale. And then at the point of sale, many sustainably-minded consumers are quick to point out problems with ecolabels, while others express confusion and, ultimately, fatigue when confronted with an increasing array of third-party and private labels promising sustainability and traceability.

“It shouldn’t be so difficult,” we say. We demand improvements. We demand better.

And we should demand and get better, but we should also ask ourselves a more profound question: Is sustainable seafood still sustainable if you throw it away?

I eat a lot of fish, and I consider myself a fairly savvy seafood consumer at the fish mongers and at the restaurant table. Living on the coast of Maine, I nearly always have a plethora of fresh fish from which to choose. I can honestly say I do my best to make sure my purchasing power is supporting the types of fisheries I want to support–that is to say the majority of fresh fish I buy is sustainably fished and traceable.

After seeing Tyedmers’ data, however, I’m faced with a somewhat uncomfortable dilemma that calls into question many assumptions I make regarding sustainable seafood. That piece of frozen fish at which I usually look down the length of my nose? That piece of frozen fish, according to Tyedmers’ data, may well be the more sustainable choice than that gorgeous piece of fresh fish right next to it. As the data show, to eat one pound of frozen finfish, only 1.68 pounds needs to be produced (compared to over two and a quarter for fresh fish). Also, with frozen fish, nearly all of the waste occurs after the point of sale and not in the supply chain. That’s something we can pretty easily control. A need to internally point fingers at ourselves? I think so.

Fresh fish is the mainstay for white tablecloth restaurants and seafood consumers like me. We pride ourselves on selecting a beautiful piece of fresh, sustainable fish at the fish mongers and we applaud chefs who put fresh, sustainable fish on our plates. But the data presented by Tyedmers suggest that chefs who stake their claim on sourcing sustainable seafood perhaps should be promoting frozen fish. The data suggest that I should be looking at frozen fish (and dare I say canned fish?!) in a new light.

If you’re reading this and having a hard time imaging paying $28 for a seafood entree proudly promoted as “previously frozen” on the menu at a five star restaurant, you’re not alone. If you’re still having a hard time seeing yourself purchasing a frozen fish fillet over fresh fish at the grocery, there are are many consumers just like you. While I’ll be more closely watching some interesting developments coming in frozen seafood technology that are going to dramatically increase quality (e.g., ultra low temperature or ULT technology), I think it’s also important to emphasize that acting on Tyedmers’ data can stop short of avoiding fresh fish. To wit: Consider how much of the waste happens after you purchase the fish, and then look at your own buying and eating habits.

Buying smaller portions and keeping the shelf life of the fish you buy in mind are two very simple actions you can start doing today to make sure that you are wasting less and ensuring the sustainable seafood you go to great lengths to source remains sustainable even after the point of sale.


About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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2 Responses to Is sustainable seafood still sustainable if you throw it away?

  1. Pingback: Celebrating Previously Frozen Farmed Fish | Good Catch Blog

  2. Pingback: Celebrating Previously Frozen Farmed Fish

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