The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Seafood consumption statistics in the U.S. (pre-pandemic)

A notion (myth?) I often encounter when covering seafood and the science behind it, is that people generally don’t eat fish at home. The prevailing market research suggests home cooks lack confidence to prepare seafood in their own kitchens so it’s thought that most, or the majority, or 70% of seafood is consumed in restaurants. Two months ago, after searching for the most accurate statistic (I found several), I wrote on this site that “over half of all seafood is eaten at restaurants.”

However, Love et al, a new paper out in June 2020, reveals that I was wrong. Using one of the most comprehensive surveys of U.S. diet from 2007-2016, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers finally have accurate numbers on seafood consumption in the United States (pre-pandemic). They found that by weight, 63% of seafood is consumed at home, with the majority coming from retail and a smaller proportion from takeout. That statistic doesn’t show the whole picture, however. Like most things in fisheries, reality is nuanced: In this post, I break down the statistics researchers report to paint a clearer picture of seafood consumption in the U.S. before and after the coronavirus pandemic.

Seafood consumption statistics in the U.S.

The exact numbers are this: 56% of seafood is purchased at a retail outlet like a grocery store or fish market, while 31% is purchased at restaurants (the remaining percentages are personally caught, gifted, or unknown).

The U.S. seafood market is worth $102 billion. In total expenditures, 65% of dollars are spent at restaurants or away from home sources while 35% spent on seafood at home. The average American spends 48% their food budget away from home, so the percentage of money spent on seafood at restaurants is much higher than other foodstuffs. How does this impact the price that fishermen and women get for their catch? We spoke to scientists, industry sources, and restaurant owners about the relationship between the price of a menu item and the price a restaurant pays for fish. From our conversations, a reasonable estimate is that roughly 20-30% of a restaurant menu price is the price paid by the restaurant for the seafood. If you pay $100 for a crab leg dinner, the restaurant probably pays $20-30 for the crab legs they serve you. What this means in a broader context is that, though more money is spent at restaurants overall, fish mongers get about the same price whether selling to restaurants or retail.

However, the retail vs restaurant market is extremely different on the species level. For example, researchers estimate that over half of all crab, catfish, cod, and shrimp is eaten at a restaurant while tuna and salmon are more likely to be eaten at home.

How has the pandemic changed things?

With the coronavirus pandemic closing or limiting restaurants, fishermen and women supplying them are hurting, however, the pain is not felt equally across the industry. Fisheries that catch species more often found in restaurants are struggling, while species that consumers are comfortable cooking at home are doing better. Seafood was the fastest growing supermarket category during the last week of May and supermarket sales have continued to surge through July.

Supply chain shakeups have been a challenge, however. Switching to retail markets after selling to restaurants is not a quick or easy process. Larger seafood companies with established relationships have advantages over smaller companies and independent boats. Many are trying to sell their catch directly to consumers to make up for losses. We developed a map of these seafood businesses so you can support local fishermen and women.

Looming on the horizon is a prolonged recession. Seafood is a relatively expensive protein so an economic downturn will deepen the industry’s pain.

Other consumption notes

Seafood consumption is higher on the coasts, though refrigeration technology continues to improve access for inland areas.

From Love et al. 2020

Americans’ weekly consumption of seafood has stayed around 5oz per week for the past 30 years, less than the recommended 8oz per week. Researchers estimate that only 10% to 20% of U.S. consumers meet the federal Dietary Guideline.

Analyses of trade data indicate that the five top species consumed by Americans are shrimp, salmon, canned tuna, catfish/pangasius, and tilapia, which jointly comprise 70–80% of the U.S. seafood supply. Focus has shifted from wild capture to farm-raised products, and there is an increasing reliance on imports as U.S. production has been stable since the mid-1980′s…Consumers note preferences to purchase familiar types of seafood, which limits the demand for diverse fish types.

The statistics from Love et al. 2020 are an important baseline to establish. Future consumption trends and impacts of the pandemic will have something to be measured against.

A myth or not?

Though my previous claim that the majority of seafood is eaten at restaurants is false, the outsized role that restaurants play in the seafood industry—especially to small-scale American fishers—is clear.

The pandemic is still impacting the industry: In addition to livelihood risk, the close quarters of fishing boats and processing plants put seafood workers at increased health risk, though so far the seafood industry has mostly avoided outbreaks and the tragedies plaguing the farming and meat packing industry.   

I strongly encourage you to support sustainable seafood during the pandemic. Buy seafood next time you shop for food or use our map to find a business to order directly from. Cooking seafood at home is easier than ever.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max studied environmental perception & policy in grad school. He thinks a lot about how other people think about the planet. He is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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One Response

  1. One thing that seems to be missing is the consumption of fish by recreational anglers, either fresh or salt water. When talking about the health benefits the catch they consumes needs to be included.

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