fish market in peru

The future of food from the sea


Human population growth, rising incomes, and preference shifts will considerably increase global demand for nutritious food in the coming decades. Malnutrition and hunger still plague many countries and projections of population and income by 2050 suggest a future need for more than 500 million metric tons (mmt) of meat per year for human consumption. This is a 38% increase from today’s production of 362 mmt of edible meat. Thus, the question remains: How can we sustainably increase supply to meet future needs?

Food from the sea is procured from wild fisheries and species farmed in the ocean (mariculture), and currently accounts for 17% of the global production of edible meat. In addition to protein, food from the sea contains bioavailable micronutrients and essential fatty acids that are not easily found in land-based foods, and is thus uniquely poised to contribute to global food and nutrition security. In this study, we investigated the potential of expanding the economically and environmentally sustainable production of food from the sea for meeting global food demand in 2050.


Collaborating with experts across multiple disciplines from around the world, we estimated the extent to which food from the sea could plausibly increase under a range of scenarios. We constructed global supply curves of food from the sea that explicitly account for ecological, economic, regulatory, and technological constraints. We first derived the conceptual pathways through which food supply from the ocean could increase: (1) improving the management of wild fisheries; (2) implementing policy reforms of mariculture; (3) advancing feed technologies for fed mariculture; and (4) shifting demand, which affects the quantity supplied from all three production sectors. We then empirically derived the magnitudes of these pathways to estimate the sustainable supply of food from each seafood sector at any given price. Finally, we matched these supply curves with future demand scenarios to estimate the likely future production of sustainable seafood at the global level.

Key Findings

Our research gave rise to several key results:

  • Food production from wild capture fisheries and mariculture can increase substantially, with the most pronounced gains coming from mariculture.
  • Although wild fisheries dominate edible marine production today, we project that by 2050 up to 44% of edible marine production could come from mariculture. 
  • Under our estimated demand and supply scenarios, edible food from the sea could increase by 21– 44 million tonnes by 2050, a 36–74% increase compared to current yields. This represents 12–25% of the increase in demand for meat for 9.8 billion people by 2050.
  • Even though the ocean could supply over six times more food than it does today, the demand shift required to engage this level of supply is unlikely.

This study was commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a unique initiative by 14 world leaders who are building momentum for a sustainable ocean economy in which effective protection, sustainable production, and equitable prosperity go hand in hand. Our work was one of sixteen “blue papers” that offered a robust, scientific knowledge base to inform a new ocean report and the Ocean Panel’s action agenda.


This work was conducted in collaboration with over 20 experts from around the world (full list below) and supported by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and the World Resources Institute. 

Collaborators: Christopher Costello (emLab), Ling Cao (Shanghai Jiao Tong University), Stefan Gelcich (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), Miguel Á. Cisneros-Mata (Instituto Nacional de Pesca y Acuacultura), Christopher M. Free (emLab), Halley E. Froehlich (UC Santa Barbara), Christopher D. Golden (Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health), Gakushi Ishimura (Iwate University), Jason Maier (UC Santa Barbara), Ilan Macadam-Somer (UC Santa Barbara), Tracey Mangin (emLab), Michael C. Melnychuk (University of Washington), Masanori Miyahara (Fisheries Research and Education Agency of Japan), Carryn L. de Moor (University of Cape Town), Rosamond Naylor (Stanford University), Linda Nøstbakken (Norwegian School of Economics), Elena Ojea (CIM-University of Vigo), Erin O’Reilly (emLab), Ana M. Parma (National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina), Andrew J. Plantinga (emLab), Shakuntala H. Thilsted (WorldFish), and Jane Lubchenco (Oregon State University)