The Blue Revolution
The transformation of commercial fishing in the 21st century
by Nicholas P. Sullivan
Despite dire warnings from many quarters, much of it justified, commercial fishing in many parts of the world is transforming in the 21st century — from maximizing volume to maximizing value, from wild hunting to controlled harvesting and farming. Sensible stakeholders staring at a “tragedy of the commons” that has depleted a global, natural resource are collaborating to preserve the resource and its ocean habitat. Long a traditional throwback industry with little concern for “negative externalities,” as economists would say, commercial fishing is moving in fits and starts into the post-industrial age — propelled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution of big data, sensors, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The fish in our stores and on our plates are increasingly the product of smart decisions about ecosystems, habitat, waste, efficiency, transparency, and quality.
The Blue Revolution of the 1980s, which followed the agricultural Green Revolution that started in the 1960s, was largely an Asian phenomenon that focused on doubling production of farmed freshwater fish, such as carp and tilapia. Over the last two decades, the Blue Revolution has spread around the world and moved into a new phase — increasingly focused on marine species and increasingly dependent on digital tools and new technologies for both wild-capture and farmed seafood. This transformation of seafood production represents a dramatic pullback from the relentless industrial hunting of fish that started after World War II and peaked in the 1990s, and the industrial farming of fish that began in earnest in the 1990s.
This transformation is evident in many developed countries like Norway (and much of Europe), Iceland, New Zealand, Chile, Australia, and the United States, the sixth largest capture fishery in the world. NOAA Fisheries, for example, manages 460 stocks — 26 of which are subject to overfishing (not sustainable over the long term) and 49 of which are over-fished and in “rebuilding” mode. That means that roughly 84 percent of US stocks are currently managed for long-term sustainability. More importantly, 45 US stocks have been “rebuilt” since 2000, a trend that will hopefully continue. Globally, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states in its “State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020” that 78.7 percent of landed fish are from “biologically sustainable stocks.” These numbers clearly could be better and may well be someday as the vice slowly closes on illegal fishing (responsible for more than 20 percent of the world’s catch), but they are not close to being apocalyptic.
Thanks to strong US fishery management under the evolving Magnuson-Stevens Act, there are now more ground fish (bottom-feeding fish) in the Greater Atlantic Region (ranging from Cape Hatteras to the maritime boundary between the United States and Canada) than there were 20 or 30 years ago. After a 50-year oscillating wave of crisis and response, this recent fishing rebound seems different. The demise of the Atlantic cod (in part a function of an unanticipated acceleration of warming in the Gulf of Maine) was a real wake-up call for scientists, regulators, and fishermen. Now, with sensors, underwater cameras, and advanced data-analytic tools, all stakeholders are refining their view of the marine ecosystem, survey techniques, and harvesting methods to avoid bycatch that is often left to die in the ocean. Many fishing boats in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the top-value port in the US for the last 20 years, are outfitted with sensors to collect data on ocean temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels. The hope is that when this data from this Marine Databank is bumped against actual catch data it will help captains target abundant species and avoid bycatch.
Internationally, the Global Fishing Watch website allows a near-real-time internet feed showing the location of most large fishing boats on the oceans at any time, a breakthrough in transparency that is leading to arrests of criminal IUU boat captains and their white-collar sponsors. The obvious problem with trying to police the global ocean is that it covers 70 percent of the planet. Few countries have the resources or will to effectively monitor and enforce their own waters (Indonesia is a standout in this area), let alone the high seas — even with help from INTERPOL and non-profit Sea Shepherd (which has just three ships). Regional partnerships such as FISH-i-Africa are clearly needed to patrol vast tracts of the ocean. In South America, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina are talking about forming a similar regional ocean police force. But even before Global Fishing Watch launched and before the robust regional partnerships, there were success stories. Protection of the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean (aka Chilean sea bass), thanks largely to Sea Shepherd, stands out.
I started studying global fisheries about five years ago after reading dire reports about overfishing to answer a basic question: Where will the fish to feed a growing world come from? Fish is the main source of protein in many parts of the world. More than 3 billion people now get 20 percent of their protein from fish (second only to milk as a protein source); that number is 26 percent in developing countries, according to the FAO. Fish is lean protein that also provides essential vitamins and minerals — and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. As the world population edges toward 10 billion and more people eat more fish, demand for fish will continue to increase. Between 1990 and 2018, global fish consumption rose by 122 percent.
Where are the fish going to come from? The short answer is from farmed fish, which already account for more than half the fish eaten globally. But wild fish are still a big part of the answer, especially as wild hunting morphs into sustainable harvesting. Of course, a big question about the future of wild fish is how well different species will adapt (or not) or shift migration patterns in response to climate change that affects the temperature and acidity of the ocean. There will clearly be winners and losers among fish and fishing regions.
As for farmed fish, there are clear ecological and environmental benefits compared to land-based meat production — what I call “fish for a small planet” after the best-selling Diet for a Small Planet (Frances Moore Lappé, 1971 Ballentine Books) in the 1970s. Fish production uses less space (a water farm is a three-dimensional farm), almost no land or water (ocean water suffices and land-based fish farms recirculate most of the water they use), and fish have a far superior food-conversion ratio compared to land animals (given the physiology of fish and their ability to efficiently convert feed into energy and protein).
The potential of the ocean to feed the world goes beyond fish to sea vegetables. Ronald Osinga, a biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, suggests that sea-vegetable farms totaling 180,000 square kilometers — roughly the size of Washington State — could provide enough protein for the entire world. Scott Lindell, a marine scientist in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department at The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says that by co-farming kelp and shellfish “we could develop all the protein and calories we need in an area as small as coastal New England and New York State.” Such a multi-trophic “3D garden,” as Bren Smith describes his Thimble Island Ocean Farm off the coast of New Haven, begins to transform fishing from sustainable to restorative, a leapfrog transformation. Mussels and oysters filter the water clean; kelp absorbs CO2 and nitrogen.
This integrated multi-trophic aquaculture — “3D garden” does sound better — relies on the idea that in natural ecological communities nutrient waste from one organism is reused as food for the next. When it comes to wild seafood, a lot of what we eat is a product of recycling at sea. Lobsters, for example, are detrivores that live off garbage (excrement and dead bodies) at the bottom of the sea. Multi-trophic aquaculture is an extension of this natural recycling idea, clustering fed species (such as fish) and extractive species (such as shellfish and seaweeds) together so that they can exchange nutrients.
On land, the Green Revolution increased yields and productivity, but only in the short term, because every single-species system generates environmental and economic issues as farming intensifies. It took centuries on land to refine the principals of agronomy. Thierry Chopin, professor of marine biology at the University of New Brunswick, thinks it is now time to approach farming of the sea through the development of aquanomy. This is just one piece of the larger Blue Revolution made possible by the tools of the information age.
Another promising development is aquaponics — the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, using nutrient rich water from fish farms to grow vegetables that purify the water that then recirculates back to the fish farm. Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) use large land-based tanks filled with water to grow fish and recirculate 95–99 percent of the water. Land-based RAS systems also protect ocean habitats and wild fish.
Such systems rely on state-of-the-art digital tools and machine-learning algorithms to run the water, feed, and filtering systems. Energy is a major cost, but farms are piloting conversion of fish waste into biogas for energy, creating a more holistic, closed system. And aquaponics allows farmers to grow greens as well as fish. Superior Fresh in Hixton, Wisconsin, combines an RAS salmon farm (the first in the United States) with hydroponics to grow greens on rafts floating in water. Superior Fresh produces 3 million pounds of organic greens and 160,000 pounds of salmon each year, wasting almost no water. Likewise, Hudson Valley Fisheries in Hudson, New York, an RAS farm that raises steelhead, applies aquaponics to grow hemp, a much higher value crop than leafy greens.
Most reporting about commercial fishing and mariculture laments the decline of wild fish due to overfishing and the negative side effects of ocean-based fish farming. That reflects and contributes to the largely negative public perception of both wild and farmed fish — a perception seemingly fixed 20 or more years ago when environmental NGOs filed lawsuit after lawsuit against the fishing industry and its regulators. There is no denying the ongoing major problems afflicting global fisheries: illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing (IUU); degradation of mangrove swamps to farm shrimp in Southeast Asia and the sea-floor from near-shore net-pen farms; and the use of drift nets (outlawed by the United Nations in 1992) that collect everything from sea birds to turtles to sharks to tunas and octopi. And there is too much waste; nearly 60 percent of most landed fish goes unused or is converted to low-value pet food and fertilizer. Those are the issues that attract public attention, as they should. What is less often reported and thus less well known is the 21st century transformation of the country’s original industry — transformation from unsustainable to sustainable, from sustainable to restorative, from industrial to postindustrial.
A growing “fishie” movement parallels the decades-old locavore “foodie” movement. Seafood consumers are increasingly demanding independent, third-party verification of sustainability in supermarkets (70 percent made this claim), according to a 2018 GlobeScan study of 25,810 consumers in 22 countries. These attitudes are now more prevalent in Europe than North America, but behavior is shifting. Restaurants in North America, for example, have experimented with QR codes on menus to show fish provenance.
Global standards include the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for wild fish, and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certifications for farmed fish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program has been rating popular seafood from green to red for more than 20 years. Many retailers, especially large grocery chains, have a clear seafood sourcing policy that uses a variety of tools, including the above standards, to identify illegally harvested fish. As concern about illegal fishing increases, new traceability tools such as Trace Register track catch from boat to processing plant to retailer. Trace Register is built on the Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability (GDST) platform, introduced in 2020. GDST standards allow digital traceability for producers and suppliers to insure seafood is legal and sustainable. More than 30 vendors are already offering third-party traceability services compatible with GDST.
New entrepreneurs and investors are developing ways to create more value from fish beyond the food product, which helps lessen fishing pressure and provides new business opportunities in coastal communities. The leader in promoting “100% fish” and the waste-to-value movement is the Iceland Ocean Cluster, which has spawned several spinoff clusters in New England and elsewhere. A striking example of waste-to-value comes from Kerecis, an Icelandic company that has patented the use of codfish skin for skin-graft bandages. On average, Kerecis can produce eight “skin units” from one cod. Each unit sells for roughly $500, yielding a value of $4,000 per fish. The skin, often wasted, is effectively a medical wonder worth exponentially more than the fish fillet itself.
Global fisheries aren’t done yet. They are slowly joining the Fourth Industrial Revolution, giving more than a ray of hope for the last commercially hunted wild food. The good news is that mariculture has significantly reduced its negative side effects as it has scaled. On the wild side, marine extinctions are negligible to date and fish stocks have shown that they will rebound quickly if protected. If consumers continue to demand more change in fish production and distribution, commercial fish production could be primed for a positive sea change.
Nicholas P. Sullivan is author of The Blue Revolution: Hunting, Harvesting, and Farming Seafood in the Information Age (Island Press, April 2022). He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fletcher School’s Maritime Studies Program and a Senior Fellow at Fletcher’s Council on Emerging Market Enterprises.