Fishermen in orange helmets and blue attire pull a large net of jumping fish out of the water, creating a dramatic splash.

Fishing for carp at Qiandao Lake, Zhejiang province, a major aquaculture production centre for Eastern China. Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty


Here’s to blue foods

With care for the social and ecological consequences, foods from the ocean should provide sustainable protein to billions

by Madhura Rao + BIO

Fishing for carp at Qiandao Lake, Zhejiang province, a major aquaculture production centre for Eastern China. Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

Having lived nowhere other than the western coast of India for the first 21 years of my life, seafood was an indispensable part of my diet growing up. When the family business was prospering, we’d feast on plump pomfrets and juicy tiger prawns. When it wasn’t, there’d be smaller, bonier fish like anchovies and sardines. Or the less popular bycatch at least. If nothing else, my mum would bring out wares she’d stashed away for the greyer days; a jar of spicy pickled shrimp or salted, sundried mackerel perhaps. But fruits of the Arabian Sea always featured prominently in most meals. In fact, the act of procuring seafood was almost as delightful as consuming it. My Saturday mornings were often spent at the fish market with my mum, watching her negotiate with Hira – our family’s favourite fishmonger. ‘I saved these for you, I know your kids enjoy them,’ I remember Hira saying, trying to sell us her most formidable pair of mud crabs. She wasn’t wrong, I do love a good mud crab curry.

These days, my Saturday mornings are spent shopping for the week’s groceries at the supermarket in my neighbourhood in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Every week, I spend several minutes eyeing squeaky-clean salmon steaks and delicate basa fillets packed in the most sterile-looking plastic boxes I’ve ever seen. The stickers on the box tell me so much about the fish – freshness, origin, environmental impact, recyclability of the packaging. Yet I long to run my fingers through its non-existent scales and inspect its long-discarded gills for tactile cues about quality. Without the sights, sounds and serendipitous communal life of a coastal fish market, buying seafood has lost its allure for me. I guiltily move to the meat section to check for other protein options for the week.

Like me, many have ‘upgraded’ to consuming more meat than previous generations did. By factory farming livestock, we are now able to produce meat at unbelievably low costs. We also have more money to spend than we ever did. Data show a strong positive correlation between a country’s GDP per capita and the amount of meat the average citizen consumes in a year. Collectively, we eat three times the meat we did just 50 years ago. In rapidly industrialising countries like China and Brazil, meat consumption has doubled in a span of two to three decades. Meanwhile, developed countries continue to consume meat in even more copious amounts than they did before. For many, eating more meat means improved food security and nutritional status. But it also pushes against our planet’s boundaries like few other anthropogenic activities do. With cow flatulence enveloping Earth in temperature-raising gases and the Amazon losing its cover to cattle feed, the current ways of producing and consuming meat have been pronounced detrimental to the planet’s health. In fact, it isn’t particularly good for human health, either. Consuming meat excessively, especially the red and processed kinds, exposes us to higher risks for various lifestyle-related diseases.

We are currently at a point in time where the evidence against the ills of factory-farmed meat are simply too jarring to ignore. Results from scientific studies are clear – we cannot keep eating this way without inducing a climate apocalypse. There’s a strong push to find new ways to feed billions of protein-hungry mouths without destroying the planet. With the area of arable land available to us remaining limited, scientists have urged policymakers and decision-takers to turn their attention towards ‘blue foods’ – animals, plants and algae harvested from natural and artificial aquatic environments.

The logic of blue foods, particularly aquatic animals, being less burdensome to the environment is fairly simple. Being cold blooded, they do not use energy gained from their feed to keep their bodies warm. This means more meat per unit of feed compared with warm-blooded terrestrial livestock.

Although incomparable with the rise of meat consumption, global interest in blue foods has been inching upward as well. In 2018, the average person consumed 15.1 kgs of blue foods per year, compared with the 11.5 kg per person per year figure of 1998. The distinction between ‘seafood’ and ‘blue food’ is critical here because close to half of the aquatic plants and animals we consume today do not come from the sea at all. They are farmed under controlled, semi-natural conditions in tanks, ponds, raceways and enclosed sections of the ocean. Even consumers from traditionally seafaring parts of the world have begun to prefer farmed aquatic foods over those from a nearby sea. This would explain the popularity of salmon and basa – neither harvested from the North Sea – in my neighbourhood’s supermarket. After all, there are few things the Dutch like better than economical supermarket offerings and the convenience of semi-prepared foods.

But aquaculture is unlikely to ever completely replace wild-capture fisheries in the foreseeable future. Next to providing protein and micronutrient-rich sustenance, fisheries are a source of livelihood for millions across the globe. The United Nations estimates that around 120 million people are directly and indirectly engaged in wild-capture fisheries, compared with the 15 million in aquaculture. This is unsurprising considering that the act of procuring food from the sea is as old as humanity itself. However, what was once a cornucopia of diverse and delicious foods is increasingly reluctant to share its bounty with us. Fishes that were once captured with ease are becoming elusive, endangered and, in some cases, even extinct. This scarcity pushes fishers to go looking farther into the sea and come into conflict with others doing the same. The conservation zoologist Tim McClanahan and colleagues mention the UK-Iceland Cod Wars of the 1950s and ’70s, the Yellow Croaker dispute between China and Japan in the 1920s and ’30s, and the Canada-Spain Turbot War of 1995 as examples of such conflicts. They explain that these clashes over marine resources have the potential to ‘lead to wider instability, particularly where food insecurity is high, people are vulnerable, and governance is weak or autocratic.’

Up until the 1970s, wild-capture fisheries provided the world with almost the entirety of its blue food supply. It was in the 1980s, when wild-fish harvesting plateaued, that the world started thinking of other ways to procure aquatic foods. Overfishing led to the severe depletion of fish stocks and, consequently, serious disruptions in marine ecosystems. Largescale commercial aquaculture was born of the necessity to continue providing dietary staples to seafood-dependent communities around the world, without endangering marine ecosystems. By making use of the rapidly advancing technology in this sector, we were able to master the art of farming aquatic life efficiently within a relatively short span of time. In fact, we got so good at it that, by 2014, produce from aquaculture had bested wild-caught seafood as a source of food.

The sustainability problems of aquaculture are less complex and more solvable than those of livestock

Like industrialised livestock rearing, aquaculture has become popular for the several commercial benefits it offers. Selecting only the most robust species, eliminating risks from predators, and engineering the perfect environmental conditions allows aquaculturists to produce high-quality blue foods at a lower cost than deep-sea fishing. More control over the production process and clearer rights over the harvested produce also ensure higher profits and fewer geopolitical disputes. The success of aquaculture has not only flooded traditionally seafood-consuming markets with a year-round supply of affordable aquatic foods but also created new markets in regions where these foods weren’t always popular. Next to finfish such as carp, catfish, salmon, tilapia, trout and tuna, other aquatic flora and fauna are farmed as well. Specialised systems cultivating molluscs such as oysters, clams, mussels and abalone, and various species of shrimp, are proliferating. There is also a growing interest in farming crabs, lobsters and other invertebrate animals, like sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Although a minority, some aquatic farms focus on marine plants and algae such as water chestnut and seaweed.

One would think that with the grand success of blue food production from aquaculture, wild-caught seafood will eventually become a thing of the past; like hunting wild animals for sustenance has in most parts of the world. This, however, is far from the truth. Like their counterparts from the natural environment, farmed aquatic creatures thrive only when their diet is rich in all essential nutrients. Often omnivorous, these animals subsist on plants and smaller animals from their natural ecosystems. Prospering aquaculture farms around the world are supported by wild-capture fisheries that harvest forage-fish species, such as anchovies, herring, mackerel and sardines, and turn them into fishmeal and fish oil. Accounting for a third of all wild-capture landings, a sizeable portion of these fish are caught in the waters of developing countries, where they are an important source of sustenance for local populations. Final aquaculture products, especially the premium varieties, are often exported to wealthier countries. This, in sum, results in the removal of proteins and micronutrients from many food-insecure regions.

Thankfully, most aquatic creatures aren’t picky eaters. This means that, with some ingenuity, it is possible to reduce their dependence on fish meal and oil. Like other omnivores such as pigs and chickens, many fish species can be raised on leftovers from the human food chain. Nutrient-rich marine microalgae and insects are great options, too. Sustainably grown terrestrial plants like soybean, engineered to reduce antinutritional components, can also successfully replace at least a part of fish meal and oil in aquafeeds. Innovation in aquafeed could potentially decouple aquaculture from wild fisheries and provide pathways to expand blue-food farming in a sustainable way. So, on the feed front at least, the sustainability problems of aquaculture are less complex and more solvable than those of livestock. However, there’s another aspect of the industry that is much harder to fix: its chronic dependence on exploitative labour practices.

With close to 92 per cent of the total production coming from Asia, the prosperity aquaculture has brought to the continent is often used as a metric to measure its economic potential. But if one were to investigate how Asian aquaculturists are able to sell at low prices while making substantial profits, poor working conditions would be a part of the answer. Of course, technology and knowledge make the system effective too, but it is on the backs of underpaid and overworked primary production workers that the industry has scaled the heights of commercial success. Pioneers of the blue revolution have been so busy overcoming technical and biological challenges that the social impact of producing food this way has remained largely unaddressed.

In Asia and beyond, precariously employed persons belonging to marginalised communities make up a large share of aquaculture workers. This includes women, children, Indigenous people and migrant workers. Borrowing from the worst practices of the wild-fisheries industry, aquaculture workers are routinely coerced into debt bondage, discriminated against, denied rights of association, and employed in facilities that lack adequate occupational safety and health standards. Reporting, and therefore statistics, on injuries and diseases among workers is a rarity in the sector but, from whatever little is available through journalistic and investigative records, we know that musculoskeletal disorders, skin infections and respiratory diseases are rampant.

Like many other areas of the food system, the only way to create better conditions for aquaculture workers is through stricter regulation; both public and private. Governments of countries like China, Indonesia, India and Vietnam, where the blue revolution is thriving, need to do more to protect workers’ rights. Buyers with big market muscle must demand social sustainability audits and certification from producers. The industry at present is well-enough rooted for its custodians to move beyond biotechnical hurdles and invest in setting up ethically sound supply chains.

In addition to its dependence on wild-caught fisheries and questionable labour practices, it is important to acknowledge and improve upon the ecological issues inherent to aquaculture production systems. Producing high-quality aquatic foods at low costs requires the use of genetic-engineering techniques that create aquatic species with special physiological characteristics. Often more resilient than their wild counterparts, aquaculture species that manage to escape or are released from their enclosures end up taking over the natural habitats of wild fish. This disrupts entire ecosystems and threatens the existence of wild populations that are already vulnerable. Escapees also spread diseases that wild aquatic populations have no immunity against. In aquaculture systems, these diseases are prevented through the use of antibiotic medication, residues of which may end up on our plates.

Aquatic production systems are no panacea for all our food security and sustainability concerns. They’re fraught with ethical and practical problems and need considerable work to be sustainable in the long run. Yet they present much promise with regard to improving food security in the face of climate change. A study in 2020 exploring the future of food from the sea concludes that, because aquatic foods are nutritionally diverse and avoid many of the environmental burdens of land-based food production, they are uniquely positioned to contribute to future global food and nutrition security. Particularly, it emphasises the role in this endeavour of mariculture – farming aquatic foods in a cordoned-off section of the sea. It also recommends that we produce more low-impact bivalves, such as mussels, clams and oysters, to sustainably meet the growing protein demand. But the big question is, are we, as consumers, ready for our plates to be bluer in the near-future?

Many studies and policies on blue foods are so focused on production capacity that they forget to account for the biggest incentive for expansion – consumer demand. Unlike poultry, beef and pork, blue foods have thus far been limited by geographic restraints. As culturally and nutritionally critical as they are for communities living in close proximity to water bodies, the idea of eating creatures that grow underwater may feel outlandish to natives of other terrains. While there are studies that confirm this, I personally found this out not too long ago. At a restaurant in Marseille in France, my friend and travel companion – who doesn’t eat seafood and comes from a land-locked country – asked one of the most baffling questions I’ve ever been asked. ‘Doesn’t this feel like you’re eating little aliens?’ they enquired, while watching me demolish a large bowl of luscious bouillabaisse dotted with clam shells and chunks of beautiful white fish. ‘Aliens?’ I asked, perplexed. ‘Seafood is so different from all other meats, you see,’ they explained. ‘With their patterned shells, long, wriggly tentacles and shiny scales, I think they look a lot like little alien creatures.’ The writer H P Lovecraft, creator of Cthulhu – a monster with an octopus head, scaly body, and claws at the end of its limbs – would probably agree.

Other than being affordable, blue foods also need to be amiable

So, next to technical, biological, economic and social concerns, those in charge of expanding blue-food production are tasked with an additional mission – convincing the unacquainted that blue foods are not little alien creatures from a distant aqueous planet. Will they succeed? Perhaps not with the entirety of our population. But there’s a good chance that those among us with an even slightly adventurous palate and an appetite for sustainable consumption could be brought into the fold. After all, so many of the popular blue foods we eat today were once considered unappealing. The lobster, now a luxury item, was once thought of as the poor man’s food by European settlers in North America. Milkfish, once rejected because of its numerous intermuscular bones, is among the most popular fish in Southeast Asia today. Crayfish – once disdained by many as a swamp-dwelling, paddy field-infesting crustacean – is now a favourite in many countries. And, as various Asian cuisines gain popularity, seaweed products have been popping up in kitchens around the world.

Like any other strategy seeking to assuage the effects of climate change and ensure the future habitability of our planet, increasing consumers’ acceptance of blue foods is a long and arduous process that demands concerted efforts from several parties. The cornerstone of this undertaking must be the availability of affordable blue foods. This is a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma because, to achieve economies of scale, demand is a critical factor. But without being able to purchase these foods, especially the novel varieties, there cannot be an increase in consumer demand.

Other than being affordable, blue foods also need to be amiable. For consumers to be willing to buy them, they need to first like them. And by ‘like’ I don’t mean only the taste, texture, aroma and such. Those are important too but, in order to make the purchase at all, consumers must feel a sense of connectedness with blue foods. Given that opening wet markets and finding our favourite fishmongers is (unfortunately) impractical in many parts of the world where the fisheries industry is not traditional, stakeholders in the food system must find other ways to help consumers get better acquainted with blue foods. This could be done by encouraging restaurants to incorporate blue foods into local gastronomy, educating children and adults about aquaculture and its role in sustainable food production, and publishing accessible recipes. Lastly, putting an assortment of blue foods on the market is essential as well. To avoid replicating the damage inflicted by monocropping on our terrestrial ecosystems, aquaculture must strive to maintain the diversity of aquatic systems. This means that we cannot all be eating salmon fillets and tuna steaks. For blue foods to be able to truly make a difference, we must be willing to expand our gastronomic horizons considerably and give new foods a chance.

However, in the quest to ensure that blue foods are affordable, amiable and assorted, they must not be taken away from the people who truly depend on them. In 1997, the political scientist George Kent wrote: ‘Fish used to be known as poor people’s food. However, when fish supplies deteriorate, fish tends to disappear first from the plates of the poor.’ He explains that, ‘for people with abundant alternatives’, having less or lower-quality fish ‘may be little more than an annoyance’. But for those who live on the margins and heavily depend on fish, insecurity surrounding aquatic foods can be incredibly detrimental to livelihoods and wellbeing. More than 25 years later, his observations remain true. While creating new markets for blue foods is important to improve macro-level food security, it must not be done at the expense of communities who have consumed these foods through the ages; be it Arctic-dwelling Indigenous peoples, artisanal fishers from coasts all around the world, or my family back in India, relying on seafood through thick and thin.