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Seafood as a source of food and income: Can it be sustainable?

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

The world's oceans have long been a source of food and livelihood for countless communities. Seafood in some way or another feeds billions and supports the livelihoods of millions. From the bustling fish markets of coastal towns to the elegant seafood restaurants of cosmopolitan cities, seafood holds a prominent place on our plates and in our economies. However, the question looming large is whether the bounty of seafood can endure the relentless pressures of overfishing, habitat destruction, and climate change to remain a sustainable source of both food and income.

Almost a million species live in our oceans and are a fundamental source of food and income for over 800 million people globally. Seafood stands for 17% of animal protein consumption globally and it's an important animal protein source for 3.3 billion people worldwide. Seafood is also rich in other nutrients, such as iron and vitamin D, low in saturated fat and an important source of omega-3 and DHA. On the other hand, it is also becoming increasingly evident that contamination by pollutants like heavy metals and microplastics is raising concerns about its toxicity. Five species make up 64% of human seafood consumption: cod, haddock, prawns, salmon and tuna.

What is the biggest risk to marine biodiversity?

At the same time, the biggest risk to marine biodiversity is fishingapproximately 94% of fish stocks are overfished (34%) or maximally sustainably fished (60%) and aquaculture has its issues. All of these have a negative impact on marine/aquatic ecosystems and limit fish stocks´ ability to recover.

Food, including seafood production, contributes to almost 60% of global biodiversity loss and at least 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. The need for sustainable practices in harvesting and aquaculture becomes increasingly urgent.

Seafood production impacts the planet in several ways:

  1. Biologically sustainable levels of fish stocks are reducing. This means that populations of various fish species are declining to the point where they can no longer sustain themselves at a healthy, self-replenishing level in their natural habitats.

  2. Annually, 20 million animals of endangered marine species are impacted as bycatch and discards. Sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks, seabirds and many others are often caught in various types of fishing gear.

  3. Mobile bottom fishing gear impacts organisms, sediments, and habitats, and destroys the seafloor. This reduces its important ability to store carbon, as oceans absorb CO2 and heat generated by human activities. Destroying the seafloor habitats contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

  4. Negative impacts of aquaculture (e.g. fish and shrimp farms) can include pollution, habitant conversion, disease spread and harvesting wild fish to produce feed, if poorly managed.

What countries consume the most seafood?

According to the reports from September 2021, several countries are known for consuming a significant amount of seafood. However, please note that consumption patterns can change over time, and more recent data might provide a clearer picture. As of 2021, some of the countries that traditionally consumed the most seafood per capita included:

  • Japan: Japan has a rich history of seafood consumption, with sushi and sashimi being globally recognised dishes.

  • South Korea: Seafood is a staple in Korean cuisine, with dishes like kimchi jjigae and various seafood stews being popular.

  • Portugal: Portugal's location along the Atlantic Ocean has influenced its cuisine heavily, and dishes like bacalhau (salted cod) are central to their diet.

  • Spain: With a long coastline, Spain has a strong seafood tradition, including dishes like paella with seafood.

  • Norway: Known for its salmon and other cold-water fish, Norway is a major exporter of seafood.

  • Iceland: Another country with a strong fishing tradition, Icelanders consume a lot of seafood, including fish like cod and haddock.

  • Greece: As a Mediterranean country, Greece incorporates seafood into its cuisine, including dishes like grilled octopus and calamari.

What countries are implementing sustainable fishing?

Sustainable fishing practices are those that aim to maintain fish populations at healthy levels while minimizing the impact on marine ecosystems. The golden rule is to eat locally, seasonally and sustainably, so why not select sustainable seafood? Many countries and regions have been working towards adopting and implementing sustainable fishing practices to ensure the long-term viability of their fisheries. As of the last update in September 2021, here are a few countries known for their efforts in sustainable fishing:

  • Norway: Norway is often cited as a leader in sustainable fisheries management. The country has implemented strict regulations, quotas, and monitoring systems to ensure the sustainability of its fisheries, particularly for species like cod and salmon.

  • New Zealand: New Zealand has been praised for its well-managed fisheries. The country has implemented a quota management system that allocates catch limits for different species based on scientific assessments of their stocks.

  • Australia: Australia has also made significant efforts towards sustainable fishing. The country employs a range of strategies, including marine protected areas, catch limits, and collaborative management approaches.

  • Iceland: Iceland has a history of strong fisheries management, with well-defined quotas and regulations that help maintain fish stocks and prevent overfishing.

  • Canada: Canada has implemented measures such as individual transferable quotas (ITQs) to manage fisheries sustainably. These quotas allocate a specific amount of catch to individual fishermen or fishing entities.

  • Sweden: Sweden has also been proactive in adopting sustainable fishing practices, including a focus on reducing bycatch and minimizing the impact of fishing on non-target species.

The pursuit of sustainable fishing practices is a global endeavor that should transcend borders, and connect nations and communities through the shared responsibility of preserving our oceans for future generations. We picture our world as a place where all wild-caught and farmed seafood is harvested with the lowest impact on our environment and at the same time meet the needs of the growing population and fight for our climate. However, the road to sustainable fisheries is far from smooth. The urgency of this matter cannot be overstated. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and climate change continue to pose formidable challenges. In this critical time, education and knowledge dissemination play a key role.

Through awareness campaigns, public engagement, and educational initiatives, we can empower individuals, communities, and decision-makers to make informed choices that promote the responsible consumption of seafood and advocate for sustainable fishing practices. Can we overcome these challenges to ensure that the ocean and its treasures will remain preserved for generations to come? Sustainable fishing and aquaculture are better for our oceans and for business too.

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