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Sustainable Seafood & Healthier Oceans

Food Production, Food Security

Sustainable Seafood & Healthier Oceans

The Dirt

Every time you eat fish, it can directly impact the health of our oceans. As a growing global population leads to increasing demand for protein, how can wild-caught seafood meet demand while keeping a healthy aquatic environment? And how can we make better choices for ourselves and the oceans when shopping for seafood?


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Wandering the seafood counter in the grocery store can be overwhelming. There’s a global map at your fingertips of Pacific cod, Ecuadorian mahi-mahi, U.S. Gulf shrimp, New Zealand mussels, and Chilean swordfish. For a healthy dinner, should you choose fresh or frozen, or farmed or wild-caught? Conversely, when ordering online, are specific items like frozen wild Icelandic ocean perch or ahi poke cubes tasty? And how do you navigate sustainability and eco-friendly labels?

In the U.S., the fall season is highlighted with October as National Seafood Month. And with the approaching holidays, what better time to eat healthy, sustainable seafood and learn how wild-caught seafood can help to meet global food demand? We can use this information to make a difference in improving the health of our global oceans.

Challenges facing our ocean and seafood supply

As our population grows, we are faced with an enormous challenge of meeting the increased demand for overall protein.

By 2050, projections for global population and income growth suggest a future need for more than 500 megatonnes (Mt) of meat each year for our consumption – a substantial increase from today’s needed volume of 360 Mt.

To put this in perspective, this increase equates to producing the weight of approximately 780 billion servings of salmon, or about 16 million school buses, each year.

Seafood can actually provide a solution to these protein demands — one that can have a much lower carbon footprint than land-based meat production and fewer impacts on biodiversity.

Making healthy seafood choices depends on being informed, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming – in fact, it can be simple.

Let’s start with a quick guide to define common seafood terms seen in our grocery stores:

  • Sustainable marine fisheries provide some of our best tools to ensure healthy oceans while producing seafood. For instance, U.S. marine fisheries are scientifically monitored, regionally managed, and legally enforced under strict sustainability standards.
  • Wild-caught, or wild capture, refers to seafood directly caught or “harvested” from the sea, rivers, or other natural aquatic habitats. This includes sustainable marine fisheries, like wild cod.
  • Farm-raised means that the seafood was not captured in the wild, but grown in a farm, pen, or other systems. These systems can either be on land or in water.
  • Aquaculture refers to the broader category of farming aquatic species (both fresh and saltwater). The use of the term “aquaculture” generally encompasses farming that occurs both on land or in the sea, such as land-based tilapia farms.
  • Mariculture exclusively refers to species farmed within the marine environment or saltwater, such as seaweed or mussels grown on ropes in the ocean, or salmon pens near coastal areas. Mariculture is the correct term for sea-specific farming, even though “aquaculture” is often used here.

Aquaculture is a fast-growing part of our food system that can provide increasingly sustainable options for consumers and – when done right – can offer ecosystem restoration benefits for the planet. The below chart shows wild-capture fisheries as relatively stable when compared to aquaculture’s increase in supply, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Sustainable wild-capture marine fisheries

Globally, wild-capture fisheries are unbelievably unique in that no other large-scale food sector continuously removes a comparable sheer volume of wild animals from any natural habitat on earth. This demonstrates the incredible capacity of our oceans to regenerate so future generations may reap its benefits.

Wild-caught seafood holds enormous potential for increasing food supply, yet is heavily dependent on improving management practices in the ocean. Wild-capture provides both an opportunity and a threat to our oceans. Threats include overfishing, unsustainable labor practices on ocean vessels, throwing away bycatch, destruction of habitats (e.g., coral reefs), and ocean pollution.

Although these challenges exist, the status of world fisheries is far from a completely “doom and gloom” situation. Sustainable interventions provide our best opportunity to reform our global seafood system and create thriving, healthy marine ecosystems. If we effectively manage fisheries, marine ecosystems and species can recover.

Recent research supports this good news for well-managed global fisheries. New research published in early 2020 examined the status of 882 global fish stocks (the term for defined populations of fish) and found big improvements, especially in developed countries.

There are also bright spots in smaller-scale fisheries around the world. For example, Kenyan fisherwomen recently closed nearshore reef areas with the goal of helping octopus species recover. Upon returning to fish, the women caught far more octopus, leading to greater sales. Community-based interventions like this can support population recovery, protect valuable habitat, and even improve the livelihoods of coastal fishermen and women.

“Effective fisheries management is actually one of our strongest tools to conserving the health of our oceans,” says Carmen Revenga, who leads the Global Fisheries Strategy at The Nature Conservancy. “Science-based fisheries management and direct engagement with fishers, industry, and governments produce not only sustainable seafood, but benefit marine habitats and species while maintaining coastal communities and fishing-dependent jobs worldwide.”

Who monitors sustainable fisheries?

Before being sold at the grocery store, seafood is produced and regulated by a diverse group of fishermen and women, scientists, fish processors, lawmakers, technology providers, and NGOs. Each group tackles ocean challenges and drives seafood products towards sustainability.

Seafood eco-labels are one mechanism to ensure sustainability – and they can help guide you at the grocery store. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provides third-party assurance of seafood sustainability and supply chain traceability. Look for the MSC blue fish label to feel confident that your seafood purchase comes from sustainable sources. In addition, large retailers have made seafood and fishery sustainability commitments, from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart, which can help drive improvements down the supply chain.

Let’s look at the details of how MSC certification can spur action that benefits communities and the ocean ecosystem. The spiny lobster in the Bahamas is one of the island nation’s most important fisheries. Each year, around 6 million pounds of spiny lobster tails are sold in the $90 million fishery. Through a collaboration of stakeholders determined to ensure the sustainability of the fishery, the spiny lobster fishery became the first Bahamian, Caribbean fishery to obtain the recognized MSC seal of sustainability. Even after certification, this fishery must demonstrate continual improvements to ensure sustainability, such as refining the assessments of lobster populations and continuing to work on decreasing illegal fishing.

© Jeff Yonover / TNC

On the other hand, another important fishery in the Bahamas, Queen Conch, is experiencing a decline. Conch not only supports thousands of Bahamian fishers but is a national cultural emblem. It is featured in typical dishes and even displayed prominently on The Bahamas coat of arms. Bahamian conch is in decline due to overfishing, which has led to fewer individual conch in the water that can reproduce. A music video called “Conch Gone” draws attention to the plight of conch and the need for conservation measures – and what may happen if we aren’t careful. Today, scientists, fishermen, and government officials in the Bahamas are working to address challenges in the conch fishery.

Eyes on the ocean to ensure sustainability

Seafood certifications and regulations such as the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program or E.U. Catch Certification Scheme provide mechanisms to reduce illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices. And new technologies are revolutionizing the ways we monitor compliance on the water and collect information.

Recent advances in electronic monitoring (EM), essentially video cameras, sensors, and GPS on fishing vessels, can provide verifiable data on where and how fish are caught and what types of fish are brought on board, including bycatch of unintended species, like sharks or turtles.

“Sustainability can’t happen without transparent supply chains – and this has to start right at the point where fish are caught,” says Mark Zimring, who leads The Nature Conservancy’s Large-Scale Fisheries Program. “Electronic monitoring provides a mechanism for transparency and accountability, while also providing better data so we can improve management of our fisheries”.

An example of EM in action can be found in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, a region that produces approximately 60% of the world’s tuna. This region also harbors incredible marine biodiversity, including sharks, turtles, and many fish species.

© Tim Calver / TNC

EM data from fishing vessels can be combined with data on locations of protected animals, such as sea turtles, to identify hotspots where fishing may threaten them. This information can be used to avoid certain areas while fishing in others – a win-win for sustainable tuna fishing and marine conservation. In addition to Western and Central Pacific nations, more and more countries are adopting EM at scale, including the Seychelles and New Zealand.

What you can do

The future of seafood can be bright if we acknowledge the challenges instead of shying away from them. Educating ourselves and purchasing seafood from sustainable sources supports businesses that are doing the right thing and can contribute to ensuring healthy oceans. Our choices directly impact the future of sustainable seafood and our oceans.

Here are a few ways we can make a difference:

  • Diversify your plate! Branch out from the familiar salmon and shrimp with other choices that are lower on the food chain, such as sardines, or bivalve shellfish such as clams or mussels. These less popular species can be really good for the ocean and good for you – and may often be more friendly on your budget. Friendly new recipes and seafood health tips can be found in the #EatSeafoodAmerica campaign by the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.
  • Find a local seafood supplier. To support local businesses and get fresh or frozen seafood delivered to you, check out Local Catch, an easy-to-use seafood finder to help you find local seafood in your area or learn about community-supported fisheries (or CSFs, a similar concept to a CSA produce box, but with seafood).
  • Order seafood online. Many seafood businesses have been heavily impacted by COVID-19 but are adjusting to online ordering when restaurant demand is lower. Look for websites that offer pick-up or home delivery, and help support their businesses during these challenging times. You can check out sites like Vital ChoiceMonterey Abalone Co., and CrowdCow
  • Look for eco-labels or use a guide. Look for the Marine Stewardship Council blue fish label to ensure sustainability. Or, when considering new seafood choices, Seafood Watch has a user-friendly app to use at restaurants or the grocery store.
  • Learn more about the connections between seafood, healthy oceans, and the science behind wild-capture fisheries. Scroll through this interactive publication by the FAO about the global state of fisheries and aquaculture. Follow work by The Nature Conservancy and its partners to implement sustainable fishery management reforms around the world. For science updates, check out this Sustainable Fisheries blog by scientists at the University of Washington.

The Bottom Line

There are many ways consumers can support sustainable seafood efforts. In fact, each time you go to the market or order fish in a restaurant, simply ask your fishmonger or waiter if the seafood was sourced from a sustainable marine fishery. Making decisions based on this information can help support our magnificent ocean life.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line