Sustainable Seafood: What, Why and How?

Environment | Oceans


By Laura Butula, Kingfisher Writer

Published November 1st, 2021

Recent years and events have demonstrated the need for a transition towards more sustainable food systems. In order to achieve this transition, we have to ask the simple ‘what’, why’, and ‘how’ questions concerning sustainability, dietary choices, and global food systems.


The question—‘how do you define sustainability?’—is a difficult one to answer, not only because there are countless explanations of the term, but also because people associate the word with a distinctive subject or field. Most of us link sustainability to the health of the planet and anthropogenic activities—after all, these relations are what scientific research focuses on.


It is extremely tough to argue against the evidence that anthropogenic actions are pressuring ecosystems on a global scale. We are well aware by now that growing populations and intensifying consumer demands are testing ecosystem functionality and straining natural food supplies.


By 2050, there will be at least two billion more people on the planet—that is two billion more mouths to feed. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to achieve ‘zero hunger’ (SDG 2), ‘good health and well-being’ (SDG 3), ‘responsible consumption and production’ (SDG 12), and to conserve ‘life below water’ (SDG 14) by 2030, in hopes that individuals and ecosystems remain healthy.


‘By 2050, there will be at least two billion more people on the planet—that is two billion more mouths to feed.’


People waiting to receive food at a local low-cost seafood restaurant in the Philippines. | Brian Evans / Flickr

The SDGs demonstrate that sustainability is closely correlated with environment, society, technology, and the global economy. The current article dives deeper into these individual pillars to discuss two interrelated subjects, namely ocean sustainability and food systems.


When compounding the two above mentioned terms, a sustainable food system is one that (i) has a positive or neutral impact on the environment, (ii) mitigates climate change and reduces the impacts of climate change, (iii) halts or reverses biodiversity losses, (iv) tackles pollution and waste, (v) ensures access to safe and healthy food, (vi) empowers communities, and (vii) utilizes modern technology to achieve sustainability in all parts of the food chain (Farmery et al., 2021).


According to the seven points above, sustainable food systems integrate environmental, societal, commercial, and technological aspects. Therefore, the current article poses the following questions: (i) why are humans dependent on seafood?, (ii) what factors compose the foundation for sustainable food systems in the seafood sector?, and (iii) in brief, how can we support the transition to sustainable food systems in the seafood sector?


‘According to the seven points above, sustainable food systems integrate environmental, societal, commercial, and technological aspects.’


The following paragraphs will elaborate on each of these three questions, acknowledging that the above mentioned pillars all play a role in food systems to ultimately support healthy communities and a healthy planet. Environmental and social impacts together create eco-social progress, while social and economic impacts produce inclusive development, and economic and environmental impacts generate green growth (FAO, 2021).


To answer these questions, it is essential to first reflect upon why food systems in the seafood sector need to become sustainable in the first place. In a nutshell, global warming is altering ocean acidity, temperatures and levels, consequently pressuring aquatic animals and ecosystems. Moreover, global marine hotspots are increasingly at risk of collapse, which poses a significant threat to our planet and to us (Hobday et al., 2016).


Additionally, intensifying anthropogenic activities have led to overfishing where fish stocks are excessively depleted to the point that breeding populations cannot naturally recover. Altogether, we have stressed the global ocean to a tipping point; therefore, there is an evident need for the transformation of global food systems and food chains.


‘Moreover, global marine hotspots are increasingly at risk of collapse, which poses a significant threat to our planet and to us.’


A net full of tuna being lifted off a vessel in Seychelles. | UN Women / Flickr

More sustainable food systems involving the seafood sector would support positive environmental effects by ensuring that water and carbon footprints are minimized, animal health is prioritized, and biodiversity loss is reduced or overturned (FAO, 2021). Although a simplified equation, healthy oceans could equal a healthy diet for people worldwide.


Humans have relied on a seafood diet for almost 150,000 years (Marean et al., 2007). Today, nearly three billion people still rely on wild and farmed seafood as a main protein source (Béné et al., 2015). Seafood is essential for roughly 30 million coastal indigenous peoples (Cisneros-Montemayor et al., 2016). In fact, human diets from all over the world depend on living ocean resources such as fish, seaweeds, crustaceans, and shellfish.


Recent dietary trends have demonstrated shifts from consumption of red meats to more frequent consumption of vegetables, fruits, and seafood. For many pescatarians (a person who does not eat meat, but does eat fish), it appears that the justification for this shift is that fish farming produces less GHG emissions compared to livestock farming, and that seafood is generally healthier than red meat.


Although fish are known to contain toxic contaminants (e.g., methylmercury) in trace amounts due to bioaccumulation of microplastics, seafood is known to have many nutritional benefits. For example, seafood is a great source of selenium, vitamins D and B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for growth and control of blood clotting, can be found in oil-rich aquatic species, including mackerel and salmon (Lund, 2013).


A raw salmon steak. | Andrea Pokrzywinski / Flickr

‘For example, seafood is a great source of selenium, vitamins D and B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.’


Due in part to countless nutritional benefits, seafood is the highest-traded food commodity, making it a primary source of income for billions of people worldwide. In fact, food systems connect local fisheries with large-scale companies and international seafood traders; small-scale fisheries support 88% of fisheries workers globally (Crona et al., 2016; FAO, 2021). Here, successful business transactions can generate revenue and community empowerment.


Building on these societal and commercial aspects, sustainable food systems in the seafood sector should involve a wide range of stakeholders and ensure collective action. Indeed, citizens, scientists, policymakers, and chefs are all important participants in food systems and have interwoven roles. Knowledge exchange between individuals is key to safeguarding the vision of sustainable food systems, particularly knowledge about modern innovations.


Regarding technology, sustainable food systems, in their essence, should apply technologies that improve sustainability within food chains. Here, education-industrial complexes (alliances between universities and businesses) utilize the private sector to support investments in and transfer of modern technology that builds momentum for sustainable escalation (Belton et al., 2020).


Packaging manufacture is a technological aspect directly linked to the sustainability of food systems. Food processing and packaging are exceedingly important in the food industry, as governments are racing to produce more ‘socially responsible products’ (Lappo et al., 2015). Specifically, food packaging involves both the covering and labelling of food products.


‘Regarding technology, sustainable food systems, in their essence, should apply technologies that improve sustainability within food chains.’


It is crucial that both small-scale and large-scale fisheries have access to technology (e.g., packaging mechanisms) that effectively preserves food quality. This is essential in preventing microbial contamination of seafood and reducing food waste. For example, advanced tools could improve wrapping and extend shelf life (de la Caba et al., 2019).


Moreover, consumers and suppliers are increasingly bearing in mind the labelling and coding of seafood; therefore, poor traceability within seafood supply chains has both ethical and sustainability allegations, whereby a lack of transparency leads to a lack of trust from customers. Notably, people need to trust their food source to fully acknowledge and appreciate aquatic ecosystems. This realization is key to sustaining the global ocean.


A simple food label from a tuna can. | Smabs Sputzer (1956-2017 ) / Flickr

Overall, it is obvious that we rely on the oceans for survival; however, the oceans also rely on us to sustain their condition and protection. There are innumerable measures that national governments and citizens can take up to progress towards more sustainable food systems.


‘Overall, it is obvious that we rely on the oceans for survival; however, the oceans also rely on us to sustain their condition and protection.’


For example, this transition requires (i) reliable data collection and analysis on food systems, (ii) evidence-based policy making and alignment, (iii) the involvement of public-private partnerships to combine objectives and strategies, (iv) consistent knowledge-sharing concerning challenges and applicable practices (FAO, 2021).


These four areas could be explored in detail alone; however, I will leave you to reflect on what you’ve learned about sustainable food systems and the seafood sector to ultimately decide how these action plans could support the much-needed change of food chains. Critical thinking like this is what will help achieve international sustainability goals and ultimately protect the global ocean.



Featured Image: Rosa Say | Flickr


Belton, B., Reardon, T. and Zilberman, D., 2020. Sustainable commoditization of seafood. Nature Sustainability, 3(9), pp.677-684.

Béné, C., Barange, M., Subasinghe, R., Pinstrup-Andersen, P., Merino, G., Hemre, G.I. and Williams, M., 2015. Feeding 9 billion by 2050–Putting fish back on the menu. Food Security, 7(2), pp.261-274.

Cisneros-Montemayor, A.M., Pauly, D., Weatherdon, L.V. and Ota, Y., 2016. A global estimate of seafood consumption by coastal indigenous peoples. PloS one, 11(12), p.e0166681.

Crona, B.I., Basurto, X., Squires, D., Gelcich, S., Daw, T.M., Khan, A., Havice, E., Chomo, V., Troell, M., Buchary, E.A. and Allison, E.H., 2016. Towards a typology of interactions between small-scale fisheries and global seafood trade. Marine Policy, 65, pp.1-10.

de la Caba, K., Guerrero, P., Trung, T.S., Cruz-Romero, M., Kerry, J.P., Fluhr, J., Maurer, M., Kruijssen, F., Albalat, A., Bunting, S. and Burt, S., 2019. From seafood waste to active seafood packaging: An emerging opportunity of the circular economy. Journal of Cleaner Production, 208, pp.86-98.

Fao.org. 2021. Sustainable Food Systems. [online] Available at: https://www.fao.org/3/ca2079en/CA2079EN.pdf [Accessed 27 October 2021].

Farmery, A.K., Alexander, K., Anderson, K., Blanchard, J.L., Carter, C.G., Evans, K., Fischer, M., Fleming, A., Frusher, S., Fulton, E.A. and Haas, B., 2021. Food for all: designing sustainable and secure future seafood systems. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, pp.1-21.

Hobday, A.J., Cochrane, K., Downey-Breedt, N., Howard, J., Aswani, S., Byfield, V., Duggan, G., Duna, E., Dutra, L.X., Frusher, S.D. and Fulton, E.A., 2016. Planning adaptation to climate change in fast-warming marine regions with seafood-dependent coastal communities. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 26(2), pp.249-264.

Lappo, A., Bjørndal, T., Fernández-Polanco, J. and Lem, A., 2015. Consumers' Concerns and External Drivers in Food Markets. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular, (C1102), p.I.

Lund, E.K., 2013. Health benefits of seafood; is it just the fatty acids?. Food chemistry, 140(3), pp.413-420.

Marean, C., 2007. Making the paper: cave findings reveal modern man's earliest seafood diet. Nature, 449(7164), pp.15.



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