As the world’s population increases, the question of how to keep everyone fed with high-quality, nutrient-dense food is becoming more and more pressing. Humanity will need many solutions, but one recent paper gives us an important reminder: We need to look to the sea.
The United Nations estimates that the global population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. That’s another two billion people we’ll need to feed, all with the same planetary resources we have today. Land-based agriculture already faces challenges ranging from depleted soils to habitat destruction from urbanization. But the oceans represent a rich source of relatively untapped food potential, an international team of researchers recently argued in the journal Nature (Costello et al., 2020).
Sustainable increases in seafood production could account for anywhere between 12 and 25 percent of the extra protein needed to feed the world by 2050, they say. That amounts to as much as 44 million extra metric tons of food. The additional seafood would come from increases in both wild seafood production and aquaculture (Costello et al., 2020).
Whereas land resources are strained, the fishing industry has room to grow. But that hopeful note comes with an important caveat. Wild fishing must be properly managed, and aquaculture appropriately applied, if we’re to realize the true benefits of our oceans. Anything less, and we’ll be worse off than we are today.
Managing Fish Populations Key to Sustainability
Today, just 17 percent of edible animal-based protein comes from seafood. And that number has stayed flat, or even gone slightly down, since the mid-1990s. The reason comes largely from unsustainable fishing practices that have depleted stocks of wild fish (Costello et al., 2020). As we’ve tried to take more and more fish from the sea with irresponsible methods, there’s been less and less available.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If fish stocks are properly managed, and populations allowed to recover, we could benefit from a steady supply of seafood. The wild seafood industry can grow, the study authors note, but only if we pay attention to how we’re taxing the ocean’s resources.
Sustainable wild fisheries management includes smart policy spanning the fishing industry, governments, environmental regulations, monitoring, and more. But it’s really about ensuring that fish populations are kept from declining past historic levels at any given time. This can be accomplished with quotas, fishing-fleet size limitations, protected marine areas, and a number of other measures (Ashe et al., 2018). However, sustainable fishing isn’t happening everywhere. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that around one-third of the global fish stocks they monitor are currently overexploited (FAO, 2018).
Vital Choice, since its founding in 2002, has prided itself on being a worldwide leader in supporting only sustainable wild-fishing practices. We feature fish from fisheries either certified sustainable or considered sustainable by experts such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC.org). Our most popular product, wild salmon, comes primarily from Alaskan waters, which contain some of the most well-managed fisheries on Earth.
To feed a growing population fresh seafood, more people and companies will have to adopt similar priorities.
Environmental Concerns with Fish Farming
The researchers say that cleaning up aquaculture is another important piece of the sustainability puzzle. “Aquaculture” is a huge subject covering many managed methods for raising fish and shellfish, and can be done responsibly or poorly.
The practice of growing fish in ocean pens has often led to poor-quality fish for humans and devastating effects on ecosystems. However, as billions of additional people seek out protein, the aquaculture industry will also need to increase in size, the researchers say.
Current aquaculture techniques can pollute the environment, and lead to infestations of sea lice that spread to wild fish (Hemmingsen et al., 2020). Farmed fish are packed tightly into pens, and their combined waste can pollute the nearby waters.
Additionally, farmed fish are often fed with fish meal made from feeder fish caught from the sea, imperiling wild populations. It currently takes a stunning five kilograms of feeder fish to create just one kilogram of fish meal. That can’t continue in the long term. (Fish Farms Look to GMO Feed as Feeder Fish Supplies ‘Unsustainable’)
Today, many farmers supplement their stocks’ diet with vegetable oils. That can help decrease the demand for wild fish, but it has also reduced the amount of healthy omega-3 fatty acids while increasing the relative amount of pro-inflammatory omega-6s found in the flesh of farmed fish (Fry et al., 2016). Omega-3s, which come primarily from seafood, are crucial to our bodies, and they play a role in optimizing everything from brain function to joint health.
Wild fish, and especially salmon, are the best source of omega-3s, as well as a potent source of other nutrients such as vitamin D and selenium. When harvested sustainably, wild fish are also an environmentally friendly way to pack your diet with healthy protein.
There are ways to make aquaculture more sustainable, but so far most of the industry hasn’t adopted them. One potential solution is “closed system” technology which completely sequesters the farmed fish from wild populations, and to treat water outflows before they are discharged. These are generally far safer to wild fish than are open aquaculture pens, which can spread disease and sea lice.
But sequestration is expensive. Habitat-destroying open pens unfortunately remain the norm.
Even if the aquaculture industry can get consumers and farmers to accept those solutions, it could be many years before such practices are widespread.
And even then, we’ll always need the oceans, and the wild creatures they contain, for our dietary needs. The Nature paper estimates that over half of the fish we eat in 2050 will still come from wild populations in the ocean. Ensuring those fish stocks are still there by managing populations sustainably now is imperative for our future.
Asche F, Garlock TM, Anderson JL, et al. Three pillars of sustainability in fisheries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018;115(44):11221-11225. doi:10.1073/pnas.1807677115
Costello C, Cao L, Gelcich S, et al. The future of food from the sea. Nature. August 2020. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2616-y
Fry JP, Love DC, MacDonald GK, et al. Environmental health impacts of feeding crops to farmed fish. Environment International. 2016;91:201-214. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2016.02.022
Hemmingsen W, MacKenzie K, Sagerup K, Remen M, Bloch-Hansen K, Dagbjartarson Imsland AK. Caligus elongatus and other sea lice of the genus Caligus as parasites of farmed salmonids: A review. Aquaculture. 2020;522:735160. doi:10.1016/j.aquaculture.2020.735160
World Fisheries and Aquaculture: The State of Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals; 2018. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/3/i9540en/I9540EN.pdf.