No, Actually, There Aren’t Plenty of Fish in the Sea

Or the rivers for that matter. A new focus on food systems must address the threats to essential aquatic food sources.

By Gilly Llewellyn, WWF Interim Oceans Lead

Mafamede, Mozambique. © WWF-US / James Morgan

The stated mission of the inaugural UN Food Systems Summit was reimagining and realigning food systems to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. I am genuinely heartened that the topic of aquatic and blue foods was elevated to one of seven key coalitions that will drive action and policy to achieve that mission.

But as my colleague, WWF’s Global Food Lead, Joao Campari said, “There is no time to rest. The Food Systems Summit kickstarted action, but the hard work starts now to ensure it translates into meaningful impact.”

Indeed, the recent buzz and enthusiasm for blue foods must be tempered by reality. It’s true, this category of edibles sourced from marine and freshwater aquatic ecosystems encompasses remarkable variety, from million-dollar tunas to humble edible algae and seaweeds. Many also provide essential amino acids, vitamins, micronutrients and healthy fats, making them nature’s superfoods. But make no mistake, our oceans are not an endless buffet — like everything in nature, they have their limits.

Evidence abounds of our negligent mismanagement of nature, resulting in linked crises of biodiversity loss, climate change, rising hunger and a lack of equity when it comes to food. From the freshwater realm, 40% of global fish consumption relies on rivers, including 20% of the global fish catch and more than two-thirds of fish from aquaculture. But across the world, rivers are being degraded and freshwater species are declining faster than either terrestrial or marine species.

In our oceans, the decimation of sharks and rays due to overfishing means one-third of these species is now at risk of extinction. If sharks are the “canary in the coalmine” for ocean health, we’re standing oblivious in the midst of a lot of dead birds. In fact, 90% of global fish stocks currently are fully or overexploited.

Gulf of California, Mexico. © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF

A new approach

Historically, blue foods were victims of their own apparent abundance and the fact that they came from the commons. It led to complacency and drastic undervaluation. Now, as we look through a new lens at the role fish, aquatic plants and ecosystems play in human nutrition and planetary health, we see we cannot live without them. And that impels us to act.

The momentum from the Food Systems Summit should drive action on six priorities to help make the benefits of blue food sustainable, just and inclusive.

  1. Focus on the value of blue food in nourishing vulnerable communities and addressing global public health.
Dili, East Timor. © Jürgen Freund / WWF

In much of the developed world, fish is valued as a healthy dietary alternative to other meats, or as a luxury or status symbol. But fish proteins and micronutrients are also essential in the diets of hundreds of millions of people around the world, including in coastal communities and developing countries. Many Southeast Asian countries are highly reliant on fish for nutrition and are vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies. With seafood growing in importance as a source of export revenue trade-offs clearly exist between the availability of nutritious fish for domestic lower-income and nutrient-vulnerable groups, and increasing GDP income from seafood exports. Nutrient sensitive fisheries management can help address this and ensure that nutrients from fish are available to those that need them most, and that we avoid, rather than accelerate a public health crisis of malnutrition.

2. Protect and regenerate natural coastal infrastructure.

Natural infrastructure, such as mangroves, seagrass, coral reefs, shellfish reefs, and wetlands, defends coastal villages and megacities alike against extreme events made worse and more frequent by climate change. They also underpin the coastal fishing industry by providing essential habitats for what is eventually caught, sold and eaten. In so doing, they “pay” for their protection in economic and social dividends. The restoration and regeneration of coastal habitats is a powerful means of addressing biodiversity loss, enhancing or sustaining fisheries, and building climate and disaster defenses. Marine protected areas and other areas of conservation management are well established mechanisms for protecting and regenerating marine habitats and ecosystems — delivering triple bottom-line benefits in terms of nutrition, mitigation and resilience.

3. Launch the next generation of sustainable aquaculture.

Aquatic farming holds great potential to produce healthy food while minimizing and mitigating environmental degradation. If delivered without converting ecosystems such as mangroves or coastal wetlands into farmed seascapes and without depending on small pelagic fish for producing fishmeal, aquatic farming can help feed the world, enhance livelihoods and conserve nature — in perpetuity! It can be a development tool that provides small-scale producers a path out of poverty while paying workers decent wages. But it has to be done right: no conversion of intact ecosystems; no using “trash fish” for feed, which can incentivize bycatch; and using smart subsidies for seaweed and shellfish farming to capture and convert excess nutrients and carbon into food.

4. Address climate change and its impact on the ocean as a food security threat.

The global catch potential of fish stocks is projected to decline by up to 24% by the end of this century — mainly in the tropics — with up to 40% decline in catch potential in some exclusive economic zones by the 2050s, relative to the 2000s. This climate-driven crash in fisheries production and alterations in fish-species composition will dramatically increase the vulnerability of tropical countries with limited adaptive capacity and compound the tropical public health and nutritional security crisis that is looming.

5. Level the playing field by removing harmful subsidies.

Heavily subsidized fishing fleets distort markets and create a barrier to entry for coastal economies looking to leverage their coastal assets for sustainable development. It’s time to break the 20-year gridlock on fishing subsidies reform and write a new rulebook based on fairness and equity.

6. Make fisheries a source of decent work.

Consumers should be able to enjoy seafood free from the taint of human rights abuses, and fishworkers should have a workplace free from intimidation or violence. Establishing requirements for comprehensive and transparent reporting of all life-threatening injuries or deaths, adopting binding measures on crew welfare, and ensuring full traceability of all seafood products are minimum regulatory remedies.

Blue food runs like a current through the sustainable development agenda — a tool to address poverty, hunger, health, livelihoods, climate, and more. But it needs to be anchored in productive, resilient, natural systems — in places where our thriving web of ocean life is preserved.

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WWF is building a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Read to find out more on our areas of work, conservation wins, and more.

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