The global fish trade affects what we eat

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By Milthon Lujan

Impact of trade on aquatic food consumption per capita and HATL. Source: Zhao et al., (2024); Nat Commun.
Impact of trade on aquatic food consumption per capita and HATL. Source: Zhao et al., (2024); Nat Commun.

The global appetite for seafood products is growing, driven by population increase and changes in dietary preferences. But can we meet this demand sustainably and equitably?

On the other hand, fish and other aquatic foods are causing increasing stir worldwide due to globalization. But does this global fish market lead to equal access to this important food source for everyone? A new study delves into this issue and reveals some surprising findings.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of California, Hokkaido University, and Huazhong Agricultural University developed datasets for trophic level identification and species-level mass balance for 174 countries and territories to analyze global patterns of aquatic food consumption, trade characteristics, and impacts from 1976 to 2019.

They scrutinized the numbers, not just kilograms of fish, but also species, origins, and even the “trophic level” (think of it as the position in the food chain) of each.

The Study

While previous studies explored trade and consumption patterns, the new research sheds new light on:

  • Species-level data analysis: Examining specific types of seafood products rather than grouped categories.
  • Tracking trophic levels: Measuring species’ positions in the food chain, providing insights into environmental impact and nutritional value.
  • Calculating Human Aquatic Trophic Level (HATL): A novel metric to understand the average trophic level of seafood consumed globally and how trade influences it.
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Key Findings

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for ending hunger and malnutrition as a global priority. Aquatic foods, from fish and seafood to crustaceans, play a crucial role. They offer critical nutrients, improve overall health, and support livelihoods in communities worldwide.

Within this framework, the study’s key findings are:

  • Surging seafood consumption: We’re all eating more fish on average, and per capita consumption is increasing globally. According to the study, per capita global consumption of aquatic foods has significantly increased since 1976. More and more people are enjoying the health benefits and delicious flavors of fish and seafood.
  • Changing levels: However, the type of fish and seafood we’re consuming is changing. The study reveals a decline in the Human Aquatic Trophic Level (HATL), meaning we’re consuming more “lower-level” fish, like sardines and anchovies, compared to “higher-level” predators like tuna. This shift is likely due to the rapid growth of aquaculture, which produces low trophic level species.
  • Trade impact: But globalization isn’t all bad news! Trade increased the availability and quality of aquatic foods in over 60% of countries. This means more people have access to diverse and nutritious seafood options, regardless of where they live. Additionally, trade helped narrow the HATL gap between different regions, promoting a more equitable distribution of seafood types.
  • Global disparity still exists: Unfortunately, the benefits of trade aren’t evenly distributed. Some regions still lag in access to diverse and high-quality seafood products.
  • Beyond the numbers: While these findings offer valuable insights, the study also highlights the need to broaden our focus. Simply increasing production and economic gains isn’t enough. We need to ensure equitable distribution of aquatic foods, ensuring everyone has access to the healthy and diverse seafood they deserve.
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What Can We Do?

In light of the study’s results, the following strategies are proposed:

  • Sustainable Aquaculture: Promote responsible aquaculture practices that prioritize environmental and social sustainability.
  • Fair Trade: Support initiatives that ensure fair prices and working conditions for fishermen and farmers, especially in developing countries.
  • Dietary Choices: Consider the HATL of the seafood you consume and make conscious decisions to include a variety of species in your diet.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

Understanding the complexities of the global seafood trade, including its impact on HATL, is crucial for ensuring a sustainable and equitable food system. This study provides valuable insights for:

  • Policy Makers: Developing policies that foster responsible trade practices and promote sustainable aquaculture methods.
  • Consumers: Making informed decisions about the seafood they purchase, considering both environmental impact and nutritional value.
  • Producers: Understanding how their practices impact overall health and diversity of the global fisheries system.


This research sheds light on the complex relationship between the global seafood trade and food security. By addressing challenges and seizing opportunities, we can ensure a sustainable and equitable future where trade helps nourish people and the planet.

Working together, we can navigate the complexities of the global seafood trade to ensure a future where everyone has access to nutritious seafood from sustainable sources.

The study was funded by the National Key R&D Program of China, China Scholarship Council, International Cooperation Project of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and National Natural Science Foundations of China.

Min Zhang
Hubei Provincial Engineering Laboratory for Pond Aquaculture, Engineering Research Center of Green Development for Conventional Aquatic Biological Industry in the Yangtze River Economic Belt, College of Fisheries, Huazhong Agricultural University, Wuhan, China

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Jun Xu
Key Laboratory of Breeding Biotechnology and Sustainable Aquaculture, Key Laboratory of Lake and Watershed Science for Water Security, Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, China

Reference (open access)
Zhao, K., Gaines, S.D., García Molinos, J. et al. Effect of trade on global aquatic food consumption patterns. Nat Commun 15, 1412 (2024).