Seafood is essential to food and nutritional security, providing over three billion people with nearly 20% of their animal protein. Also known as aquatic food — including plants and animals grown in or harvested from the water — it is the main source of essential nutrients for many vulnerable communities around the world with little access to alternatives.

People fishing in Pântano do Sul, Florianópolis, Brazil
People fishing in Pântano do Sul, Florianópolis, Brazil. Photo by Cassiano Psomas/Unsplash

With the global population steadily increasing, seafood consumption has doubled in the last 50 years and is likely to double again by 2050. Over a third of fish stocks are already overfished and 60% are fished to their maximum potential (just over half of the seafood we eat is farmed while the rest comes from wild stocks). This has a high impact on the health of aquatic ecosystems.

Meanwhile, around one third of seafood is either lost or wasted.

In some regions, much seafood loss occurs during processing when a large proportion of the fish remains unused — the skin, bones and fish heads are often discarded. Known as by- or co-products, these parts can represent between 30 to 70% of the fish.

To maximize nutrition and value of seafood for all, it is vital that 100% of the fish is utilized — and it is arguably an ethical imperative, not just an economic one.

Fish parts discarded during processing

The issue of food loss and waste is already garnering attention: UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 looks to halve food loss and waste by 2030; and a new ocean action agenda put forward last December by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy also identified reducing seafood loss and waste as a priority area.

How to Reduce Seafood Waste and Loss

Before going into the details, it’s essential there is a shared understanding of the importance of preventing seafood waste and loss — particularly in processing . This could positively impact nutritional needs, deliver greater value from each fish, and in turn reduce pressure on our aquatic ecosystems. A first critical step is to agree on widely accepted definitions of loss and how it is measured.

Here are five ways to accelerate loss reduction, improve efficiency of nutrition recovery, and maximize the value of seafood:

1) “What Gets Measured Gets Managed”: Collect and Analyze Data.

There is a lack of up-to-date data — or a lack of data altogether — around food loss and waste in general, according to reports. To tackle this issue it’s essential to know where loss occurs, what types of loss (such as what parts of the fish) occur, and what the cause of loss is (for example lack of efficiency, lack of market, or difficulty in maintaining quality).

An important step is to understand the losses that take place in seafood processing. Tools such as the Food Loss and Waste Protocol enables companies, countries and cities to quantify and report on food loss and waste, providing a standardized methodology and best practices needed to close data gaps.

Collaboration between stakeholders is also needed to increase the value of data and offset collection costs.

2) Share Data and Lessons Learned on Seafood Loss and Waste.

Sharing data on seafood loss between sectors can help support research — from processors to research institutes, civil society organizations to government agencies. If you know from the data collected what type of by-product and how much is being produced, as well as the value it could have, it can help actors build the business case for increased utilization of by-products.

To improve technical expertise on ways to reduce loss and repurpose the by-products of processing, lessons learned can be shared across stakeholders — as has been done by the Iceland Ocean Cluster’s 100% Fish initiative, which helps connect sectors including academia and start-ups. Iceland Ocean Cluster also leads the knowledge-sharing tool the Ocean Cluster Network, and demonstrates that sharing information and co-ideation across sectors can help innovate the non-food uses of seafood by-products.

3) Increase Operational Efficiency.

Specific operational improvements are also key to reducing losses — whether you are a small-scale producer or a large company. Improvements can include increased processing efficiency and better cold chain management that maintains the quality of the seafood. A number of innovative solutions have also been developed by very small-scale producers, for example the solar-powered freezers used by rural women in the Solomon Islands.

In order to boost efficiency, fish processors must have the resources or capacity to upgrade their operations. This can be costly, but the investment pays off: Many companies in Europe and North America have already invested in improving operational efficiency, which often leads to a reduction in waste, and can eventually lead to greater cost effectiveness. An analysis by World Resources Institute on food loss and waste more broadly found a robust business case for companies, countries, and cities when food loss and waste was reduced.

Workers processing fish in Vietnam
Workers processing fish in Vietnam. Photo by the World Bank/Flickr

4) Create New Products, Using By-products.

There are environmental, social and nutritional benefits to finding innovative ways to re-use seafood by-products discarded during processing. There could also be big economic gains too: One study on fish farming in Scotland showed that using by-products for human consumption and animal feed could generate an additional £23.7 million ($32 million) a year.

For example, by-products can be made into fishmeal and fish oil and used in animal feed, fertilizers and supplements to improve human health.

Circular economy thinking is also driving other innovative uses for by-products, like fish skin wallets, sports drinks, cosmetics and biofuel. Doctors have successfully used fish skins to treat burn wounds, as fish skin is rich in collagen and moist enough to be more effective than a bandage.

But while by-product recovery and use are already common practice in some supply chains, it needs upscaling, adapting and replicating to cover more seafood processors around the world. There also needs to be a market for it.

5) Build Demand for Under-utilized Fish Parts.

Multi-stakeholder collaboration can help increase demand for under-utilized fish parts.

Education programs about the dietary nutrition of seafood could help encourage less waste and increase the use of less popular fish parts, simply by explaining the nutritional value and ways to prepare these parts. The organization FairFishing, for example, helps mainstream the idea of using less popular fish parts as “best practice” for both consumers and companies in Somaliland, finding this could simultaneously reduce seafood waste and contribute to economic development.

This demand is already being built on a more popular level, with civil society organizations and social media influencers collaborating to promote dishes made with less conventional seafood. Creative chefs are seeking to use these underutilized, typically discarded parts, championing “fin-to-gill” eating and producing cookbooks dedicated to the topic.

Collaboration is Key to Reducing Seafood Loss and Waste

Seafood loss is a cross-cutting issue, and the solutions, aiming to use all parts of the fish, can bring a wide range of benefits. Collaboration to connect the dots between losses and unmet nutritional needs may help reduce the pressure on fisheries while increasing the total value of the whole fish.

We live on a finite planet. As such it’s essential to collaborate to tackle seafood loss and use 100% of the seafood we harvest from the wild or farm. This approach can help protect natural resources, efficiently capture and share nutrition, and potentially increase incomes and create more jobs.