One-Third of Fish Caught Never Gets Eaten

CC BY 2.0. Mr. Gray

The latest report on the state of the world's fisheries paints a depressing picture of the seafood industry.

Did you know that one-third of all fish caught never makes it to a dinner plate? According to the latest report on the state of the world's fisheries, released yesterday by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a shocking 35 percent of global catches gets thrown overboard or rots before eating. This is a sobering number, considering the detrimental environmental impact of much of the world's fisheries, as well as the many people suffering from lack of food. The Guardian reports:

"About a quarter of these losses are bycatch or discards, mostly from trawlers, where unwanted fish are thrown back dead because they are too small or an unwanted species. But most of the losses are due to a lack of knowledge or equipment, such as refrigeration or ice-makers, needed to keep fish fresh."

Another depressing observation made in the report states that the number of overfished species has increased three-fold in the past 40 years; and that climate change is pushing many species out of warm tropical waters, where human populations tend to rely on them most, into cooler northern waters. This increases food insecurity for populations already struggling to feed themselves.

The number of wild-caught fish has largely remained stable since the 1980s, the report says, but farmed fish now represents 53 percent of all fish eaten worldwide. The problem with farming, though, is that it is highly inefficient. Carnivorous fish such as salmon require feed in the form of other smaller fish. Salmon has a feed conversion ratio of roughly 2-3 lbs of feed per pound of salmon. As Lasse Gustavsson, director of Oceana in Europe, told the Guardian, "Using 20m tonnes of fish like mackerel, sardines and anchovies to feed farmed fish instead of people is a blatant waste of food."

Plus, there are concerns about unnaturally cramped conditions for farmed species, as well as the risk of disease spreading, both within the aquaculture farms and into nearby wild populations. Deforestation of coastal mangrove swamps and the prevalence of modern human slavery within Asian fishing industries are other serious issues, too.

The FAO's fisheries reports have been criticized in the past for underestimating total catches by "failing to account for illegal fishing," but critics say that this one is more thorough.

Still, while the FAO does what it can to combat overfishing and colossal waste, it is up to consumers to make smart choices when at the fish counter. How does one do so?

1. Educate yourself. Not all farmed fish are bad, especially if they come from the U.S. or Canada, where the industry is more tightly regulated. Download a fish-buying guide from Seafood Watch, which is geared toward each state and will tell you which fish are the best choices, good alternatives, and important to avoid.

2. Smaller is better. Why feed small fish to the big ones, if you can eat them yourself? These tend to be richer in omega-3s and selenium. Eat at the bottom of the food chain in order to avoid chemical bioaccumulation, as well.

3. Look for unusual, U.S.-sourced species. So many great fish are exported because Americans aren't interested in eating them; people here tend to be fixated on shrimp, salmon, and tuna, but there's so much more out there. Expand your culinary horizons.

4. Farmed filter feeders are the best. Called the most ethical seafood, clams, mussels, and oysters don't require feeding and don't have the kinds of ethical concerns that other creatures do.

5. Eat local, seasonal catches. If you live near a body of water, find out what comes from there. Eat the species grown closest to home, rather than importing exotic species from the other side of the world. Join a CSF (community supported fishery) program if you can. Eat according to the season, as well. The Marine Conservation Society has a guide to seasonal fish-buying here.