The United States made food security a top priority when it chaired the U.N. Security Council last month—and rightly so. Earth just experienced its hottest month in 120,000 years. Heat waves, droughts, and floods are killing off crops by the field full. Places such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Haiti are gripped by worsening famine. In a blow to global food security, Russia recently backed out of the Black Sea grain deal that allowed Ukraine to export millions of tons every month. The geopolitics of nature have ushered in an era of unprecedented instability, and the worst is yet to come, with this year’s El Niño season predicted to persist through 2024.
To solve our mounting global food crisis, world leaders must look not only to the land, but to the waters as well—and to the often-forgotten and underappreciated source of vital nutrition known as blue foods.
The term “blue foods” is shorthand for food that comes from marine and freshwater ecosystems—from tunas, pollock, and cod to shrimp and seaweeds. Political attention and funding of blue food initiatives remain significantly underrepresented in national and global food discussions, despite the immense contribution that blue foods make to the health of people and economies around the world.
Blue foods support the livelihoods of more than 800 million people and remain among the most traded global commodities. Nearly half of humanity depends on the food group as a significant source of animal protein, vital micronutrients, and cultural identity.
Though producing some blue foods may have an inherently lower environmental footprint relative to cattle and other land-based livestock, there is not an endless supply. In our oceans alone, roughly 92 percent of our wild-caught fish comes from stocks that can’t handle additional fishing pressure or have already been overfished. The picture isn’t better for migratory freshwater fish, which have declined on average by 76 percent since 1970. With the demand for blue foods projected to nearly double by 2050, the math simply doesn’t add up to a stable future. Aquaculture, the farming of aquatic species, is an important part of the solution, but it can’t backfill the collapse of ocean fish populations or insulate the global economy from its consequences.
While resource conflicts are commonly thought of as a land-based challenge—for example, disputes over oil, minerals, or forestry—conflict over marine natural resources has always existed.
One study found that during the Cold War, 25 percent of military conflicts between democracies were over fisheries—and they have only been increasing ever since. Since the 1990s, more than 150 international fishery conflicts involving militaries have occurred, and five countries have been involved in 40 percent of them, with China and Russia leading the chart.
In China, the world’s largest fishing power, whose population consumes almost twice the global average of seafood per capita, the fisheries economy generates nearly $200 billion annually and employs millions of people. As such, fish are a strategic and critical resource for Beijing, and China has increasingly used legislative, economic, and military means to access and control the global supplies of seafood over the past 35 years. In the Horn of Africa, the past three decades have been rocked by more than 600 conflicts that have disrupted livelihoods, killed hundreds of people, and contributed to rampant piracy that has threatened maritime security.
Climate change will exacerbate all these trends. Warming waters are impacting fish reproduction and forcing species to migrate at unprecedented levels, creating newly fish-rich and fish-poor places. In the next seven years alone, 23 percent of fish stocks connected to territorial waters will move—including in waters near Canada, Britain, Norway, Iceland, and Japan. There will be winners and losers because of these shifts, spurring heightened competition for scarce resources that will intensify conflict between communities and countries.
When fish become harder to find, so too will peace and security. Small-scale fishery conflicts destabilize coastal communities, contributing to environments that foster greater crime, food insecurity, and poverty. Internationally, the risk of escalation from small, relatively innocuous conflicts on our oceans is growing, particularly in regions already grappling with maritime conflicts over borders and resources. Labor and human rights abuses are also pervasive in blue food value chains—half of all blue foods come from countries that the U.S. government has identified as having high risk of human trafficking.
We still have time to prevent the escalation of conflict and human rights violations, particularly when conservation and natural resource management offer the opportunity for cooperative engagement and protection of blue food resources.
First, climate science, oceans science, and political science can pinpoint where the greatest conflict pressures will emerge in the future—five to 10 to 30 years out. With access to this high-quality data, governments can deliver a new era of refined early warning systems and maritime security and conservation planning. This kind of information also makes it easier to prioritize and safeguard areas where crucial habitats, such as spawning and nursing grounds, contribute to a sustainable blue food supply.
To effectively manage and protect these areas, we must design inclusive conservation strategies that prioritize the needs and voices of coastal Indigenous peoples and local communities that are often on the front line of the climate crisis. These communities are the most vulnerable to changes in the environment and are highly dependent on seafood, with 15 times higher consumption per capita than non-Indigenous communities, on average. And case studies have shown that an inclusive approach can be beneficial to all. In Indonesia, for example, community involvement and equitable governance led to more fish in protected areas than in nonprotected areas.
Second, we need to improve local and global fishing practices through science-based fishery management that proactively plans for the impacts of climate change by strengthening oversight to bring about more sustainable and responsible fisheries. Fisheries that regulate the amount and location of fishing efforts depending on the present or projected health of fish stocks will be better placed to handle future threats. These practices must extend to small-scale fisheries, which contribute about 32 percent of overall global seafood nutrient supply.
Third, aquaculture of noncarnivorous species should be scaled up to supplement the increased demand on fisheries, as wild-caught fish are a finite resource. Currently, developing countries supply nearly all of aquaculture, making it a critical source of food and income for them. But because they are strapped for resources, environmental protection and regulation is often a lower priority. Thus, policies that support effective zoning and permitting in lakes, rivers, and coastal regions need to be reformed to ensure that production does not exceed the carrying capacity of these natural habitats.
Fourth, seafood businesses around the world have a critical role to play. Companies that sell imported blue foods—which constitute more than 80 percent of the seafood sold in America—need to be responsible for sourcing blue foods that are produced more sustainably and ethically. With their market leverage, seafood companies have the opportunity and responsibility to encourage better management of their source fisheries and aquaculture farms. This is especially critical for smaller island nations such as Kiribati and Tokelau, whose economies are both heavily dependent on seafood exports and are on course to lose fish stocks due to climate change.
Fifth, existing frameworks and agreements, including the U.N.’s Agreement on Port State Measures, which was the first binding international agreement to specifically target illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, must be strengthened and modernized to address the shifting environmental realities facing blue foods. Additionally, the world’s major fishing powers, including the United States and China, should support sustainable fisheries in the global south by eliminating harmful subsidies; last year, they took a step in the right direction with the adoption of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies.
Continued multilateral cooperation and support for area-based management—the effort toward protecting, conserving, and restoring ecosystems—has the potential to advance solutions as well. A strong example is the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, a regional initiative led by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama, that aims to create an uninterrupted, sustainably managed biological corridor across more than 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles).
Finally, we must catalyze robust partnerships across all sectors of society. Under U.S. President Joe Biden, the White House has convened private sector leaders around emerging challenges in strategic sectors, including semiconductors and artificial intelligence. The administration could similarly help rally U.S. and global seafood executives to source and supply the world with blue foods in a way that doesn’t squander the very resource that underwrites their business.
Blue foods aren’t a silver bullet—they’re a strategic commodity. When the bounty is plentiful, it can sustain hundreds of millions of livelihoods and billions of lives; when blue foods become scarce, it can drag communities, nations, and entire regions into violent conflict. The actions that the global community takes in the coming months and years will determine which path we take.
Melissa D. Ho contributed to this piece.