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 sustainably—with a triple bottom line of social, economic, and environmental factors in mind—is of increasing importance.
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.
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.
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.