Food from climate-friendly fish farms? Balancing aquaculture development and sustainability in feeding the world

By Rylan J. Command, OFI Module I

Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic plants and animals, is the fastest growing food sector in the world, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects aquaculture will be crucial to meet the nutrition needs for a growing human population. Aquaculture is practiced on every continent in various forms. Organisms can be cultivated in fresh water or saltwater, either in their native environment or in tanks, ponds, or raceways on land. Most aquaculture operations focus on a single species, such as carp and tilapia in freshwater, and salmon and bivalve molluscs (i.e. clams, oysters, mussels) in marine spaces. Other forms, such as multi-trophic aquaculture, whereby multiple species are cultivated together to resemble a natural ecosystem more closely, provide ecosystem services like nutrient cycling and refuge habitat like a natural system while maintaining food production of multiple species (Correia et al., 2020). Aquaculture is often mentioned in “Blue Growth” initiatives as a possible solution to food insecurity and a major part in environmentally sustainable seafood development (Henriksson et al., 2021). There is no consensus among governments, environmentalists, academics, fishers, and aquatic farmers, however, about many aspects of aquaculture development, including the siting of farms, allocation of space, farming practices, and the role it actually plays in addressing global food insecurity.

Nearly 320 million people became food insecure in 2020, bringing the estimated global total to 2.37 billion. Conflict, socio-economic conditions, natural hazards, and climate change are among the main drivers of food insecurity, with labour shortages, supply disruptions, and reduced incomes, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (FAO et al., 2021). The pandemic further highlighted inequalities present in global food systems related to the harvest, production, distribution, control, and benefits of food (Global Health 50/50 & International Food Policy Research Institute, 2021). Food system inequalities and insecurity are particularly pronounced in developing and low-income regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Regions facing the greatest food insecurity are also those most affected by climate change (Tigchelaar et al., 2021), creating a double crisis largely faced by the people least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

The recent UN Food Systems Summit (September 2021) provided an opportunity for dialogue among diverse stakeholders related to global food (in)security. The event was billed as a “people’s summit” that would hear the concerns of the small-scale farmers and fishers, herders, workers, Indigenous peoples, women, and young people, and bring together marginalized and vulnerable groups, big agriculture, academics, and government officials for an inclusive conversation about food systems that left no one behind (Canfield, 2021). The Food Systems Summit has been heavily criticized, however, by all concerned and affected groups. Critics, including three UN human rights experts, Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, Dr. David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment and Olivier de Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, underscore how the Summit has been co-opted by transnational corporations to the exclusion of hundreds of marginalized groups and voices. Anti-Food Summit protests were organized around the world, with around 380 million “peasants and farmers, women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, pastoralists, landless, migrants, fisherfolk, food and agricultural workers, consumers, and urban food insecure” participating.

The contradiction between rhetoric and action on equity and access to food is patently clear, and lays bare how transnational corporations aim to maintain a business-as-usual approach to development. While it is important to recognize the role of large-scale food producers in meeting global food demand, food security and social equity are foundational to all Sustainable Development Goals and thus need to be considered in the discussion about food production. With food production being one of the largest emitters of GHGs in the world, it is opportune to situate decisions about aquaculture development in the context of climate crisis and social inequities in food systems. This would also require due attention on the role that small-scale food producers can play in a climate-friendly food system.

“In keeping with a food systems approach, support to aquaculture should not be viewed as a substitute for capture fisheries, but as a complement to them, with each sector making vital but distinct contributions to livelihoods, employment, and nutrition.” - Ben Belton, WorldFish

Food security is a global concern. According to Food First NL, a non-profit organization based in St. John’s, access to affordable, nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate food is a major issue for Newfoundland and Labrador. Fisheries restructuring following the collapse of Northern cod in 1992 left thousands of fish harvesters, processors, and vendors out of a job, threatening livelihood, employment, and nutrition for many along the seafood value chain. Additionally, low population density spread over a large area, a large proportion of rural and remote communities, the distance of the island of Newfoundland from mainland Canada, and limited in-province food production present varied and unique challenges for feeding the provincial population. Climate change is further complicating food security issues in NL, with sea ice loss threatening food access and traditional ways of living in Labrador, and ocean warming influencing the distribution and abundance of finfish and shellfish in NL waters. Historically, aquatic foods, specifically wild-capture fisheries, have been economically, socially, and culturally important in the province; thus, improving access to and viability of aquatic foods should be a primary goal to address food security issues in NL.

One possible avenue to address food security in NL is aquaculture. Currently, the salmon farming industry provides 2,500 jobs, 90% of which are full time. The province is looking to expand Atlantic salmon aquaculture on the South Coast, aiming to double annual production. In addition to providing employment opportunities and financial incentives, aquaculture operations also have relatively low carbon footprints. Finfish aquaculture emissions are comparable to those of chicken farming, which is the lowest emission terrestrial animal rearing operation (Gephart et al., 2021). Bivalve (e.g. clams, mussels), forage fish (e.g. sardine, anchovy), and seaweed aquaculture emit even fewer GHGs than their land-based counterparts, while providing the protein and micronutrients required for a nutritious diet (Gephart et al., 2021). Globally, aquaculture has been rapidly expanding, making products more affordable for consumers. According to Ben Belton of WorldFish, the benefits of aquaculture extend beyond economic gains via export markets; 9 out of 10 fish farmed in the top-ten aquaculture producing countries in the Global South are eaten by domestic consumers in those countries, contributing to local food and nutrition security, and supporting resilient and socially equitable food systems (Belton et al., 2018).

Despite the possible benefits, aquaculture development in NL has faced criticism (and a lawsuit), including for failing to include the effects of increased sea pen use in marine spaces. The governance of aquaculture in NL is challenging, having to meet several objectives under the mandate of both the federal and the provincial governments. Federally, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for regulating aquaculture activities through the Fisheries Act to protect fish and fish habitat, mandate public environmental impact reporting, and prevent pollution, while promoting the sustainable development of the industry. Provincially, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture is responsible for the application, consolidation, or transfer of leases and licences, and promoting “the prudent and orderly development of the aquaculture industry”. Balancing economic and conservation objectives, while addressing food security and climate crisis, remains a major challenge, especially when it is not clear what should be the priorities when regulating and promoting aquaculture development (Maxwell & Filgueira, 2020).

Guidance for striking this balance has been outlined in the recent Shanghai Declaration from the Global Conference on Aquaculture: Aquaculture for Food and Sustainable Development. Recommendations include strengthening partnerships to generate and share knowledge, information, and technology, investing in aquaculture innovation, research, and development, and creating open and transparent communication about sustainable aquaculture. Further, addressing power imbalances in all food systems related to gender, ethnicity/race, migration status, and (dis)ability is important to promote equitable and just access to nutritious food, and opportunities exist to support equity and justice in enhancing women’s and Indigenous access to employment and benefits within the sector.

This is certainly a step in the right direction, and many good lessons already exist in the small-scale farming system, as suggested by Belton:

“Futuristic forms of high-tech marine aquaculture have attracted a lot of recent science and policy attention, aligned with the discourse of ‘blue growth’, but simpler land-based aquatic farming systems offer far greater potential for – and in many cases are already delivering – more equitable forms of aquaculture development that provide livelihoods and food for large numbers of low- and middle-income people around the world” - Ben Belton, WorldFish

Ensuring aquaculture developments, and all food systems, are socially responsible, sustainable, and resilient to climate change impacts is an important part of the food security conversation in NL, North America, and globally. Participate in two upcoming opportunities for more conversation about this. First, Ben Belton (WorldFish) will be discussing contemporary narratives around marine finfish farming on November 9th as part of OFI’s Social Sciences and Humanities Working Group People and the Ocean Speaker Series. Then, join the discussion about “Getting AQUACULTURE Right” at the upcoming 4WSFC North America in June 2022.


Belton, B., Bush, S. R., & Little, D. C. (2018). Not just for the wealthy: Rethinking farmed fish consumption in the Global South. Global Food Security, 16, 85–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2017.10.005

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Rylan J. Command is a M.Sc. student in the 4D Oceans Lab at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a Research Assistant with the Ocean Frontier Institute Module I. His thesis research focuses on temporal trends in the abundance, behaviour, biodiversity, and distribution of seafloor megafauna in response to climate anomalies. He is particularly interested in how climate change is affecting fisheries and food systems, the ways in which humans use and distribute marine resources globally, and the policies, principles, and decision-making processes underpinning food systems.