Skip to main content

OPINION article

Front. Mar. Sci., 16 March 2017
Sec. Marine Conservation and Sustainability
Volume 4 - 2017 |

From Sea to Plate: The Role of Fish in a Sustainable Diet

Katherine Seto1* Kathryn J. Fiorella2
  • 1Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
  • 2Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

In the most recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the USDA Advisory Committee recommended for the first time the inclusion of sustainability considerations (DGA Committee, 2015). Since the U.S. Dietary Guidelines provide standards for nutrition and targets for federal and state food programs, explicitly incorporating sustainability would advance considerably discussions of food system sustainability (Merrigan et al., 2015). However, despite broad public support, sustainability 80 concerns were ultimately jettisoned from the 2015–2020 Guidelines (Secretary Vilsack and Burwell, 2015; US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture, 2015; Wood-Wright, 2016). Though much of the concern around incorporating sustainability has focused on animal agriculture, the sectors most heavily impacted by sustainability policies are arguably fisheries and aquaculture. Fish have been promoted as a sustainability strategy, providing nutritious alternatives to resource intensive livestock and poultry, and a concern, given the decline of many global fish stocks (Worm et al., 2006; Health Council of the Netherlands, 2011; FAO, 2014). Yet, we regularly overlook the origins and implications of this decline due to fragmented notions of our food resources. Resources that originate in our oceans, rivers, and lakes are almost entirely omitted in our conceptions of a sustainable food system.

To understand the trade-offs from food production and consumption to sustainability, we must extend our understanding of food resources to conceive of fishery, agricultural, and livestock systems as integrally linked. Our failure to do so thus far has led to a disjointed understanding of our food system, contributed to inequalities in food access, and exacerbated overexploitation and environmental degradation. We argue here that fishery resources are of particular concern for sustainability yet often omitted in conceptions of our food system, and that such disjointed notions of food resources limit our ability to foster sustainable diets (Farmery et al., 2017).

Harvest on Land and at Sea

As aquatic and terrestrial systems both face mounting pressures, ignoring their interconnections can multiply consequences for both the resources and people who depend on them. Global fisheries support the livelihoods of 10–12% of the world's population, and fish are the primary protein source for over 1 billion people living in low-income, food-deficit countries (Toppe et al., 2012; FAO, 2014). Yet major efforts to address challenges to food security rarely account for this critical sector (Bene et al., 2016; Thilsted et al., 2016). For example, the World Bank's food security projects allocate <1% of funds to fisheries and aquaculture initiatives (The World Bank, 2014).

Our growing use of fish as animal feed perhaps best highlights the unexamined trade-offs between aquatic and terrestrial systems. Annually, 21.7 million tons of low-value nutrient-rich fish are diverted for use as fish and livestock feed (FAO, 2012a). Converting these important marine species to agricultural inputs reduces usable biomass by 80%, leads to the simplification of marine food webs, and threatens vulnerable human populations that rely on inexpensive fish for calories and micronutrients (Tacon and Metian, 2008; Cury et al., 2011; Smith et al., 2011). The use of marine resources as an agricultural input constitutes a troubling trade-off as we fish farther down the food web in aquatic systems to produce increasingly inefficient agricultural commodities. A similar example of the tight interdependencies of agricultural and fishery systems is the pollution and eutrophication of lakes, rivers, and coastal waters from fertilizer run-off in agricultural production (Vitousek et al., 1997; Tilman, 1999).

Trade and Consumption

Fisheries and terrestrial food systems also face linked challenges in equitable food distribution that are exacerbated by resource declines. Like food insecurity, fish consumption is not distributed evenly throughout the world. Developing countries account for well over half of total fishery exports (FAO, 2014) and fishery commodities often depart from food insecure countries with extensive fish dependence and flow toward lucrative markets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Further, over 90% of fishers are part of the small-scale sector, where they often alternate with farming activities to maximize food production (Allison and Ellis, 2001; FAO, 2012b). In these contexts, declines in fish access can increase pressure on terrestrial systems, and vice versa. For example, fishery management that ignores the complexity of livelihood strategies can inadvertently exacerbate unsustainable fishing (Bailey and Jentoft, 1990; Allison and Ellis, 2001). Similar effects have occurred with hunting, where bushmeat demand increases when access to fish declines (Brashares et al., 2004). These continual adjustments among terrestrial and aquatic food strategies affect some 1.3 billion fishers and farmers who are on the frontlines of both resource stewardship and food insecurity (FAO, 2014).

The rapid growth of aquaculture to combat these trade-offs and meet consumption demands explicitly moves fish production into the realm of agriculture. Often heralded as a solution to wild fish depletion, farmed fish are predicted to contribute two-thirds of fish consumed by 2020 (Bank, 2013). Aquaculture, however, does not necessarily alleviate pressures on our oceans and waterways, nor provide sustenance to the food insecure (Naylor et al., 2000; Allison, 2011). Distributional tensions between small-scale and industrial production parallel similar issues in terrestrial agriculture, limiting the potential of aquaculture as a food security panacea, and necessitating more integrative policy-making (Allison, 2011; Toufique and Belton, 2014). This growing, yet disjointed, focus on aquaculture underscores the urgency of addressing the interconnectedness of our food production systems.

Toward a Global Food System

Our global food system faces enormous social, economic and ecological challenges, and pressures on the entire food system continue to mount. The integration of sustainability concerns into recommendations for food consumption and production is long overdue. To formulate meaningful sustainability recommendations, however, we must understand and acknowledge the connections between aquatic and terrestrial food sources. As described here, threats to fish production are exacerbated by agricultural externalities and the diversion of essential aquatic resources to agricultural inputs. Moreover, the distributional challenges facing subsistence agriculturalists and fishers amplify the tension between these two systems and underscore the inequities of our food system. When we ignore the trade-offs and unsustainable choices we make, the consequences will ultimately be borne disproportionately by the 795 million food insecure in a world of plenty (FAO, 2015).

Author Contributions

KS and KJF jointly designed, researched, and wrote the manuscript.


Support was provided by NSF GRFP (to KJF and KS), NSF DDRI and the Cornell University Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (to KJF), the IIS Simpson Fellowship (to KS), and partial support from NSF-GEO grant CNH115057. Publication made possible in part by support from the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative (BRII) sponsored by the UC Berkeley Library.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We thank Lauren Withey, Erika Gavenus, Doug McCauley, and Justin Brashares for helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.


Allison, E. H. (2011). Aquaculture, Fisheries, Poverty and Food Security. Penang: The World Fish Center.

Google Scholar

Allison, E. H., and Ellis, F. (2001). The livelihoods approach and management of small-scale fisheries. Mar. Policy 25, 377–388. doi: 10.1016/S0308-597X(01)00023-9

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Bailey, C., and Jentoft, S. (1990). Hard choices in fisheries development. Mar. Policy 14, 333–344. doi: 10.1016/0308-597X(90)90055-V

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Bank, W. (2013). Fish to 2030: Prospects for Fisheries and Aquaculture. Agriculture and Environmental Services Discussion Paper. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.

Bene, C., Arthur, R., Norbury, H., Allison, E. H., Beveridge, M., Bush, S., et al. (2016). Contribution of fisheries and aquaculture to food security and poverty reduction: assessing the current evidence. World Dev. 79, 177–196. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2015.11.007

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Brashares, J. S., Arcese, P., Sam, M. K., Coppolillo, P. B., Sinclair, A. R. E., and Balmford, A. (2004). Bushmeat hunting, wildlife declines, and fish supply in West Africa. Science 306, 1180–1183. doi: 10.1126/science.1102425

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Cury, P. M., Boyd, I. L., Bonhommeau, S., Anker-Nilssen, T., Crawford, R. J. M., Furness, R. W., et al. (2011). Global seabird response to forage fish depletion-one-third for the birds. Science 334, 1703–1706. doi: 10.1126/science.1212928

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

DGA Committee (2015). Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, 2015. Washington, DC: Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture.

FAO (2012a). FAO Statistical Yearbook. Rome: FAO.

FAO (2012b). State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture. Rome: FAO.

FAO (2014). State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture. Rome: FAO.

FAO (2015). The State of Food Insecurity in the World. Rome: FAO.

PubMed Abstract

Farmery, A. K., Gardner, C., Jennings, S., Green, B. S., and Watson, R. A. (2017). Assessing the inclusion of seafood in the sustainable diet literature. Fish Fish. doi: 10.1111/faf.12205. [Epub ahead of print].

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Health Council of the Netherlands (2011). Guidelines for healthy Dietary Choices. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands.

Merrigan, K., Griffin, T., Wilde, P., Robien, K., Goldberg, J., and Dietz, W. (2015). Designing a sustainable diet. Science 350, 165–166. doi: 10.1126/science.aab2031

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Naylor, R. L., Goldburg, R. J., Primavera, J. H., Kautsky, N., Beveridge, M. C. M., Clay, J., et al. (2000). Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies. Nature 405, 1017–1024. doi: 10.1038/35016500

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Secretary Vilsack and Burwell, S. (2015). 2015 Dietary Guidelines: Giving You the Tools You Need to Make Healthy Choices. Available online at: (accessed January 20, 2016).

Smith, A. D. M., Brown, C. J., Bulman, C. M., Fulton, E. A., Johnson, P., Kaplan, I. C., et al. (2011). Impacts of fishing low-trophic level species on marine ecosystems. Science 333, 1147–1150. doi: 10.1126/science.1209395

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Tacon, A. G. J., and Metian, M. (2008). Global overview on the use of fish meal and fish oil in industrially compounded aquafeeds: trends and future prospects. Aquaculture 285, 146–158. doi: 10.1016/j.aquaculture.2008.08.015

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

The World Bank (2014). Food Security: All Projects: The World Bank Group. Available online at: (December 16, 2014).

Thilsted, S. H., Thorne-Lyman, A., Webb, P., Bogard, J. R., Subasinghe, R., Phillips, M. J., et al. (2016). Sustaining healthy diets: the role of capture fisheries and aquaculture for improving nutrition in the post-2015 era. Food Policy 61, 126–131. doi: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2016.02.005

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Tilman, D. (1999). Global environmental impacts of agricultural expansion: need for sustainable and efficient practices. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 96, 5995–6000. doi: 10.1073/pnas.96.11.5995

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Toppe, J., Bondad-Reantaso, M. G., Hasan, M. R., Josupeit, H., Subasinghe, R. P., and Halwart, M. J. (2012). “Aquatic biodiversity for sustainable diets: the role of aquatic foods in food and nutrition security,” in Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and Solutions for Policy, Research and Action, eds B. Burlingame and S. Dernini, (Rome: FAO), 94–101.

Google Scholar

Toufique, K. A., and Belton, B. (2014). Is aquaculture pro-poor? Empirical evidence of impacts on fish consumption in Bangladesh. World Dev. 64, 609–620. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2014.06.035

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture (2015). 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

PubMed Abstract

Vitousek, P. M., Aber, J. D., Howarth, R. W., Likens, G. E., Matson, P. A., Schindler, D. W., et al. (1997). Human alteration of the global nitrogen cycle: sources and consequences. Ecol. Appl. 7, 737–750. doi: 10.1890/1051-0761(1997)007[0737:haotgn]2.0.CO;2

CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Wood-Wright, N. (2016). New U.S. dietary guidelines ignore broad support for food sustainability. Johns Hopkins HUB 1–3. Available online at: (Accessed November 11, 2016).

Worm, B., Barbier, E. B., Beaumont, N., Duffy, J. E., Folke, C., Halpern, B. S., et al. (2006). Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science 314, 787–790. doi: 10.1126/science.1132294

PubMed Abstract | CrossRef Full Text | Google Scholar

Keywords: sustainable diet, U.S. Dietary Guidelines, fishery, food security, global food system

Citation: Seto K and Fiorella KJ (2017) From Sea to Plate: The Role of Fish in a Sustainable Diet. Front. Mar. Sci. 4:74. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00074

Received: 03 February 2017; Accepted: 02 March 2017;
Published: 16 March 2017.

Edited by:

Samantha Oester, George Mason University, USA

Reviewed by:

Biswapriya Biswavas Misra, Texas Biomedical Research Institute, USA

Copyright © 2017 Seto and Fiorella. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Katherine Seto,