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A seafood diet reduces your carbon footprint, but not all seafood are equal

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Marine fisheries currently play a role in food security and nutrition for more that 700 million people around the world, and a restored ocean could feed 1 billion people a seafood meal every day.

Feeding the world doesn't have to take such a heavy toll on the environment. When incorporated into a balance diet, wild seafood alleviates the demand for red meat and supplies a healthy source of protein and micronutrients.

There's no free lunch. The question is, what can the planet afford?

Of course, to reduce carbon footprints as much as possible, the best bet is to eat veggies. But among animal products, wild sustainable seafood is your best option.

Most people in the U.S. and other developed counties are high meat-eaters, consuming 1.5lbs per week. One high meat-eater replacing that meat with fish would save the emissions equivalent of about 6,000 miles driven over the course of a year.

Land based meat, specifically meat from ruminants, plays a hugely disproportionate role in deforestation since most of the world's soy is produced as feed for livestock. Demand for beef and other red meat is, by far, the largest driver of deforestation around the world.

In addition to being one of the healthiest and most carbon-efficient foods on the planet, wild-caught fish require no land, no freshwater, and involves far less animal cruelty compared to farmed animals.

Farmed seafood has similar impacts as land-based food, but is highly dependent on the kind of seafood being cultivated. Farmed bivalves, like oysters, mussels, and clams are extremely good for the environment. They are typically grown right offshore (requiring little to no boat fuel), require no freshwater, can be grown vertically using very little ocean space, and actually take carbon out of the environment as they grow.

Is aquaculture a solution to overfishing?

A recent study put it to the test and the answer, so far, is no. If the theory is true, then modeling should show that increased aquaculture production is correlated with decreases in wild catch. Instead, Longo et al. (2018) found that aquaculture has been supplementing - not suppressing wild fishery captures.

Aquaculture is the practice of farming fish under controlled conditions and includes both salt and freshwater species. It's the world's fastest-growing food production sector, generating around 44 per cent of the fish we consume; and yet, in order to sustain its growth, it's heavily reliant on the capture of wild-caught fish.

Over 69 per cent of wild-caught fishmeal and 75 per cent of wild-caught fish oil produced is fed directly to famed fish. We are literally catching fish, to feed fish!

Photo by WikiMedia user OgreBot

The most commonly farmed species is the Atlantic salmon, with around one million salmon meals eaten every day in Britain. But as every pound of farmed salmon consumes around three pounds of wild-caught fish, there are far more lives lost.

Fish used for animal feed

One-third of the world's ocean fish catch is ground up for animal feed, a potential problem for marine ecosystems and waste of a resource that could directly nourish humans.

The fish being used to feed pigs, chickens and farmed-raised fish are often thought of as bait, including anchovies, sardines, menhaden and other small - to medium sized species.

These so-called forage fish account for 37 per cent, or 31.5 million tons, of all fish taken from the world's oceans each year. Ninety percent of that catch is turned into fish meal or fish oil, most of which is used as agricultural and aqua cultural feed.

School of sardines at Panagsama beach, Moalboal, Philippines / Photo credit to Henry Jager

Fish are key to the survival of our planet as they play an important role in the nutrient cycles of marine ecosystems. Forage fi