The impact of carbon emissions in the seafood industry

Dead Coral Reef 2

There are multiple aspects to the impact of climate change on the seafood industry. The most obvious are extreme weather events that pose a barrier to fishing activity for extended periods of time and potentially destroy entire fishing fleets. Aquaculture is also impacted by floods or hurricanes that can damage ponds and sometimes completely ruin future harvests. These issues could potentially be managed through the implementation of preventive measures and use of appropriate equipment.

However, climate change has one much more troubling impact on fisheries that threatens the resource itself: the acidification of oceans. We often forget how oceans interact with the atmosphere and their critical role as a carbon sink. Water can partly absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but when the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere becomes too high, the chemical reaction created results in the acidification of the oceans which is currently increasing at an unprecedented rate.  As of today, the acidity of the planet’s oceans is 26% higher than it was in preindustrial times, but this is only the beginning and experts predict the increase to be by about 170% by 2100 if emissions continue at their current level (IOC, SCOR, 2013).  Lots of marine organisms such as fish, molluscs and corals are very sensitive to water acidity. Many of them are likely to disappear and ecosystems will be completely transformed in ways we currently have trouble to anticipate.

Most stakeholders in this industry do not fully understand how carbon emissions can impact fisheries and, contrary to water pollution or overfishing, this is a topic that is rarely addressed when discussing sustainability in seafood. For instance, a large amount of fresh tuna is still sent by air to high end markets such as Japan. Quality perception favours fresh products over frozen products which generate significantly lower carbon emissions because they can be exported by ocean freight. There is substantial work to do to educate consumers on the numerous benefits of frozen food and the latest technological developments that enable producers to maintain the quality of their product throughout the cold chain.

Contrary to what we might think in Europe, seafood is not a marginal industry. Fish accounts for 17% of the animal protein consumed worldwide, and over 50% in many developing countries (FAO, 2016). The supply chains are often complex, involving dense transportation networks and there is no doubt this industry has its share of responsibility in addressing the issue of climate change.



IOC, SCOR, I. (2013) ‘Ocean Acidification Summary for Policymakers – Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World’, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, p. 26. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.