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4 ways to ensure the future of aquaculture is sustainable

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By Milthon Lujan

by Karen Demavivas
Project Lead, Friends of Ocean Action, World Economic Forum
As our global population expands, so too does demand for nutritious and climate-friendly food. Meeting this increased appetite in more sustainable ways represents a monumental challenge, but potential solutions lie in the planet’s waters.

Blue foods, which are sourced from oceans, seas, rivers and lakes, are the most highly traded food products in the world. Not only do these foods provide livelihoods for millions of people, they also feed billions every day. Demand for blue foods is expected to double by 2050, with aquaculture production playing a vital role in augmenting supplies. In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization anticipates that aquaculture will continue to drive growth in global fish production by accounting for 106 million metric tonnes in 2030 – a rise of 32% from 2020 levels.

Given the industry’s size, aquaculture has received greater attention in recent years, both for its opportunities and challenges. Research by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Blue Food Partnership’s Road to Sustainable Aquaculture report highlight how aquaculture could make a broader contribution across the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), well beyond SDG 14 ‘Life Below Water’.

There are advantages for food security, climate action, employment and communities, which have yet to be fully realized. At the same time, some aquaculture practices can harm habitats and communities, so there is room for progress.

Rising tide of collaboration

The Blue Food Partnership, led by the World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action with support from the UK’s Blue Planet Fund, set out to catalyze science-based actions towards healthy and sustainable blue food value chains, including those in aquaculture. Our Sustainable Aquaculture Working Group aimed to understand the trade-offs in aquaculture and produce a science-based global roadmap to guide the sustainable growth of the sector.

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The group collaborated with FUTUREFISH, whose work connects innovators, businesses and industry leaders for sustainable growth in aquaculture, to build recommendations and key actions. Given the diversity and complexity of the sector, one thing was certain – actions must not occur in isolation. Since aquaculture is closely connected to economic activity, nature, climate, nutrition and jobs, collaboration is essential across geographies and industries to achieve greater social, economic and environmental benefits by 2030.

Four pathways for sustainable aquaculture

Taking a holistic view, the Global Sustainable Aquaculture Roadmap identifies four key pathways for action that can create change at scale and shift aquaculture systems towards a more sustainable future.

  1. Responsible production: A planet-first approach to production can ensure the long-term supply of healthy food from aquaculture is sustainable. Maintaining the breadth of aquaculture species and systems is key to strengthening the resilience and nutritional value of blue foods. We need to develop, support and share best practices and innovations for production, which boost diversity of supply, allow inclusive growth, enhance nature-positive outcomes and contribute to global biodiversity goals.
  2. Improving livelihoods: There’s currently an imbalance of benefits and risks among people participating in the aquaculture sector. The stakeholders working across value chains and the communities impacted by the industry are often left out of decisions that influence their well-being. Although aquaculture brings opportunities, more needs to be done to secure those opportunities, especially for women and young people. Systemic change across industry value chains is crucial to rebalancing inequalities, empowering collaboration and community cooperatives, reducing poverty and building a fairer sector for people.
  3. Healthy consumption: Around the world, access to blue foods is uneven. A pivotal part of building sustainable aquaculture systems is improving the availability and affordability of these foods for all consumers. Advocates should raise awareness among retailers, distributors and food service providers about the benefits of eating a variety of blue foods. In turn, businesses need to find responsible solutions that allow all consumers to enjoy the benefits of these critical sources of nutrition.
  4. An enabling environment: By creating the right conditions for positive progress in aquaculture, there will be a solid foundation for generations to come. Setting up stakeholder partnerships can improve dialogue across the sector as well as governance approaches. Policies from local to international levels are needed to incentivize and enforce more responsible and inclusive practices, and stimulate investment. These investments can support innovations and platforms for data sharing that demonstrate models for sustainable growth.
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Launching a comprehensive roadmap

The annual Our Ocean Conferences were designed to build critical partnerships between government, industry, science and civil society. The hybrid launch event at the Our Ocean Conference in Panama in March 2023 brought together representatives across geographies, sectors and production systems to discuss how the roadmap’s pathways can apply to unique circumstances.

At the Panama event, panelists discussed each of the four pathways while underlining the importance of diversity in the sector. From species to actors, embracing diversity can inform the starting point on the road to sustainability and advance resilience. Investments, like blended finance, and smart technology are also crucial. Integrated systems, such as those that connect aquaculture with agriculture, or production that harnesses naturally lower trophic species can support nature-positive approaches.

Creating synergies

We urge anyone committed to the vision of a more sustainable future for aquaculture to endorse the roadmap through our website and consider how they can contribute in a range of ways. For example, the roadmap can help improve business strategies and operations along aquaculture values chain, or be a critical policy tool to inform international agreements on sustainable aquaculture practices which safeguard our waters for the future.

The Blue Food Partnership is taking steps by gathering stories and case studies of lessons learned and best practices that show roadmap implementation in real life. Our aspiration is that, as the tide rises, this roadmap will serve as foundational guidance for change.

Learn more about the future of sustainable aquaculture by reading the digital roadmap and in-depth World Economic Forum White Paper, Global Sustainable Aquaculture Roadmap: Pathways for Systemic Change. Watch a recording of the hybrid Our Ocean Conference side event on the Friends of Ocean Action YouTube channel. Organizations and companies can support this community knowledge product through the digital roadmap website.

The Global Sustainable Aquaculture Roadmap was produced by the Blue Food Partnership’s Sustainable Aquaculture Working Group, led by Friends of Ocean Action, a platform of the World Economic Forum, with support from the UK government’s Blue Planet Fund.

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