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As the world’s population grows, researchers say the ocean and seafood have big roles to play

Seafood production could see as much as a 75 percent leap over the next three decades if certain policy reforms and technological improvements are put in place, according to research conducted by Oregon State University (OSU) in collaboration with a bevy of international scientists.

By 2050, the earth’s human population is expected to reach 9.8 billion, an increase of two billion people over the current global tally. Researchers, who published their latest findings in Nature, believe that seafood has the potential to feed the growing world over the next 30 years sustainably – if certain conditions are applied.

Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and professor with OSU’s College of Science, joined forces with scientists from the United States, China, Chile, Mexico, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Norway, Argentina, and Malaysia to analyze how much food the ocean could sustainably provide over the next three decades for the study.

The research team considered wild fisheries and mariculture related to a number of prominent finfish and bivalve species, including tuna, snapper, clams, and oysters. They determined “sustainable supply curves” for the species, taking into account ecological, economic, regulatory, and technological limitations, noted a press release announcing the scientists’ findings.

Each supply curve was then applied to future demand scenarios, allowing the researchers to make predictions about how much food the ocean could feasibly provide as global populations grow. The ocean, which is currently responsible for 17 percent of total production of animal products consumed in the world, is poised to rise as a powerful protein resource in the years to come, the researchers discovered.

“As mariculture technology improves and policies surrounding the ocean and its resources are reformed, food from the sea could increase by between 21 million and 44 million metric tons annually,” Lubchenco, who previously served as an administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a press release. “Those increases amount to between 12 [percent] and 25 [percent] of the estimated animal protein increases needed to feed the almost 10 billion people expected to live on the Earth in 2050. Rising incomes and shifts in food preferences will greatly increase demand for nutritious food in the coming decades, and the ocean can be a big part of meeting that demand.”

Land-based seafood production, including “freshwater aquaculture and inland fisheries,” will contribute to this growth, Lubchenco added. However, the expansion of such operations could run into the same challenges befalling land-based crops, which are facing declining yield rates, increased competition for land and water, as well as environmental and health concerns associated with large-scale agriculture, she explained.

“Land-based sources of fish and other foods are certainly part of the solution, but we show that sustainable food from the sea can play a major role in global food supply and food security as well,” Lubchenco said. “Stories of overfishing, pollution, and unsustainable mariculture give the impression that it is impossible to sustainably increase the supply of food from the sea. But unsustainable practices, regulatory barriers and other constraints may be limiting seafood production – meaning shifts in policies and practices could benefit both conservation and food production. We’ve seen, for example, how changes in policy in U.S. fisheries resulted in significantly reducing overfishing and rebuilding wild stocks, thus increasing the abundance of fish in U.S. waters as well as fishery yields.”

Lubchenco and the rest of the research team identified four primary routes to sustainably increasing ocean-based food production in the decades ahead.

“Better management of wild fisheries, which account for 80 percent of the sea’s meat production; reforms for policies governing mariculture; improvements in feeds used in mariculture; and shifts in demand to drive increased production from all ocean food sectors,” they wrote.

Seafood poses less of an environmental burden than some of its land-based food production counterparts, and offers a protein that is more nutritionally diverse, Lubchenco said. Innovation in the aquaculture and mariculture segments is expected to aid in the category’s expansion, particularly when it comes to feed alternatives, the scientists forecasted.

The farming of bivalves holds the largest growth potential as it relates to food from the sea, Lubchenco added.

“We have shown that the sea can be a much larger contributor to sustainable food production than is currently the case, via a collection of plausible and actionable mechanisms,” she said.

The research was supported by a variety of organizations, including SYSTEMIQ, the World Resources Institute, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the European Research Council, CONICYT-BASAL 0002, and GAIN-Xunta de Galicia.

Scientists and collaborators for the study hailed from Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Pesca y Acuacultura; Harvard University; Iwate University, the National Research Institute for Environmental Studies, and the Fisheries Research and Education Agency of Japan; the University of Washington; the University of Cape Town; Stanford University; the Norwegian School of Economics; Spain’s CIM-University of Vigo; the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina; and WorldFish of Malaysia.

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