Climate change is threatening our oceans. Alternative seafood can help.

Global efforts to curb emissions, protect marine biodiversity, and reduce the impacts of climate change on our oceans should include investments in plant-based and cultivated seafood.
Climate change impact on marine reef environment with school of fish

From increasing ocean acidification and warming to damaged coastal ecosystems, ocean and coastlines are already bearing the brunt of climate change. Fortunately, more attention has been paid to the climate-ocean nexus in recent years. 2021 marks the beginning of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. And in the United States, Representative Raúl Grijalva (D, AZ-3), Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2020 last year. 

In honor of the upcoming International Day for Biological Diversity, we’re considering how fish and shellfish—and how we produce them—can and should be part of ocean climate solutions. In addition to establishing Marine Protected Areas, strengthening fisheries policy, and properly regulating the growing aquaculture industry, global efforts to curb emissions, protect marine biodiversity, and reduce the impacts of climate change on our oceans should include investments in plant-based and cultivated seafood. 

Alternative seafood can boost climate change mitigation efforts

Conventional fishing is associated with increasing greenhouse gas emissions as depleted coastal fisheries force vessels to travel farther to catch the same number of fish. Bottom trawling damages ocean floors and releases stored seabed carbon. 

Plant-based and cultivated seafood offer a critical opportunity to not only diversify seafood production methods, but also reduce emissions from the industry. Alternative seafood emissions should decrease over time with greater use of renewable energy. A recent life cycle assessment found cultivated meat and seafood produced with renewable energy to be 17 percent less carbon intensive than conventional chicken and 52 percent less carbon intensive than pork. With emissions from the production of many seafood species falling between chicken and pork, we expect significant emissions reductions from shifting some seafood production to cultivated fish and shellfish. 

Additionally, marine-sourced plant ingredients can be included in alternative seafood and may boost climate change mitigation efforts. For example, several species of macroalgae exhibit promising sensory and functional benefits when used as ingredients in plant-based seafood. These ingredients can be cultivated and harvested in concert with aquatic carbon sequestration methods and without the land use change associated with terrestrial agriculture. 

Alternative seafood could also bolster climate resiliency

Alternative seafood can also aid in climate resiliency efforts, ensuring a safe and reliable supply of nutritious protein into the future. Current mainstream seafood production models—capture fishing and aquaculture—rely on marine and freshwater environments to produce seafood. 

As climate change intensifies, our marine resources are becoming stressed. Over 90 percent of excess heat from climate change has been absorbed by our oceans since 1970, the rate of ocean warming has doubled since 1993, and the frequency of marine heat waves has doubled since 1982. Just maintaining current production levels from fisheries and aquaculture is challenging in a changing climate, let alone increasing the supply of seafood as demand grows. 

Because alternative seafood does not rely on ocean resources, the production models can both protect marine biodiversity and handle the rapid changes occurring in aquatic environments. While seafood production systems that rely on the use of live fish and shellfish are affected by climate-driven population migration and heat stress mortalities, plant-based and cultivated seafood production is not disrupted by ocean temperature changes. The alternative seafood industry can also support coastal resilience strategies such as mangrove restoration by moving the supply of commonly farmed species such as shrimp away from fragile marine ecosystems.

Of course, alternative seafood is just one piece of a complex set of solutions needed to ensure that we can both produce the fish and shellfish desired by a growing global population and prevent further biodiversity loss and damage from climate change. But as we strive to reverse the cycle of ocean health decline, preserve marine biodiversity, and build a common framework of sustainable ocean development this decade, plant-based and cultivated seafood are essential and timely solutions to the existential threat of climate change. With the right global policy frameworks, alternative seafood can help us build a more sustainable, secure, and just food system.