Mind the gap between ICES nations’ future seafood consumption and aquaculture production

By: Halley E. Froehlich, Jessica Couture, Lynne Falconer, Gesche Krause, James A. Morris, Montse Perez, Grant D. Stentiford, Harri Vehvila¨inen, and Benjamin S. Halpern *

This analysis developed by researchers at the University of California, the University of Stirling, NOAA, and collaborative agencies and institutes from Germany, Spain, the UK, Finland, and the USA reflects on the future of seafood for the ICES nations and food system accountability in a global market, including adaptive strategies under a changing climate, based on the comparative analysis of general trends of wild capture from fisheries vs. aquaculture production over the last five decades.

Many of the 20 International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) member nations have been global leaders in protecting and managing wild fisheries. Still, to date, we found that most ICES nations lack long-term strategies for aquaculture growth, with an increasing gap between future domestic production and consumption. Thus, resulting in a potential 7 million tonne domestic seafood deficit by 2050, which imports from other countries would supplement. Our findings highlight the need to prioritize aquaculture policy to set more ambitious domestic production goals and improve sustainable sourcing of seafood from different parts of the world, with explicit recognition and strategic planning for climate change affecting such decisions.

Fish farm at sea. Top view of fish farm.

The lack of effective management during the rise of industrial-scale fishing led to the overharvest and collapse of many stocks. Yet, policy reform and associated fisheries management, initiated mainly during the mid-1990s, demonstrated effective ways to recover and sustain several major fisheries. However, while most assessed fisheries appear sustainable, meeting the growing demand and food security need for seafood has not and cannot be met without other forms of seafood production (freshwater and marine), particularly aquaculture—now accounting for approximately of all global aquatic production.

“As the human population has expanded to 7.7 billion people, changes in the availability and access to seafood have influenced the contribution of ICES nations to global seafood production and consumption. First, improved fisheries management has recovered many stocks, but global catches have stagnated in the absence of global reform adoption, particularly in coastal developing nations more dependent on seafood for food security and livelihoods.”

As a result, a major factor contributing to the change in seafood production came from countries focused on fishing and aquaculture development. Importantly, the growth in aquaculture production occurred in parallel with global trade, transporting wild and farmed seafood products all over the world. As a result, ICES nations now account for a much smaller proportion of global consumers and producers. Yet, total demand for seafood continues to increase in ICES countries and around the world and the associated food security issues therein.

The fundamental question of how ICES nations will continue to develop sustainable aquaculture industries to help meet their own expected seafood needs and contribute to the global market is still unanswered; this is an issue that is likely to become even more relevant in the face of climate change.

For fisheries, many wild-stock ranges are expected to shift out of originally managed extents to track ocean temperature, and productivity and recruitment declines may lower the overall productivity.

For aquaculture, marine production faces similar temperature and acidifying pressures as their wild counterparts, while inland production is combating flooding and sea-level rise while compromising the health and infrastructure of cultured systems. Thus, although there is recognition that climate change threats to aquatic systems will likely grow, the longer-term strategic adaptive planning, especially for aquaculture, still appears nascent.

Given the history and relevance of seafood for ICES countries, we ask what role sustainable aquaculture may play in these countries in the future, including consideration of trade and climate change. Drawing on existing quantitative and qualitative data sources, we explored the relative trends and forward-looking strategies for aquaculture among the respective nations that were, and continue to be, leaders in fisheries science and management.

“Total demand for seafood continues to increase in ICES countries and around the world and the associated food security issues therein.”

First, we assessed the change in aquatic sources of the collective and individual 20 ICES nations by comparing the general trends (tonnage and interannual variation) of wild capture vs. aquaculture production over the last five decades, paying particular attention to the top producing countries. Next, to determine how future aquaculture goals of the ICES members matched the prevailing trends. From the references, we extracted set goals, if any, for future aquaculture production (year, tonnage, and type).

“We then modeled the potential 2050 aquaculture increases (based on the growth targets) to that of the possible total seafood consumption (i.e. demand) over the same period, noting years of surplus or deficit. Recognizing that seafood from other countries fills domestic deficits, we highlight the top non-ICES seafood-trade partners, aquaculture production in those countries, and the implications for sustainable seafood. Lastly, we sought evidence of a base-level consideration of climate change concerning future ICES’ goals, given the increasing recognition climate change-related impacts may challenge aquaculture globally.”

Based on the results, we reflect on the future of seafood for the ICES nations and food system accountability in a global market, including adaptive strategies under a changing climate. 

Methods

We used United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data (production and food supply) to compare general trends of production and variation in wild capture and aquaculture (freshwater and marine, excluding aquatic plants) of the 20 ICES’ nations over the last five decades.

“Although there is recognition that climate change threats to aquatic systems will likely grow, the longer-term strategic adaptive planning, especially for aquaculture, still appears nascent.”

First, we assessed how the percentage of contribution of ICES total (in tonnes) consumption and production (capture plus aquaculture) has changed over time relative to global trends. Finding declining trends, which suggests a smaller role in global seafood overall, we next assessed which ICES nations contributed to the past and the more recent production of wild and farmed seafood, and the evenness of that tonnage per country by comparing the coefficient of variation (C.V.) of the intercountry output.

Lastly, we compared the yearly percentage change in capture and aquaculture production and the probability of seeing more increases instead of declines over time in the respective systems.

Aquaculture well boat/service boat in operation

We compiled information (government and industry) on proposed growth targets for the ICES member nations for assessing future aquaculture goals since 2013. From both experts and Internet searchers, we incorporated industry-reported values for nations where we could not find explicit government targets (Iceland) or that were cited by the government.

We also noted if the associated references mention the term “climate change”, which we used as a basic indicator of recognition and possible consideration for aquaculture growth. While our approach resulted in information on aquaculture growth for every ICES country, we may have missed other, less accessible documents or sources due to language barriers, policy relevance, or limits on information sharing.

“To test the feasibility and trajectory of ICES seafood production and consumption, we combined and fit models to past and future FAO aquaculture data (production and consumption) and the extracted future values. We then compared future production goals to the potential total consumption trend—assuming a statistically significant linear increase in total consumption to 2050—to calculate the seafood production deficit. We focus on the “domestic deficit” because seafood imported from other countries (external to ICES) has different environmental and policy implications.”

In addition to assessing the “domestic deficit”, we compiled the top import-seafood-trade ICES partners (USD$) and the production of aquaculture and wild fisheries to qualitatively compare the dependence on other, potentially less regulated countries for seafood.

Past trends of catch and production

The volume of wild-capture fisheries production dwarfs total aquaculture among the ICES countries. As of 2015, eight nations (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States) accounted for nearly all (87%) of the total ICES wild capture (16.8 million tonnes). These same countries contributed the vast majority of aquaculture production (88%) among the 20 top countries that contributed to this result. However, the contribution of the tonnage of wild capture is much more evenly distributed.


Figure 1. ICES nations (a) highlighted in maroon, with total combined production (million tonnes) over time (inset panel) and (b) corresponding individual national aquaculture (orange) and fisheries catch (blue) freshwater and marine (excluding seaweeds) tonnage time series (1960–2015) (FAO, 2013, 2018a).

In evaluating past and current temporal trends in production for wild-caught and farmed seafood, we see that capture fisheries production has varied little over time. On average, yearly catches in a given ICES country have a slightly higher probability of declining from the previous year since the 1990s. Consistent with global trends, present capture fisheries within ICES countries appear either relatively stable or declining, while aquaculture has been steadily increasing.

Targets for aquaculture growth

Since 2013, all ICES countries have government-sponsored or industry-led reports or initiatives that state potential growth interests or goals for aquaculture (freshwater and marine) within their territorial boundaries. Only three countries (Canada, Spain, and Norway) outlined more strategic planning for 2030–2050. Nearly all documented targets were for a doubling of production or less, with only four countries setting more ambitious growth production goals into the future: Portugal, Belgium, Spain, and Norway. Norway’s target represents the most substantial proposed increase in total production, while Portugal, Belgium, and Spain’s targets represent more modest increases of 25 000 tonnes, 820 tonnes, and 447 000 tonnes, respectively.


Figure 2. (a) Past and future trends of ICES aquaculture (black) and wild (gray) capture. ICES goals are shown in red and FAO estimates are shown in orange, with the exponential model fit with 95% confidence intervals. Current (2013) and future (2050) total consumption levels are depicted as blue horizontal solid and dashed lines, respectively. Chinese aquaculture is shown as the small, dotted pink line for the reference of production scale. (b) Total ICES capture (light blue), ICES aquaculture excluding Norway (green), and Norwegian aquaculture (aqua). (c) Domestic seafood deficit in millions of tonnes over time (non-consecutive years) as calculated by consumption minus combined (fisheries and aquaculture) production based on the reported targets; light blue positive values show no deficit (i.e. surplus) and orange negative values indicate deficits by 2050.

In addition to general production goals, we found a tendency of focusing on marine expansion compared to freshwater. This is not necessarily surprising, given current marine production is approximately fourfold that of freshwater aquaculture in ICES countries. Some countries even specified the species or mode of production they were interested in expanding. Of note, nearly all of ICES countries mentioned spatial planning or zoning as part of the specific strategy for growth.

“Present capture fisheries within ICES countries appear either relatively stable or declining, while aquaculture has been steadily increasing.”

Sources with mentions of spatial planning tended to cooccur with the acknowledgment of preparation for climate change (84% of sources). However, detailed climate change action plans for aquaculture, especially long-term, were not apparent in the documents we assessed. 

Looking across the ICES members’ goals, what emerges is the clear pattern that most countries have established comparatively conservative targets for increasing aquaculture production. However, interest in some level of growth appears ubiquitous.

Mind the domestic production gap

Applying each country’s aquaculture growth trajectories out to the year 2050 and modeling the potential growth over time, we uncovered that ICES nations’ goals appear feasible given past aquaculture production trends.

“While an ICES seafood deficit in production is not a certainty, this analysis demonstrates that it is much more likely under current production and consumption trends and potentially presents a greater risk of sourcing less sustainable food items in the future.”

However, while the trajectories may seem achievable based on previous growth of the sector, there are potential constraints and bottlenecks to aquaculture development, such as a lack of available sites, lost production from disease, highly restrictive regulations, and poor public perception and social license, among other factors. Nonetheless, assuming that these challenges are addressed, and aquaculture production goals of each country are met, ICES countries’ goals could reflect production potential in the future, with Norway driving 2050 growth.

We also found that ICES nations have a mounting domestic seafood production deficit from consuming more seafood than they produce, which means a growing reliance on imports that may be less sustainable. If we assume a linear relationship of total seafood consumption over time, we expect to see an average of 57% increase in the total amount consumed by 2050.

“The development of long-term aquaculture strategies is not just about total production. It must also include measures to advance improved farming, technology, and participation in the changing seafood market.”

Accounting for a continued rise in ICES consumption and the production goals of the associated nations, we project a seafood deficit of 7 million tonnes by 2050. While an ICES seafood deficit in production is not a certainty, this analysis demonstrates that it is much more likely under current production and consumption trends and potentially presents a greater risk of sourcing less sustainable food items in the future.

Conclusions and recommendations

While great strides were made to support best fisheries practices—including governance, funding, and research support—to recover many wild stocks, much less effort has been given in most of the ICES nations to usher in aquaculture practices in a similar, but more anticipatory manner. Interestingly, we found that even with the apparent recognition by all current ICES countries that aquaculture will play an increasingly important role in future seafood production, most planning appears very short term and conservative.

“The development of long-term aquaculture strategies is not just about total production. It must also include measures to advance improved farming, technology, and participation in the changing seafood market, ideally with sustainability leading these components. While the goals moving forward to 2050 by the ICES nations may be feasible as the growing challenges are addressed, growth predominantly depends on one country, Norway.”

Even if the goals are met, this does not reconcile the deficits in seafood production, requiring increases in seafood imports, often from places with considerably fewer rules and regulations for sustainable harvest or production. In addition, lack of aquaculture consideration creates a major gap in adaptively planning for climate change impacts on the seafood sectors domestically and from exporting countries.

Governance is key to adaptive planning, and targeted policies that support, not just regulate, domestic aquaculture are needed if ICES countries wish to address the skewed production landscape. Aquaculture-specific national legislation, which clearly defines requirements and objectives, is important but not always guaranteed (e.g. Canada), particularly for marine aquaculture.

Importantly, the legislation likely needs to go beyond robust regulatory standards, which exist in many of these nations, to include explicit support—which is debatably the case for wild-capture fisheries. For instance, zoned Aquaculture Management Areas—a designated area shared by farmers to minimize risk and impact to the surrounding environment—could be a tangible near-term goal for pursuing longer-term aquaculture growth, especially for countries with some form of spatial planning and management already in place.

“Trade is intertwined with domestic seafood governance, especially if ICES nations intend to address the displacement of social and ecological burdens bound to imported seafood. We found the potential for a domestic seafood production deficit more likely now and increasingly so in the future, which increases the chance of imports of less expensive seafood from less regulated countries in the absence of interregional laws.”

This “whole system” perspective (i.e. beyond local or domestic impacts) applies to nearly every commodity in this globalized age. Still, seafood, in particular, is one of the most traded commodities on the planet, and production is so heavily skewed globally (ca. 90% of production in SE Asia). Accountability of the impacts of our food beyond local and national borders is legally difficult but morally deserves attention.

Not only do ICES countries need strategic domestic and international aquaculture policies, but these efforts should also be done in the context of changing environmental conditions. Climate change is already impacting fisheries and aquaculture, including ICES members, and conditions are predicted to get more challenging in the coming decades, especially in the absence of active mitigation and adaptation measures.

In general, ICES’ governments need more deliberate and strategic plans about the extent to which they wish to increase aquaculture production in their own waters vs. importing farmed and capture species from other countries’ waters and how these decisions may fare under a changing climate. While the solution of “producing more” domestically may sound simple, it is, in fact, a grand challenge that emerges from highly complex socioeconomic and cultural values around seafood, alongside population and demand growing for seafood, and climate change threatening both fishing and aquaculture sectors, as well as the people who depend on them.

*This is a summarized version developed by the editorial team of Aquaculture Magazine of the original article “Mind the gap between ICES nations’ future seafood consumption and aquaculture production” a contribution to the themed section ‘Marine Aquaculture in the Anthropocene” developed by Halley E. Froehlich, Jessica Couture, Lynne Falconer, Gesche Krause, James A. Morris, Montse Perez, Grant D. Stentiford, Harri Vehvila¨inen, and Benjamin S. Halpern that was originally published on the ICES Journal of Marine Science (2021), 78(1), 468–477. The full version can be found online at: doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsaa066

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