Skip to main content

The perfect storm: Environmentally and socially unsustainable seafood supply chains

Seafood supply chains sustain three billion people nutritionally and also provide 10% of the world’s population with employment, the vast majority of whom are small-scale fisher-people. Seafood provides access to safe protein for many of the world’s most economically marginalised people but these supply chains are not sustainable in their current form. 90% of global fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished and numerous species are becoming endangered, for example: bluefin tuna.
Seafood supply chains are also blighted by many of the same problems explored in our previous blogs on terrestrial food production, such as inequality, waste and poor governance. They are also marred by illegal fishing, fraud and modern slavery, with international crime organisations being key players in the industry. It is estimated that there is a one in five chance that when we buy seafood it has been illegally caught. This robs local fishing communities of their livelihoods and their food. Fraud is a key strategy for moving this illegally caught seafood through the supply chain to the consumer. For example, Russian waters are drained by illegal fishing operations and the seafood is processed in China so its provenance is hidden. In the worst cases, illegal fishing is even mislabelled as being responsibly sourced.

As fish stocks become depleted, fishing vessels need to travel further from the coast in search of fish. This, combined with the high levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing within the industry create ideal conditions for modern slavery. Forced labour and human trafficking are well-documented in the tuna fisheries of the Pacific but despite this, only 4 of the 35 leading tuna brands conduct due diligence on modern slavery within their supply chains. Violence against fisher people working in the Pacific is similarly well documented, with human rights abuses including beatings and murder, with dead bodies being thrown into the ocean.

While it is tempting to believe that technofixes, like blockchain, will save the ocean and the people who depend upon it, more fundamental change is required. But as so often with our food supply chains, the answers are as elusive as they are obvious. We need to return to local, community-based supply chains if the ocean is to continue to sustain a growing world population. COVID-19’s impact on business as usual in this sector has provided a fertile ground for some community seafood systems to emerge in places like North America. Unfortunately however, the governance required to end IUU fishing, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, such as the use of Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), would require a level of international cooperation that appears beyond our world’s current leaders.

If we continue along our current path, more people globally will need alternatives to wild fish, such as farmed fish (aquaculture) and other potentially unsafe alternatives. Farmed fish is the fastest growing area of food production in the world and while it is presented as a sustainable alternative to wild fish, it is far from the panacea it may seem. Farmed fish are dependent on feed made from the very wild fish they are meant to replace and the poor conditions in which they are kept leave them vulnerable to disease and parasites, such as the sea lice infecting farmed salmon. Farmed seafood can have high levels of antibiotics, which may lead to antibiotic resistance, one of the greatest threats to human health today.

For the poorest people of the world that cannot afford farmed seafood, a glimpse of a possible future can be seen in West Africa. Subsidised large fishing vessels from the European Union have moved to the waters off West Africa and have depleted the fish stocks there. Seafood is the largest source of protein in West Africa and as fish stocks become depleted increased consumption of bushmeat is necessary. Eating certain wildlife is not only a driver of biodiversity loss but can be also be a source of zoonotic diseases, such as Ebola and coronavirus. More of us are starting to become aware that our own health depends on the health of the planet and that food supply chains can no longer be considered independently of planetary health


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Lucy McCarthy and Lee Matthews and Anne Touboulic from the University of Nottingham Future Food Beacon. This blog post first appeared on the University of Nottingham Future Food Beacon blog. View the original blog.

Dr Lucy McCarthy
Read the other blogs in this series:

Popular posts from this blog

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet. Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%). Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability. This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example

1-in-200 year events

You often read or hear references to the ‘1-in-200 year event’, or ‘200-year event’, or ‘event with a return period of 200 years’. Other popular horizons are 1-in-30 years and 1-in-10,000 years. This term applies to hazards which can occur over a range of magnitudes, like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, space weather, and various hydro-meteorological hazards like floods, storms, hot or cold spells, and droughts. ‘1-in-200 years’ refers to a particular magnitude. In floods this might be represented as a contour on a map, showing an area that is inundated. If this contour is labelled as ‘1-in-200 years’ this means that the current rate of floods at least as large as this is 1/200 /yr, or 0.005 /yr. So if your house is inside the contour, there is currently a 0.005 (0.5%) chance of being flooded in the next year, and a 0.025 (2.5%) chance of being flooded in the next five years. The general definition is this: ‘1-in-200 year magnitude is x’ = ‘the current rate for eve

Coconuts and climate change

Before pursuing an MSc in Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of Bristol, I completed my undergraduate studies in Environmental Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. During my final year I carried out a research project that explored the impact of extreme weather events on coconut productivity across the three climatic zones of Sri Lanka. A few months ago, I managed to get a paper published and I thought it would be a good idea to share my findings on this platform. Climate change and crop productivity  There has been a growing concern about the impact of extreme weather events on crop production across the globe, Sri Lanka being no exception. Coconut is becoming a rare commodity in the country, due to several reasons including the changing climate. The price hike in coconuts over the last few years is a good indication of how climate change is affecting coconut productivity across the country. Most coconut trees are no longer bearing fruits and thos