There are plenty of fish in the sea. Plenty, also, in the trash.
Of all the food that Americans waste — and Americans waste a lot of food — it's the seafood that never gets eaten that should trouble us most. Few sources of nutrition, after all, are as coveted as fish. They're high in protein, and low in fat. Eating them is associated with all sorts of beneficial health outcomes. And yet, few foods are discarded so frequently.
Between 2009 and 2013, as much as 47 percent of all edible seafood in the United States went to waste, according to a new study from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF). And the majority of that is thanks to consumers, who buy fresh and frozen fish but never end up eating it.
In order to put the scale of seafood loss in the United States in perspective, consider what curbing it could mean for our collective diets. Conservative estimates suggest the 2.3 billion pounds of seafood squandered each year would be enough to provide enough protein for more than 10 million men or 12 million women — for an entire year. The calories, meanwhile, would be enough to feed 1.5 million adults for that long.
"It is critical and urgent to reduce waste of seafood," said David Love, a researcher with the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture Project at the CLF, and the study's lead author.
Not all of the fish that finds its way into the garbage is the fault of people who buy but never end up using it. As much as a third of seafood waste is due to a regrettable byproduct of fishing, known as bycatch, where large nets capture more than intended. Much of that is thrown back into the water, often after being injured or killed.
The graphic below, plucked from the study, shows where along the path seafood tends to disappear. Most of it — 1.4 billion tons of the 2.1 billion tons of edible fish that finds its way into the production process — happens after the fish has been delivered to restaurants, supermarkets and households.
The problem of food waste touches far more than merely our fish supply. In 2012, the most recent year for which estimates are available, Americans threw out some 35 million tons of food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That's roughly 40 percent of the country's food supply.
And food waste is not only vast, but growing. The 35 million tons of food discarded in 2012 is 20 percent more than the United States tossed out in 2000, 50 percent more than in 1990, and roughly three times what Americans discarded in 1960.
At present, Americans throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal and glass.
But fish is a particularly unfortunate thing to waste. The nutritional value of seafood is incomparable — it's likely of little coincidence that many of the places where people live the longest are fond of fish. Jane E. Brody, writing for the New York Times last year, chronicled the endless benefits of incorporating more sea-dwellers in our diets. The most convincing bit cites a landmark study from the 1980s:
Nearly three decades ago, Dutch researchers published a groundbreaking study in The New England Journal of Medicine. Intrigued by the extremely low death rate from coronary heart disease among Greenland Eskimos, the Dutch team followed 872 men aged 40 to 59 for 20 years and found that those who ate as little as one or two fish meals a week had a 50 percent lower death rate from heart attacks than those who did not eat fish.
The plea for people to eat more and waste less are, in many ways, interrelated. Fish, the researchers lament, is particularly prone to loss because it's especially perishable. But it's also prone to loss because people just aren't that into it.
Per-capita seafood consumption is about 14 pounds per year in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Spain, it's upwards of 90 pounds per year; in Japan, it's about 120 pounds per year.
"You have a population that is somewhat fish-averse … and we really don't take the opportunity to educate consumers about all the great attributes that go along with seafood, all the health and nutrition attributes, and we don't teach people how to prepare it," Christopher Lischewski, chief executive officer at Bumble Bee Foods, told the Wall Street Journal last year.
The combination of messaging about the benefits of eating fish and still underdeveloped culture of enjoying it could be coercing more fish purchases at the grocery store than actual meals at home. Food can only sit unused for so long.