Op-ed: Blue food on the policy menu

Ghislaine Llewellyn is the deputy oceans leader for WWF International, and Vicky W.Y. Lam is a research associate at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Oceans and Fisheries.

Food and nutrition are enjoying a deserved turn in the spotlight, with at least a dozen high-level meetings this year where food systems are on the table for discussion. 

“Blue food” describes fish and other food from the ocean and inland waters. This category spans luxury comestibles like bluefin tuna and humble edible algae such as sea grapes. It contributes to nutritional security, is a source of micronutrients, and can be a shelf-stable, fresh, or frozen source of protein.

However, as we enter the important food-related discussions slated for 2021, contradictory predictions about blue food muddy the waters. These include the potential for a seven-fold increase in productivity, as highlighted in the Future of Food from the Sea Blue Paper, versus a predicted 40 percent drop in productivity in some tropical fisheries due to climate change. One area of stark clarity: The majority of stocks that are meaningfully assessed are being unsustainably exploited. Moreover, the overfishing fronts are multiplying; we are fishing more, and expanding fishing areas deeper and wider than ever before.

These predictions point to potential winners and losers at the global scale. To ensure that the opportunities from blue food are realized in a sustainable, just and inclusive way, we have identified six blue food priority issues for the year ahead.

  • 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. They are at an unfair advantage compared to coastal communities when it comes to negotiating access rights and joint venture opportunities. We need to break the 20-year gridlock in talks on fishing subsidies reform and write a new rulebook based on fairness and equity.

  • Prioritize fish-dependent and nutrient-vulnerable communities.

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 are essential in the diets of many coastal communities and developing countries where the total protein intake per household is low, particularly in small island developing states, low-income food-deficit countries, and least developed countries. In these locations, people often depend on a relatively narrow selection of staple foods, which cannot provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids, vitamins, micronutrients, and healthy fats.

Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand are highly reliant on fish for food and are vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies. With a focus on GDP growth, such countries aim to increase the export of their fish to consumers in Europe and the U.S. Food is a national security issue; If a focus on export reduces the availability of fish for domestic lower-income and nutrient-vulnerable groups, it will lead to a public health crisis of malnutrition and exacerbate poverty locally. 

  • Address climate change as a food security threat.

The global catch potential of fish stocks is projected to decline by up to 24 percent  by the end of this century – mainly in the tropics – with up to 40 percent 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.

  • Close the net on human rights abuses at sea.

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.

  • 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 intact 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 marine ecosystems or terrestrial 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.

  • 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 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 – delivering triple bottom-line benefits in terms of nutrition, mitigation, and resilience.


The decisions around blue food can go one of two ways. We can stick with business as usual, squeezing more from struggling fisheries through a “new frontier” approach. This may provide some short-term gains, but surely to the determent of vulnerable communities, future generations, and healthy fish stocks. Or we can chart a new course that builds resilience and adaptive management throughout the system, particularly for those countries that have the highest dependence on fish for nutrition, have the highest vulnerability to fisheries collapse, and are at the highest risk of immediate productivity losses due to climate change. Seaweed and conversion-free, low-trophic aquaculture have considerable potential as part of a holistic plan to take pressure off wild fish stocks, to rebuild ocean health and to regenerate coastal habitats.

Earth’s remarkable ocean has fed humanity throughout the course of history. It can continue to do so, if we respect its limits.  


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