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Offshore Realities – Climate Change and Ocean Ecology

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Article 2 in Our “Tipping the Scales: Climate Considerations for the Seafood Lover” Series

For thousands of years, seafood has been a global culinary centerpiece. Celebrated for its nutrient density and filling yet light flavor profiles, seafood is a well-deserved favorite of foodies and chefs alike. When considering seafood in our diets, however, it is important to understand that there are environmental implications involved that are just as serious as those of terrestrial meat consumption. In fact, the seafood we put on our plate is directly linked to the stark realities of climate change – both exacerbating the problem and being directly affected by it.  

The ocean plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy global climate and is currently under threat. The ocean is a vital carbon sink, meaning it naturally absorbs and stores carbon dioxide produced by human activity, preventing it from entering the atmosphere and further exacerbating our climate crisis. The ocean has already absorbed a whopping “90 percent of the excess heat and about a quarter of the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning and other human activities” according to Inside Climate News. However, our overall emissions are so high that ocean temperatures are rising too, and climate organizations believe that this will reduce the efficiency of oceanic carbon uptake.

Our Changing Ecological Ocean Realities 

Ecological impacts of climate change disrupt the entire oceanic ecosystem, not to mention the food chain that humans rely on. Rising temperatures are changing our ocean from the Arctic to the tropics. This and other climate challenges, like sea level rise and increased frequency of storms, are putting marine life under constant stress. Ocean acidification and lower oxygen levels are posing problems for shellfish’s shell development and causing a proliferation of algal blooms which can create toxic environments for critical marine species such as kelp, fish and bivalves. Climate change is also destroying fragile marine ecosystems such as coral reefs which could disappear entirely in the next thirty years if warming is not curbed.

Industrial food systems have further intensified the issues facing our ocean. Extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers contribute to polluting our waterways with excess chemicals that can create dead zones for marine life. Excess food packaging (which just surpassed cigarette butts as the largest global contributor to beach litter) is polluting our ocean at enormous rates, forming massive floating “islands” of garbage  filled with plastic beverage bottles and caps, single-use cutlery, stretchy plastic wrap and chip bags. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our ocean unless we dramatically change course. Microplastics, tiny bits of plastic that never decompose, are also a massive concern as they are unwittingly consumed by fish and sea life up and down the food chain, causing health concerns for both those species and the humans that consume them.  

What this Entails for Seafood

Global fish stocks are declining and will continue to do so as the ocean becomes more difficult for marine life to live in. Migration patterns are also changing as species travel new and different routes in search of food and ideal habitats, posing serious challenges for the fishing industry and threats to countless species’ survival. Species migration also poses concerns around invasive species that can dominate native ones, placing added pressure on ocean ecological systems. Scarcity and biodiversity loss are also compounded by overfishing which in turn, poses challenges for communities that rely upon fishing for economic stability.

The current fishing industry is responsible for 63 billion pounds of bycatch each year, a byproduct of commercial fishing that may amount to 40 percent of the world’s total catch, according to Oceana. In addition to the fuel and materials required to power fishing operations, we must also take into account the discarded fishing nets and gear that threaten wildlife, as well as destructive fishing practices like deep sea trawling and dynamite fishing that directly threaten (and sometimes totally decimate) these ecosystems. Of course, there are many fishing operations working to adopt sustainable practices and we are seeing more and more innovators designing and creating pathways to a more ecologically resilient and conscientious seafood landscape. 

Small Changes Matter

Thinking about the threats to our ocean can be overwhelming. However, as consumers we can work towards a more sustainable seafood future by being intentional about what is on our plate. The many facets of ocean health, from fossil fuel emissions to biodiversity to waste, must be top of mind as we examine our diets and reimagine our foodscape. If we choose to consume seafood, factors like those listed below each add to its carbon footprint.

  • Practices with which it was produced. Was the seafood wild-caught or farm raised? Often each of these has different implications and it’s important we do our research on what is most sustainable, and know that this can vary over time, by geography, by species and by brand. Seafood Watch is one trusted and credible resource available to help you make informed decisions.
  • The miles it traveled to our dinner tables. Often seafood is exported internationally, traveling thousands of miles to reach us. Not only is it less fresh this way, but the carbon emissions of international exporting does remarkable damage to our environment.
  • The packaging it is sold in. Unsustainably produced packaging can result in the accumulation of waste that also adversely affects our ocean via microplastics and other contaminants in our waterways. We should also be aware that different types of packaging require varying amounts of energy and resources to produce, and not all packaging can be readily recycled or reused (if at all).

We can never ignore that the very ocean our seafood came from is already experiencing the impacts of a shifting climate. Let’s be wise about our decisions to mitigate harm while using our collective purchasing power to drive progress towards a more climate-conscious seafood industry. 

Join us as Charlie outlines important topics on why our seafood purchases matter in her series: “Tipping the Scales: Climate Considerations for the Seafood Lover.” Read her introduction, Decarbonizing our Diets, here.

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