multiple seafood types on ice at market

Investigating the conservation benefits of cell-based seafood


The combined impacts of large-scale industrial fishing, a rapidly growing human population, poor governance and management, and climate change have collectively resulted in the overexploitation and depletion of many fish stocks. Concurrently, a rapidly increasing global population poses food security demands for healthy, sustainable protein sources. Aquaculture has grown substantially to help meet this need and may relieve pressure on some wild stocks, but overfishing, destructive aquaculture practices, and poor ocean health persists throughout the ocean. 

One radical approach to curbing overfishing and restoring marine ecosystems, while also addressing food security, is to develop cell-based seafood products. The field of cellular agriculture – the process of producing meat from cell- and tissue-cultures – offers potential new market alternatives that are sustainably produced, scalable to nearly any size, and could serve as a market substitute to wild caught and farmed fish. However, questions remain as to what the ecological and economic impacts of the nascent industry will be on wild-caught and aquaculture products, and if cell-based seafood can provide conservation benefits. Our team is developing novel insights into the possible conservation benefits of cell-based seafood alternatives, unpacking the complex chain of events required for such demand-driven interventions to reduce overfishing and aid fisheries recovery.


Our team is working on identifying the key economic, ecological, social, and political conditions under which innovations in cell-based seafood could drive an ocean conservation benefit. We are pursuing four interrelated research tracks that use complementary methodologies to identify the conditions under which cell-based seafood could have a conservation impact: 

  1. One way to understand these conditions is to examine the aquaculture industry. We are quantifying when and where aquaculture production has had hidden interactions with wild-caught fisheries, providing a proxy for cell-based seafood on how the local context of seafood may help or hinder a new seafood industry. 
  2. We can also learn from previous food transitions: by synthesizing conditions and drivers from past food transitions, we can identify and assess potential limitations to not only the adoption of cell-based seafood, but also its substitution for wild-caught fish. 
  3. To investigate whether fisheries will fish less if prices are driven down by the introduction of cell-based seafood, we are empirically assessing the impact shifting fish prices have on fishing behavior. 
  4. Bringing this all together, we are using cell-based seafood as a case study to consider the broader theoretical capacity for demand-driven interventions to have positive impacts on fish biomass. 

Key Findings

In our initial assessment of cell-based seafood’s ability to relieve pressure on wild fisheries, we found that: 

  • Achieving this conservation benefit (i.e. an increase in the biomass of wild fisheries) will rely on an extensive and somewhat tenuous chain of events: we identified nine necessary steps and argue that failure at any one step could hinder or even eliminate cell-based seafood's conservation effects.
  • We also pinpointed a number of technological, behavioral, market, and ecological changes that must occur along this pathway, and conclude that fisheries recoveries and collateral ocean benefits are unlikely to result from cell-based seafood technology. 

In assessing aquaculture as a proxy for the introduction of cell-based seafood, we found that:

  • Aquaculture growth has very rarely reduced fishing pressure on wild populations, having marginal effects in countries when production is greater than wild fisheries.
  • If there has been any displacement, introductions of new products have largely served market expansion, not substitution for wild-caught products.
  • Simple market introduction of new foods may not yield the expected benefits we presume if interventions that span policy, markets, tech, and consumer cultures are also not coordinated.


This project is a collaboration with our colleagues at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).