Sustainable Aquaculture


If the global demand for animal protein doubles in the coming decades as it is expected to, our society will face tremendous challenges with food provision. What role will the sea play in meeting this increased demand for animal protein? SFG’s previous work suggests that the maximum potential gains from wild fisheries are modest relative to the significant projected increase in demand. Aquaculture, on the other hand, is the world’s fastest growing food sector, and marine aquaculture, known as mariculture, has the potential to supply the growing global population with the protein it demands. SFG is currently working on several research projects that are helping us fill our aquaculture knowledge gaps and improve our understanding of sustainable mariculture and its tradeoffs with wild fisheries.

Where in the World is Marine Aquaculture?

In the coming years, marine aquaculture--known as mariculture--will play an invaluable role in helping communities around the world meet their growing demand for animal protein. Despite its critical importance for global food security, we still lack basic knowledge about where mariculture production occurs, and this considerable data gap complicates our ability to study mariculture’s environmental impacts and manage the sector sustainably. 

Fortunately, with the advent of high-resolution satellite imagery, it is now possible to map Earth’s ecosystems at a global scale. Leveraging big data techniques and spatial analysis, it is now possible to automate the detection and monitoring of various uses of marine space. 

By combining existing datasets (compiled and synthesized in this interactive dashboard) with maps produced using cutting-edge technologies, SFG is working to develop the first farm-scale global map of marine aquaculture. We are applying machine learning methods to satellite images--a novel approach that researchers in the natural sciences are only beginning to use--to detect different types of aquaculture (fish cages, shellfish and seaweed lines, shrimp ponds, etc.) around the world. We expect that a global mariculture map will not only improve our ability to study the biological and economic tradeoffs of seafood production systems, but also make it possible to answer an entirely new suite of questions about the effects of human activity on our oceans.

A Financial Tool for Aquaculture Stakeholder Engagement

Site selection for offshore aquaculture development often occurs in crowded marine spaces. Current user groups can be vocal opponents of aquaculture expansion, thus engaging these community stakeholders is a vital step in growing the sector. SFG is researching participation incentives with the Ventura Shellfish Enterprise, a regional collaboration that is working to promote sustainable mariculture production. We are designing an online financial tool to help visualize the magnitude and timeliness of expected cash flows associated with starting an aquaculture farm relative to other commercial activities (e.g. fishing). Our interactive approach will give users the flexibility to configure the model to fit their specifications, and it will serve as a platform to support SFG’s sustainable aquaculture initiatives around the world. In developing a tool that can present stakeholders with clear information relevant to their specific circumstances, we hope to improve marine planning processes and help create a more cohesive coastal economy. 

Tradeoffs with Wild Fisheries

While experts agree that mariculture must play an expanded role in providing animal protein in the coming years, the ecological and economic impacts of this expansion are not well understood. Aquaculture and capture fisheries interact in numerous ways--spatially, ecologically, and in markets. Therefore, SFG is working to evaluate the tradeoffs between an increase in sustainable mariculture production, ecosystem health, and fisheries productivity and employment. For the purpose of this project, we are summarizing the current state of knowledge on the interactions between mariculture and capture fisheries and identifying opportunities where fisheries management can play an important role. Additionally, mariculture can be a viable alternative livelihood for many fishers currently engaged in overfished small-scale fisheries, and we are developing market-based approaches to facilitate this transition.