Ocean-based food could account for 25% of animal protein demand by 2050

Policy reforms and technological improvements that rigorously create sustainable fisheries could see global seafood production increase by up to 74% to 44 million tonnes a year by 2050, according to a new study.

Projections of population and income by 2050 suggest we may need a 38% increase from today’s edible meat production per year for human consumption. But supplying that demand with land-based meat production will be difficult due to less available space and the destruction caused by the climate and ecological emergencies. Shifting to ocean production, according to the Future of Food from the Sea report, could ease that pressure while supplying meat that is sustainably sourced and overall healthier for people.

Food from the sea, produced from wild fisheries and farms (mariculture) currently accounts for 17% of edible meat production around the world. But if fisheries are sustainably managed, the researchers found that wild-caught seafood could increase by roughly 16% by 2050. They also estimate that up to 44% of food from the sea could come from farmed seafood by 2050.

Failure to manage fisheries sustainably, warn the authors, would lead to “significant reductions in seafood production from wild fisheries”. If we carry on draining our oceans of seafood at our current rate, the world could actually run out of seafood in 2048. Our current consumption pattern of unsustainable seafood far out-matches the ocean’s ability to renew the number of fish taken from it.

Sustainably managed

The report wanted to examine whether it was possible to produce more from the ocean without collapsing its ecosystems. “I think many of us went into this thinking that to manage the ocean sustainably, we would have to extract less, which would mean less food from the sea,” according to Christopher Costello, a professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and author of the Nature study.

What the researchers found, however, was the opposite. “If done sustainably, you could actually increase food from the sea, and by an outsize proportion relative to expansion of land-based food,” said Costello. “And it could be done in a way that’s much more environmentally friendly for the climate, biodiversity and other ecosystem services than food production on land.”

However, realising such an increase in sustainable food production will depend on various factors, including policy reforms, technological innovation and future demand. “By improving sustainability and equity through a range of actionable policy and business commitments, food from the sea has the potential to expand in the future, nourishing the growing human population,” said Stefan Gelcich, an associate professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and a co-author on the study.

Researchers calculated the global supply of food in 2050 from the largest three ocean food sectors: wild fisheries and finfish and bivalve mollusc mariculture, using bioeconomic models that take into account factors such as economic management and feed constraints. Comparing these supply estimates with demand scenarios, they calculated the potential future production of food from the sea.

They found that all three sectors are capable of sustainably producing substantially more food than today. The study also suggests that the composition of seafood could differ substantially in the future: while wild fisheries dominate today, up to 44% of food from the sea could come from mariculture by 2050.

“We’ve had a history of overexploiting many fisheries, but we’re seeing governments starting to implement better fisheries management policies,” Costello said. “And when you rebuild fisheries, you restore the health of the ocean and that allows you to have more food”.

Take Action

Food from the ocean will only be a possibility if it is managed properly. While governments must agree to flexible fisheries management practices which account for changes brought on by the climate and ecological emergencies, it is down to consumers to only choose seafood that comes from sustainable stocks.

Check out The Good Fish Guide for up to date advice on what not to consume and, if in doubt, choose the blue MSC label. It’s not perfect but it’s the closest label we’ve got to guide us onto sustainable seafood purchasing.

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