More than 90% of global aquatic food production faces substantial risk from environmental change, finds new research

More than 90% of global aquatic food production faces substantial risk from environmental change, finds new research

Researchers at the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment and other institutions find that the vulnerability of blue foods to environmental change has been vastly understudied.
Fish farms in Bangli Regency, Bali, Indonesia Fish farms in Bangli Regency, Bali, Indonesia (Image credit: Jaanus Jagomägi, Unsplash)

Many of the world’s largest aquatic food producers are highly vulnerable to human-induced environmental change, with some of the highest-risk countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa demonstrating the lowest capacity for adaptation, a landmark study has shown.

The study shows that more than 90 percent of global “blue” food production, in both capture fisheries and aquaculture, faces substantial risks from environmental change, with several leading countries in Asia and the United States set to face the greatest threats to production.

Published today in the journal Nature Sustainability, the research, entitled “Vulnerability of Blue Foods to Human-induced Environmental Change,” is part of the Blue Food Assessment, an international joint initiative co-chaired by Senior Fellow and Fouding Director of the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment, Roz Naylor. The Assessment aims to inform blue food sustainability into the future.

In this most recent paper, the authors produced the first-ever global analysis of environmental stressors impacting the production quantity and safety of blue foods around the world, ranking countries according to their exposure from key stressors for the first time. A total of 17 stressors were surveyed, including harmful algal blooms, sea level rise, changing temperatures, pesticide exposure, and more.

Alongside climate change, the report highlights that highly vulnerable blue food production systems are found across all continents, including some of the world’s largest blue food producers such as Norway, China, and the United States, yet also argues there is too often a lack of understanding around the complexity of stressors causing environmental change.

“We have only scratched the surface in our understanding of how environmental stressors are connected, and how they can both negatively impact the production and safety of the resulting blue foods,” said study co-lead author Ling Cao, professor at the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science at Xiamen University and former scholar at the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment.

“Understanding the complexity of these stressors, and their cascading impacts, will be essential in developing successful adaptation and mitigation strategies.”

Species invasion, inland eutrophication or the over-enrichment of water bodies with nutrients, ocean warming, and sea level rise were cited by the paper as the main threats to blue food production in the US, with freshwater and marine fisheries facing disproportionately large risks.

As the largest blue food producer, China’s freshwater aquaculture is also highly exposed to inland eutrophication and severe weather events, the research shows.

The authors also argue that special attention should be paid to countries facing high exposure to environmental change yet not possessing adequate capacity for adaptation, including Bangladesh, Benin, Eswatini, Guatemala, Honduras, Togo, and Uganda.

"Our research sheds light on which major blue food-producing nations are likely to be most vulnerable to human impacts,” said co-author Elizabeth Selig, deputy director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. “We need to build management strategies that address these impacts in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture in highly impacted countries."

In terms of production systems, the paper finds that marine fisheries were generally more vulnerable to climate-related stressors, particularly rising temperatures and acidification, whilst aquaculture was more susceptible to the effects of diseases and hypoxia, or low oxygen levels.

Among the report’s key recommendations is a call for more transboundary collaboration and adaptation strategies which recognize that the ecosystems that blue food production rely upon are highly interconnected, with environmental change in one area having potential knock-on effects elsewhere.

The authors also call for a diversification of blue food production in high-risk countries to cope with the impact of environmental change unless sufficient mitigation and adaptation strategies are adopted.

“Although we have made some progress with climate change, our adaptation strategies for blue food systems facing environmental change are still underdeveloped and need urgent attention,” said Rebecca Short, co-lead author based at the Stockholm Resilience Centre at the time the research was conducted.

Likewise, the paper highlights the urgent need for greater stakeholder engagement in understanding, monitoring, and mitigating pressures on blue food production systems. Indigenous knowledge will be critical for strategic planning and policies to mitigate and adapt to environmental change, particularly for artisanal fisheries and heavy marine fisheries-dependent countries, such as Small Island Developing States.

The research also includes an extended dataset which ranks countries around the world based on the exposure of their blue food production systems to the various environmental stressors.

Other co-authors from the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions are Fiorenza Micheli, Hanna Payne, and Michelle Tigchelaar. The Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment’s Roz Naylor, co-chair of the Blue Food Assessment, was also involved in the study.


About the Blue Food Assessment

The Blue Food Assessment (BFA) is an international joint initiative bringing together over 100 scientists from more than 25 institutions. Led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, the Center for Ocean Solutions and the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, and EAT, the Blue Food Assessment supports decision-makers in evaluating trade-offs and implementing solutions to build healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems.