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.


One Comment

  1. I always look forward to reading your posts, Nicolas. Obviously, the seafood industry is very different than the agricultural industry where I am focused, though, I can’t help but look for parallels as well as differences between our industries.

    In this article you have highlighted some of the impacts of climate change in the seafood industry, more specifically the impacts of atmospheric carbon on ocean acidification. At the same time, oceans play a critical role as a carbon sink. You then go on to distinguish between fresh and frozen sectors within the seafood industry and the carbon impacts related to some of the modes of transportation of their respective products.

    There are similar concerns about the impacts of climate change within the agricultural sector and, similar to the ocean, soil has the potential to also act as a carbon sink. There are of course also both fresh and frozen sectors within the agricultural industry. The fresh produce sector, where I happen to work, depends on cold chains while the frozen sector depends on frozen chains. In both cases we are dealing with highly perishable products and the perishability of the products is dependent on the health of the value chain.

    One key difference that I see between fresh and frozen areas of our respective sectors is shelf-life. Products with shorter shelf-life may be more likely to go to waste. Differences in modes of transportation of fresh vs frozen seafood is certainly important in relation to the associated carbon emissions, but waste and the associated carbon emissions from a full life-cycle assessment between fresh and frozen seafood may also be worth exploration.

    However, perhaps a critical comparison between fresh and frozen sectors within the same industry is self-defeating to the industry as a whole. After all, as you mention, fish plays an important role in providing animal protein, especially in the developing world.

    Much of my focus has been on the production side of agriculture and connecting those issues to an increasingly disconnected public. More specifically, I’m interested in addressing monoculture and continuous cropping through the use of commercial rotational crops. The equivalent of monoculture and continuous cropping within the seafood sector may be the practice of harvesting and marketing limited types of fish (i.e. tuna, salmon, cod, etc.). Are there advantages within the frozen sector to address the issue of ‘bycatch,’ unwanted, perhaps less marketable, varieties of fish caught during the harvest? How can the frozen sector within the seafood industry promote the diversity of species that is wasted at the level of production/harvest?



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