Fish Out of Water: Using our Seafood Sustainably

by Justin Cantafio.

Fishing has been and continues to be the social, cultural, and economic backbone of many Nova Scotian coastal communities. Removing fish from the water is just the first step in the value chain that incudes processing, storage, distribution, preparation and ultimately, consumption. As many Atlantic Canadian fish stocks remain depleted, and with others only recently recovering from stock collapse, the importance of fishing sustainablywith a triple bottom line of social, economic, and environmental factors in mindis of increasing importance.

Stacked insulated fish tubs, Lunenburg, NS. Source: Verne Equinox via Wikimedia Commons

Stacked insulated fish tubs, Lunenburg, NS. Source: Verne Equinox via Wikimedia Commons

While it is essential that we shift to and incentivize low-impact fishing methods on the water, the sustainability discussion needs to continue once the fish is landed. Currently, approximately one third of the weight of groundfish is converted into food as fillets. This leads us to ask the question, what happens to the other two thirds of fish biomass that doesn’t make it out of the processing plant as food for humans? Where does that go?

Just as fishing is important to coastal communities, the seafood processing sector remains an integral source of economic activity in many of those same communities. Processing is an important step in the value chain, increasing the value of whole seafood products, making them more economical for transportation, and enhancing their marketability. Processing is also an important aspect in the overall sustainability of the way we use our fisheries resources.

If the by-products of processing are simply thrown out as garbage, we call that “fish waste”. Using the whole fish, and not just the end product, can help processors maximize the value of these natural resources. As we work to rebuild previously collapsed stocks, it is paramount that not only do we fish in a manner that minimizes impact on the marine ecosystem, but that we process with a focus on maximizing the value of our seafood. So is there room to improve in Nova Scotia? Absolutely.

Conveyor belt belt in fish processing plant, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Conveyor belt belt in fish processing plant, Reykjavik, Iceland. Source: Jabbi via Wikimedia Commons

Alison Chappell, a third year BSc student in Applied Human Nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University, took on a project through the Ecology Action Centre’s Marine Program to assess the fish waste stream in Nova Scotia’s seafood processing industry. Alison worked tirelessly, calling 110 processors, and managing to contact and question 50 processors for a province-wide analysis.

She found that 14 out of 21 processors who actively process seafood benefit by selling their seafood processing by-products. The main buyers of these by-products include fishermen who use the by-products for bait, and to mink farmers. One processor donates their by-products to community members to be used as compost, but six of the 21 processors simply dispose of their seafood by-products as fish waste.

What Alison has found is telling; if her findings are indicative of the province as a whole, then it could be possible that almost a third of all Nova Scotian seafood processors fail to maximize the value of our fisheries resource and let nutrient-rich by-products simply go to waste.

There are many unique and innovative ways of maximizing the value of processing by-products, and some are certainly more sustainable and lucrative than trashing them in a landfill or selling valuable by-products as mink farm feed, which can contribute to freshwater pollution in our province. Some processing by-products could be diverted and sold as feed for closed-containment aquaculture operations, a greener alternative to open-net pen finfish operations. In Norway, waste from herring plants is used to make fabricated fish bait. In Michigan, a fish plant teamed up with a local saw mill to create a mixed fish and wood chip fertilizer—and yes… they call it Fish & Chips. In Maine, lobster shells are used to make fertilizer and even biodegradable golf balls.


Making the most of a fish

Where else might we improve? Jenna Stoner of Living Oceans Society found in her Master’s research at Dalhousie University that retail distributors lose up to an average of 12% of their product to spoilage, and 25% to 40% of seafood is lost at the cooking and preparation level as waste. There are many areas we can tackle.

Ultimately, if we are going to celebrate our seafood and manage it sustainably, we need to maximize the value of the resource and avoid treating it like a commodity. With so many depleted fish stocks, some of which are only starting to recover, every single fish we remove from the sea must be justified. Many opportunities exist to sustainably maximize the use of nutrient-rich by-products, or reduce unneeded waste from spoilage during storage and transportation, or misuse in the kitchen. Through innovation, collaboration, and education, Nova Scotia can be a leader not just on the water, but beyond it too.

Justin Cantafio is Sustainable Fisheries Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre, in Halifax, NS. Justin has a background in environmental ecology, and holds a Master of Resource and Environmental Management from Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies in Halifax. His interests include sustainable food production and distribution, with a focus on food security and localization.


2 thoughts on “Fish Out of Water: Using our Seafood Sustainably

  1. I AM A CLAMMER OF THE ANNAPOLIS BASIN CHA#2, last year 2 enhancement efforts were made, the first one was done without DFO go ahead on it (last of july 2013). aprox 1000 lbs of small clams were relayed from the Pony Road area to Smith Cove.( these areas are open and in the same body of water). DFO issued warning citations and I’m convinced it was done to prevent the wild clam fishery from making a comeback to make way for aquaculture. I dug in smith cove in oct 2014 , the clams that were still there from the transfer grew at least an inch and a half, that whole area within the transfer seeded down for the first time in years, some spots 4 to 5 hundred per sq ft The 2nd enhancement 2013 effort was a disaster because DFO PUT SIZE RESTRICTION OF 1 1/4 INCH AND UNDER. They put CARP in charge of the project’s measurementation which resulted in only 33 lbs of clams being allowed for the transfer. There is a video of some of this on youtube called (clam enhancement project CHA2). We asked CARP(clean Annapolis river project) to at least video document what had been done in Smith Cove (first effort from July 2013) but they told us that they weren’t allowed to. Over 100 thousand $ effort put into this project plus all the manhours applied, with DFO dragging their feet all the way, yet the unapproved effort was the one that was effective in positive results. CHALK 1 UP FOR THE POOR MAN, LOWLY DIGGER OF THE CLAM…. THE CLAMMER.

    • I would have video’d it for you. The DFO are stupid. They poured concrete into the fish hatchery down here in Coldbrook, NS when they closed it…altho the Salmon Association said that they would take the operation over.

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