Seafood plays a crucial role in feeding billions of people and holds huge potential in contributing to a sustainable and healthy diet. Indeed, fisheries and aquaculture currently represent approximately 31% of the current production of animal protein and seafood is an important source of daily animal protein for more than 3 billion people. The projected reference diet for a future sustainable and healthy diet recommended by EAT-Lancet commission report published in 2015 includes one or two servings per week.
Seafood contributes to a healthy, balanced and nutritional diet by providing protein, healthy fats and essential micronutrients (e.g. iodine, calcium, iron). As such, seafood plays an important role in fighting hunger and malnutrition throughout the world, especially in rural populations in many developing countries. The consumption of seafood (especially fatty fish) has also been associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular diseases, reduced blood pressure and reduced risks for type-2 diabetes. From an environmental perspective, seafood production is less carbon-intensive than land-based proteins and doesn’t require deforestation like meat production.
Business as usual will not meet future seafood demand sustainably
The EAT-Lancet projected reference diet would require as much as a 118% increase in seafood production. Even in a scenario where food waste is halved, this increase in seafood demand would require a 60% increase. However, the business as usual scenario only leads to a 48% production increase. The Seafood Stewardship Index published for the first time in 2019 assessed the world’s most influence seafood companies and revealed that while many efforts are underway, the industry still has much to improve on with regards to both environmental and social performance. See the results of the 30 most influential seafood companies
How can the seafood sector improve in order to meet future seafood demand while staying within planetary boundaries and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)? These are questions being addressed and discussed by a number of groups such as the Blue Food Assessment, CFS High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition; the High-Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy; the UN Decade of Ocean Science, UN Standing Committee on Nutrition and the UN Food Systems Summit 2021.
What improvements are needed to make the seafood industry just and sustainable?
In order to increase catch from capture fisheries sustainably, fisheries management should be the primary focus. Today, about a third of fisheries are collapsed or overfished. In generic terms, improving capture fisheries management requires:
- improved governance
- taking an ecosystem approach to fisheries
- improving traceability to support sustainable governance and ensure that no illegally caught products enter supply chains
- leveraging technologies to improve monitoring and surveillance and harvesting methods.
With regards to aquaculture, needed transformations include:
- implementing an ecosystem approach to aquaculture
- focusing production in a way that takes into account nutritional qualities of farmed seafood
- feed innovation to reduce reliance on wild fish stock
- systems innovations such as Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) and offshore aquaculture
- breeding programs to increase the effectiveness in converting feed to human food
- technology innovation to reduce risks related to diseases.
Beyond sector-specific changes, reducing fish (and food overall) consumption generally in the wealthy and well-nourished parts of the world will also likely be important in reducing environmental pressures. Additionally, reducing seafood (and food) waste will also contribute to building more sustainable seafood systems.
While improving the environmental impacts of seafood production, these transformations must be done in a just and equitable manner. This requires ensuring access to affordable and nutritious seafood for all and that the economic benefits of this transformation also accrue to local communities, smallholders, workers and marginalized groups such as women and indigenous people. For instance, following one of the themes of 2020’s world food day of bridging the digital divide, transformative innovations must be made accessible to small-scale producers, especially in Asia which represents 80% of global production.
We all have a role to play in transforming our seafood system
Policymakers must put in place transformative policies in line with sustainable fisheries management and that support innovation and private sector investments. Consumers must shift their consumption patterns towards socially responsible and environmentally sustainable seafood by looking for example for Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council or Fair Trade certified seafood. Investors must take a long term and holistic view of returns on investment and adopt responsible investment principles. The High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy estimated in a recent report that the costs of transforming the ocean-based based food system (which exclude freshwater seafood production) over the next 30 years would be $796 billion, generating a net return on investment of $6,7 trillion. Seafood companies can invest in innovations in the aquaculture sector such as feed and production systems, electronic traceability systems, implement robust due diligence processes to mitigate risks of human rights abuse and illegal fishing practices, supporting small-scale producers’ access to markets and ensuring decent working conditions. Moreover, seafood companies can play an important role in advocating for reform and policies that support those transformations.
The COVID-19 crisis has further emphasized major weaknesses in the resilience and robustness of our (sea)food systems and its ability to meet global needs, especially those of the most vulnerable communities. In the seafood sector, fishing activities have reduced in both the industrial and artisanal sectors, severely reducing income, especially for workers. Supply chains have been disrupted, limited the ability of producers to sell their products. The demand for seafood from certain sectors (e.g. tourism, restaurants and hotels drastically reduced) and processing operations have been affected by worker health and labour shortages. Informal supply chains are facing even great impacts on the lack of formal contracts. As in other sectors, the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to rethink how to create a sustainable future for the seafood sector.
As we head towards the UN Food System Summit in 2021, let’s make sure we fully integrate the role of the seafood sector in building a sustainable food future that works for all.