What if I showed you evidence suggesting the global supply of beef, chicken or pork could collapse over the coming decades? You might well panic at the thought.

This threat, while not eminent for land-based animals, is very real for the ocean and the critical sources of wild seafood that we harvest from them. While most of us may think of land-based sources as providing the majority of our animal protein, the ocean’s contribution to human nutrition is incredibly important. Seafood provides as many as 3 billion people with their principal sources of dietary protein. And with the United Nations predicting a global population of 9.7 billion by 2050, and potentially as many as 11 billion by the end of this century, the number of people reliant on seafood for their diets is only likely to grow.

All of which makes the current state of the ocean – and warnings about what this could mean for many of our most significant fisheries – all the more worrying. Industrial-scale fishing has led to 90% of global fish stocks being fished to their maximum. This, combined with added stressors such as ocean acidification, climate-driven coral reef diebacks, microplastic pollution and coastal habitat destruction, is making it even more difficult for our oceans, one of Earth’s primary life-support systems, to produce food for a growing population. These pressures are unparalleled in human history, and the results could be devastating for many of the fisheries on which so many communities depend.

Aquaculture is about to overtake fishing as our primary source of watery protein

Aquaculture is about to overtake fishing as our primary source of watery protein
Image: FAO

The situation becomes even more worrying when one bears in mind that many of the more seafood-dependent nations also tend to be small island or coastal states in the relatively underdeveloped global south. These areas are expected to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change, like rises in sea level, and also often lack the economic resources necessary to prioritise the development of alternative food sources.

These challenges combine to create what might feel like an insurmountable development challenge – but all is not lost. There is a secret weapon in our arsenal of sustainable solutions that you may not expect. It has the potential to meet the global demand for seafood and can have a positive impact on the wider environment and marine ecosystems when done well.

I’m referring to aquaculture – the commercial farming of fish, shellfish and seaweeds. As one of the most efficient ways of producing animal protein, aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing form of food production and is the source of half the world’s seafood. Already, the sector is worth an estimated $243 billion globally and employs some 20 million people. But the contribution of aquaculture to global food security from ocean and marine farming – where there may be the greatest opportunity – is still relatively small in comparison to the global challenge we face.

Unfortunately, various historic and some current examples of environmental harm have also harmed this sector’s reputation, with issues ranging from pollution and habitat destruction to negative impacts on surrounding wild fish populations and other marine species.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the oceans?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without healthy oceans – but they’re more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.