The increasingly worrisome impacts of climate change may not mean the end of seafood on our plates, a new study suggests. In a new paper entitled The Future Of Food From The Sea, researchers found that the ocean could supply over six times the amount of food that it does today—that’s 364 metric tons of protein—but only if we change the way we govern, manage and consume the world’s fish supply. To put it bluntly if a little too simply, if you’re ready to eat less wild Atlantic salmon and more sustainably farmed seaweed and mussels, keep on reading.
“We’re all used to headlines in the newspaper about the demise of the oceans,” lamented Christopher Costello, PhD, an economist and one of the lead authors of the study who presented the findings on January 16 at the Washington, D.C. offices of the World Resources Institute. “It’s easy to come away from those headlines, many of which I think are quite accurate, thinking a sustainable future ocean will provide less food,” he added. But this shrinking ocean-based food supply isn’t a given, urged Costello. Just the opposite could be true, in fact.
“Food from the sea is uniquely poised to contribute to food security,” Costello explained, because it has a low carbon footprint, is highly nutritious and is far more environmentally efficient to produce as compared to other animal proteins.
Seafood is an important protein source worldwide—it’s about 20% of all animal protein and 6.7% of the overall protein that humans consume, the study suggests. The numbers aren’t evenly distributed across the globe. In some island nations like Sri Lanka where fish makes up a significant portion of the diet, for example, reliance on fish as a protein source is even higher.
Seafood is also more than just protein, Costello and the study authors point out, as fish and other food from the sea like seaweed can provide many important nutritious benefits, like omega-3 fatty acids.
Most of the fish eaten today is wild-caught rather than farmed, says Costello, about 80-85% to be specific, but wild fisheries are not an endlessly renewable resource, the authors of the study warn. The amount of wild fish catch today — around 78 million metric tons or mmt — has been stagnant for about three decades. And losses could be worse than we know, as the researchers say there are severe gaps in the data because up to 50% of wild fish stocks aren’t well-studied.
If we do nothing and continue fishing under what the authors characterize as a ‘business-as-usual’ approach, the global wild fish catch will decrease to about 67 mmt per year in about a decade’s time. According to the study, ‘business-as-usual’ means continued mismanagement of wild fisheries, including overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing that can lead to the further depletion of wild fish stocks.
The authors also criticize “capacity-enhancing subsidies,” policies that offer fishermen a financial incentive “to fish longer, harder and farther from port,” which can lead to even more damage to wild fish populations.
Climate change threatens fish populations too, of course, but measuring that impact is particularly tricky, according to the study, because the impacts aren’t equally distributed. While the global wild fish catch might suffer limited impact overall, most experts say that in certain areas, particularly those located in tropical latitudes, entire species will almost certainly go extinct, a loss that will have huge impacts on populations that rely heavily on those wild fish species as part of their regular diets.
Again, that doesn’t have to happen, the authors of the study urge, but in order to avert that bleak future scenario, we need to change how we manage and consume our fish. For wild fisheries, the authors of the study recommend better management overall but, in particular, stricter regulation and enforcement to help prevent overfishing and illegal fishing.
Policy changes can be tricky to accomplish in practice, however, points out WRI researcher and Senior Associate, Lauretta Burke, who also spoke at WRI that day. Burke cautions that local governments are far more likely to adopt policy recommendations when they come out of research that’s produced in collaboration with the local government or other stakeholders in the region, a practice she recommends.
Wild fisheries supply most of the world’s aquatic food supply today, but a shift is definitely on the horizon. Sustainable mariculture—that is, aquaculture or farmed fish from the sea—is a crucial component of an increased yet sustainable ocean food supply. “We expect a dramatic expansion of the mariculture sector over the coming decades,” said Costello, which the paper suggests could be a positive development if, and only if, these foods are farmed sustainably.
For the increase in mariculture to be sustainable, the researchers recommend that the cultivators of these farmed fish work to improve the quality of fish feed, efficiencies and other technologies. Far trickier is the goal of enticing the public to eat some of those lesser known but highly sustainable foods like seaweed. Seaweed is already quite popular in China and Indonesia but not as well-known in the United States and many other countries.
The researchers also recommend that the governments controlling where and how these foods could be raised revisit their mariculture policies to ensure they align with environmentally sustainable farming practices.
Most promising of all these foods might be what’s called unfed mariculture—foods like oysters, algae and mussels that feed off the natural environment rather than require a separate fish feed and, as a result, are highly energy-efficient to cultivate. But don’t expect an oyster bar on every corner just yet. The farming practices required for some of these foods, like oysters, is still labor-intensive and challenging to scale, which means, for now, these will probably remain a rare delicacy.