Climate and Nature

How nutrient-rich seafood could help feed millions - without overfishing

Stacks of worn crab traps await fishing season in Bodega Bay, California: Experts estimate that an additional 16 million tonnes could be available without overfishing our oceans.

Experts estimate that an additional 16 million tonnes could be available without overfishing our oceans. Image: Unsplash/Meritt Thomas

Rupert Howes
Chief executive, Marine Stewardship Council
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  • Marine resources are overlooked when it comes to addressing food and climate challenges for a growing global population.
  • Efforts are underway to encourage governments to place aquatic foods central to food policies, particularly due to their health benefits, while ensuring sustainable sources are accessed.
  • Access to sustainable seafood for undernourished populations will be another challenge for realizing seafood’s full potential.

With the world’s population set to reach 10 billion by 2050 and food systems and the environment already under intense strain, fresh thinking is required to meet the challenges ahead. A good starting point would be recognizing the contribution that our marine resources can make.

The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet and provides protein for over 3 billion across the globe. Yet, the role of seafood in helping to feed our population has been overlooked by governments in favour of land-based solutions, such as starchy vegetables and the production of red meat.

The consequence of these policies is stark. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, health risks caused by calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods have led to millions more early deaths, while the over-consumption of red meat contributes to serious but preventable illnesses, such as heart disease – now a leading cause of death globally.

A re-evaluation is underway, with the UN and leading scientists now urging governments to make aquatic foods central to their food policies and for good reason. According to the scientists behind the Blue Food Assessment – the work of over 100 professionals from 25 universities – aquatic foods are under-utilized even though they are some of the most nutrient-rich foods on earth.

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Nutrient-rich

Take wild fisheries as an example. The UN projects that this sector will produce 96 million tonnes of catch by 2030. However, experts estimate that another 16 million tonnes could be available without overfishing our oceans.

This potential could have significant health benefits. A new analysis by the Marine Stewardship Council derived from Harvard University’s Aquatic Foods Composition Database, the most comprehensive global database of more than 3,500 aquatic food species and hundreds of nutrients, shows that this higher amount of 112 million tonnes of seafood could deliver essential nutrients and vitamins to many.

The increased catch could, for instance, reduce iron deficiencies in 4 million people and vitamin B12 deficiencies in 18 million people, helping to alleviate anaemia. This global public health problem affects nearly half of young children under five and 40% of pregnant women globally.

Vitamin B-12 in different food sources.
Vitamin B-12 in different food sources. Image: Marine Stewardship Council

Similarly, 38 million people missing out on healthy levels of essential Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), mainly found in seafood, could also have their daily requirements if our oceans were fished sustainably, according to the analysis. Of course, there is much more to fix than simply increasing the amount of seafood. Improving access is also an issue, with the need to ensure better availability for the most under-nourished populations. But having millions more tonnes of seafood to work with is a promising start.

Omega-3 fatty acids in different food sources.
Omega-3 fatty acids in different food sources. Image: Marine Stewardship Council

Sustainable

The challenge of feeding ourselves will also become harder as the effects of climate change make themselves felt. But here’s where wild seafood also has an advantage over many other foods as it doesn’t require land or freshwater and results in fewer pollutants. And overall, carbon emissions from seafood are significantly lower than red meat production.

If the benefits of wild blue foods are to be realized, governments need to stop neglecting the ocean. With a third of global fish stocks still over-exploited, policymakers must put the ocean’s management at the heart of their food strategies. They need to set enabling rules to ensure that fishers managing the ocean sustainably are recognized, consulted and supported. It is also not just about building progress but ensuring we are not sliding back from the gains already made.

This goal is attainable and supported by the public. Robust fisheries management, backed by governments, businesses and fishers, can deliver progress. A recent study revealed that fish stocks targeted by sustainable fishers were healthier and more resilient than those which were not. Independent consumer research carried out across 23 markets also shows that alongside growing anxiety about the future of our ocean, there is a greater demand than ever for sustainably produced seafood.

Effective change to improve health and livelihoods worldwide is possible – but only if policymakers know the value of protecting our immense marine resources for future generations.

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