Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 297–305

The globalization of ecologically intensive aquaculture (1984–2008)


    • Department of Sociology and AnthropologyNorth Carolina State University
  • Brett Clark
    • Department of SociologyUniversity of Utah
  • Richard York
    • Department of SociologyUniversity of Oregon

DOI: 10.1007/s13412-013-0124-1

Cite this article as:
Longo, S.B., Clark, B. & York, R. J Environ Stud Sci (2013) 3: 297. doi:10.1007/s13412-013-0124-1


Social structures influence the spread of aquaculture and the particular ecological demands of this industry, which mediate the prospects of fisheries conservation. We assessed the effects of trade in food and fisheries commodities, the level of economic development, aquaculture production, and human population on the expansion of ecologically intensive aquaculture within the global food system. In doing this, we created a conservative measure of ecologically intensive aquaculture. We then conducted cross-national panel regression analyses (1984–2008) of 90 nations to investigate the expansion of ecologically intensive aquaculture and its integration into the global food system. The results indicated positive significant relationships between ecologically intensive aquaculture practices and fisheries commodity exports, total trade in food commodities, GDP per capita, and population size. These findings suggest that the dynamics of the modern global food system, characterized by increasingly globalized production of natural resource intensive processes, have significantly shaped the development of modern aquaculture systems and their ecological consequences.


FisheriesFood systemsMarine systemsSocial structuresTrade


The oceans and aquatic ecosystems have been for millennia a source of food for humans and have provided valuable ecological services. In the modern era, aquatic ecosystems, like terrestrial ecosystems, have come under increasing anthropogenic pressure. Human activities such as overfishing, agricultural and industrial pollution, fossil fuel extraction, and carbon dioxide emissions are changing oceanic and other aquatic ecosystems in unprecedented ways. For example, no area of the world ocean is free from human influence, raising serious concerns regarding the long-term sustainability and biodiversity of marine ecosystems (Halpern et al. 2008). Thus, it is important for environmental social scientists to examine the links between social structures and marine ecology.

The extraction of aquatic species through modern fishing practices is one of the most significant human impacts on marine systems. Annual captures from global fisheries have stagnated at about 90 million tons since the late 1980s (UNFAO 2011b). At the same time, international trade and consumer demand for seafood has continued to increase. Aquaculture—the controlled rearing and propagation of aquatic organisms—has expanded substantially in the past several decades, becoming the fastest growing sector of the global food system (UNFAO 2011c; World Bank 2011a). Per capita production of aquatic species supplied by aquaculture has increased more than tenfold since 1970. In 2008, global aquaculture output reached approximately half the total of capture fisheries. By 2010, it had grown to reach about two thirds of total fisheries captures, and future growth is expected (UNFAO 2011b). This transformation of production toward aquatic farming marks a momentous shift in global food production systems.

Paralleling agriculture systems on land, the recent growth of total aquaculture output has been accompanied by an increase in intensified methods of production and the globalization of production (Deutsch et al. 2007). Generally speaking, intensive aquaculture is distinguished from extensive and semi-intensive production by its substantial reliance on mechanization, capital investments, and increased inputs, including feed, antibiotics, and fertilizer (Pillay and Kutty 2005). Large-scale monoculture production, specialization, and a high division of labor also characterize this type of aquaculture. Furthermore, these aquaculture systems are geared toward supplying the global market.

Extensive operations are often small-scale subsistence operations that may also include some surplus production for local or possibly regional markets. These systems of production use little in the form of external inputs, drawing mostly on nearby available resources. Semi-intensive systems are operations that produce largely for local and regional markets and use some external inputs, mostly fertilizers to promote the growth of organisms that are consumed by the cultured species.

Globalized production of seafood has increased significantly in recent decades. Between 1976 and 2010, the value of trade in total fisheries products increased more than tenfold to reach US $102 billion, with aquaculture making up an increasing share of the total value (UNFAO 2011b). Aquaculture is often presented by development agencies and organizations as a means for enhancing global food security, stimulating economic development, and furthering environmental conservation (World Bank 2007; OECD 2010). It is considered to be an important source of much needed calories and protein for a growing global population. Also, it is seen as a way to increase economic output, employment, and foreign exchange through trade, particularly in the global South (World Bank 2007; OECD 2010). Given the excessive demands on aquatic ecosystems, aquaculture is promoted as a way to reduce pressure on global fisheries and oceans and maintain growth in fish production.

In contrast to these more economically focused assessments, recent scholarship by conservationists, fisheries ecologists, and social scientists has developed a critical analysis of many intensive aquaculture systems and their ecological relationships (Naylor et al. 2000; Pauly et al. 2002; Weber 2003; Clausen and Clark 2005; Stergiou et al. 2009). It is recognized that aquaculture may be practiced using a variety of forms, organizations, and techniques. The structure of social organizations and economic institutions influences the type of aquaculture and the variety of species that are developed. At the same time, the type of species that are reared and propagated informs decisions regarding the types of inputs, including feed, that are used in producing a commodity for market. For example, intensive aquaculture methods, particularly when employed for carnivorous species, can increase the demands placed on aquatic ecosystems (Naylor et al. 2000; Naylor and Burke 2005).

In order to examine the human dimensions of the global production of aquatic species, and by extension the environmental demands on ecosystems, we assessed how trade in food commodities, economic development, total aquaculture production, and population influenced the expansion of ecologically intensive aquaculture from 1984 to 2008. We define ecologically intensive aquaculture as systems of production of aquatic species that are known to have large-scale environmental impacts. We constructed a measure comprising high-value widely produced species that serves as an indicator of ecologically intensive aquaculture, whereby production includes such negative environmental consequences as net energy loss, stress on wild fisheries, and local ecosystem pressure. By examining the integration and expansion of aquaculture production within the modern global food system, we can better understand the social processes that shape food production and consumption and the processes that contribute to pressure on ecosystems in food production systems.

Aquaculture and the environment

While aquaculture systems exist in numerous forms and conditions, we focus on intensive systems and their associated environmental concerns. Here, we briefly discuss some of the central ecological questions related to the growth of intensive aquaculture and the potential for developing ecologically sustainable food systems. These concerns center on the depletion of fisheries, energy inefficiency, and harmful impacts on marine ecosystems. This discussion provides a review of these concerns and a substantive clarification of ecologically intensive aquaculture.

A major ecological concern related to the globalization of many modern aquaculture systems has been referred to as “farming up the food web,” which complements the well-known “fishing down the marine food web” phenomenon (Pauly et al. 1998; Stergiou et al. 2009). Farming up the food web is defined by a growing reliance on the production of high trophic level, therefore more energy-intensive, species. This trend increases ecological pressures on other species. Aquaculture of high trophic level species is heavily reliant upon nutrition sources from fishmeal, fish oil, “trash” fish—i.e., economically low-value fish—and other fish, which derive from lower trophic level species and typically originate from capture fisheries (Pillay and Kutty 2005; Tacon and Metian 2009b). Consequently, the global consumption of feed sources from capture fisheries by the aquaculture sector has increased markedly during the past few decades (Tacon and Metian 2008).

It is estimated that in 2006, aquaculture consumed almost 24 million tons of small pelagic forage fish, almost a third of total fish captures (Tacon and Metian 2008, 2009a, b). While fishmeal is used as feed in both aquatic and terrestrial food production processes, the largest increases in non-food landings of small pelagic fish species has been in the form of fresh, frozen, and wet-processed aquatic species used for direct animal feeding, primarily in aquaculture systems. In 1970, this category of non-food landings totaled less than a million tons, but had increased to more than 13 million tons by 2006 (Tacon and Metian 2009b). The important point is that modern systems of aquaculture are not necessarily decreasing pressures on capture fisheries. Instead, intensive aquaculture is transforming low-value species into feed to produce high-value global commodities, all the while drawing down the total available food resources (Deutsch et al. 2007; Naylor et al. 2009). As a result, the trends associated with the globalization of modern aquaculture systems link farming up the food web and fishing down the marine food web, increasing pressure on smaller, lower trophic level species (Stergiou et al. 2009).

The capture, processing, distribution, and consumption of feed made from wild fish are likely the largest source of energy input into the intensive aquaculture system (Pimentel et al. 1996). Two factors stand out in this regard. First, there are the direct energy inputs of fossil fuels associated with harvesting, processing, and transportation. Fossil fuel inputs in proportion to fish outputs vary depending on harvest systems and distance traveled, but estimates suggest that global fisheries consume more than 12 times the total energy content of their catch (Tyedmers et al. 2005). Second, there are the ecosystem energy inputs, embodied in the aquatic organisms used as feed, that occur from redirecting energy resources from natural ecosystems into aquaculture systems (Pimentel et al. 1996; Troell 2004).

The increased production of carnivorous species—estimated to have grown about 9 % per year since the 1990s—and reliance on feed that contains other aquatic species have been key drivers of the growing energy requirements for aquaculture production (Pimentel et al. 1996; Troell et al. 2004; Naylor and Burke 2005). The mean energy transfer between trophic levels is estimated at 10 % (Pauly and Christensen 1995). The aquaculture industry has made great strides toward increasing the efficiency of feed and lowering the feed conversion ratios of major cultured species such as salmon and shrimp (Naylor et al. 2009). However, the increase in production has outpaced the improvements in efficiency, as suggested by the unprecedented consumption of fishmeal, fish oil, and other fish by the global aquaculture sector (Tacon and Metian 2008, 2009b).1

The transformations in modern aquaculture, such as the shift toward more intensified and globalized systems of production, increase the overall energy demands of food production. Like all industrial processes, energy resources—including fossil fuels—are consumed during production (Troell et al. 2004). Activities, such as hatching and raising juvenile organisms and running automatic feeders, pumps, and boats, add to the overall energy intensity of intensive aquaculture systems. For example, it has been estimated that the amount of energy required to culture salmonids is between 25 and 50 kcal per 1 kcal of fish protein produced (Folke and Kautsky 1992). Clearly, the overall energy consumed by most globalized intensive aquaculture production systems is much higher than the energy that is produced, resulting in a net energy loss.

As noted above, the specific type of practice and organization of aquaculture does vary, in part due to the particular types of species produced. Here, we briefly note some examples to illustrate the range of additional environmental concerns associated with what we have termed ecologically intensive aquaculture beyond energy requirements. Many modern methods of intensive aquaculture, for example shrimp, sea bass, or sea bream, have resulted in high levels of synthetic inputs, such as antibiotics, and pollution of surrounding areas with production effluence (Naylor et al. 1998). Intensive salmon aquaculture has been linked to the spread of diseases and parasites to wild populations and alteration of the wild salmon gene pool due to the breeding of escaped domesticated salmon with wild populations (Naylor et al. 1998; Frazer 2008).

Some systems of aquaculture do not propagate and rear domesticated organisms, but capture wild individuals and feed them until they reach market size or increase market returns, referred to as capture-based aquaculture. Farming bluefin tuna, sometimes called tuna ranching, involves capturing wild bluefin tuna using purse seines and transferring them to sea cages for fattening. This process has been implicated in the diminishing size of wild bluefin tuna populations, particularly in the Mediterranean (ICCAT 2007). Furthermore, bluefin tuna have a high-energy metabolism, so the feed conversion ratio in tuna-ranching systems, reported to be as high as 24.8:1, is likely the highest of all cultured species (Aguado-Gimenez and Garcia-Garcia 2005).

In light of these practices and trends, there are important questions regarding the ecological sustainability of many modern systems of intensive aquaculture. As pointed out above, in recent decades, aquaculture systems are undergoing tremendous growth. Thus, it is important to understand and assess the different theoretical and policy approaches associated with the economic, ecological, and social dimensions of global aquaculture production.

Theory: economy, ecology, and efficiency

The global food system serves as a link between society and ecological systems, presenting many sustainability challenges and opportunities. We build on previous scholarship that recognizes that social structures influence the natural environment, including aquatic ecosystems (Forester and Machlis 1996; Vitousek et al. 1997; York et al. 2003; Clausen and York 2008; Czech 2008). Much of this work is based in the human ecology tradition, which recognizes the ecological embeddedness of human societies. Human ecology stresses that basic material conditions of societies have a substantial influence on the natural environment.

Chief among the forces that lead to the escalation of environmental degradation are the size and growth of the human population and its level of material affluence (Dietz and Rosa 1994). Scholars also recognize that connections to global markets can increase the exploitation of local environments since these networks greatly expand the pool of consumers potentially accessing local resources (Jorgenson 2009; Longo and York 2008). Scholarship in this tradition indicates that economic development and trade are central concerns with regard to trends in food production and the environment since they serve to escalate resource consumption. These ecologically focused analyses are critical of modernization, arguing that the rising affluence that has come with modernity drives environmental destruction.

Counter to this ecologically focused tradition, neoclassical economic theory suggests that globalized intensive food production systems, such as aquaculture, can provide much needed economic resources that will increase the affluence of nations along with the environmental concerns of the public. Some scholars have proposed that economic growth can serve as the means to reduce environmental impacts (Grossman and Krueger 1995). Specialized trade purportedly provides a comparative advantage to obtain needed resources and capital, aiding in the diffusion of efficient technology. Thus, many economists contend that economic growth and environmental conservation are not mutually exclusive (United Nations 2010).

In neoclassical economic theory, the demand for environmental conservation is generally regarded as having a high-income elasticity, so that wealthier consumers are more likely to demand environmental quality. Thus, economic development is seen as a means to increase the overall incentives to conserve environmental resources. Along these lines, some environmental economists propose that the relationship between economic development and ecologically destructive practices follows an environmental Kuznets curve (Grossman and Krueger 1995; Dinda 2004). The environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis suggests that ecological impacts follow an inverted U-shaped curve in relation to economic development, increasing sharply during the early stages of economic growth, but eventually reaching a plateau and decreasing at higher levels of development. Stated with a focus on the topic under investigation, given enough time, economic growth may be accompanied by a decrease in ecologically intensive aquaculture and a shift toward less harmful aquaculture systems, such as some systems of mollusk production or other herbivorous species.

Moreover, from this perspective, international trade ostensibly holds the potential to increase the efficiency of global production (Runge et al. 1994). The globalization of food production provides opportunities for the specialization of production to capitalize on the benefits of comparative advantage. By specializing in products in which there is the greatest advantage relative to a nation’s trading partners, some propose that economic and environmental resources will be optimized (Qureshi 1996; OECD 2010). Global trade, it is assumed, will provide needed resources and capital, which will then increase the gross domestic product per capita, serve consumer needs, and create employment to further economic development. Thus, the neoclassical approach contends that the benefits of comparative advantage within the global food system will serve as a basis for a transition to a more sustainable society with environmentally sound practices.


We collected data provided by the World Bank (2011b) and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO 2011a) to develop a multivariate cross-national time series analysis (1984–2008). We included all nations and years for which data are available, for a total of 90 nations that comprised about 80 % of the global population in 2008. The coverage by year varied across nations so that there were a total of 1,475 observations. As our goal was to better understand the potential environmental impacts associated with the integration of aquaculture production into the global food system, our dependent variable was an estimate of ecologically intensive aquaculture production. The variable is expressed as the combined value of a nation’s aquaculture production of ecologically intensive species (see below) in thousands of US dollars.2 This variable was based on the production of ten species from four species groups—tuna, salmon and trout, shrimp and prawn, and Mediterranean finfish—that are commonly consumed throughout the world, particularly in the global North, and are produced using intensive aquaculture methods (see Table 1).
Table 1

Species included in dependent variable—ecologically intensive aquaculture

Species group

Common name

Scientific name

Ecologically intensive characteristics of aquaculture production


Atlantic bluefin tuna

Thunnus thynnus

Energy-intensive; impacts on wild stocks; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Pacific bluefin tuna

Thunnus orientalis

Energy-intensive; impacts on wild stocks; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Southern bluefin tuna

Thunnus maccoyii

Energy-intensive; impacts on wild stocks; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Salmon and trout

Atlantic salmon

Salmo salar

Energy-intensive; impacts on wild stocks; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Coho(=Silver) salmon

Oncorhynchus kisutch

Energy intensive; impacts on wild stocks; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Rainbow trout

Oncorhynchus mykiss

Energy-intensive; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Shrimp and prawn

Giant tiger prawn

Penaeus monodon

Energy-intensive; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Whiteleg shrimp

Penaeus vannamei

Energy-intensive; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Mediterranean finfish

European sea bass

Dicentrarchus labrax

Energy-intensive; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

Gilthead sea bream

Sparus aurata

Energy-intensive; local ecosystem pressures; highly dependent on marine capture fisheries

While there are hundreds of aquatic species cultured using a variety of methods, the inclusion of the ten species in the dependent variable was based on the well-documented ecological impacts that are known to accompany the production of these species. That is, the culture of each species has been clearly identified in the scientific literature as being associated with many ecological concerns or, what we term, ecologically intensive systems, such as reliance on capture fisheries as sources of feed, high energy use, pollution generation, and negative impacts on wild stocks, either through interaction with domesticated organisms or direct capture (see Naylor et al. 2000; Troell et al. 2004; Naylor and Burke 2005; ICCAT 2007; Stergiou et al. 2009; UNFAO 2011c). As a result, these species were specified as they have been associated with some of the most ecologically destructive practices within aquaculture and, therefore, act as good indicators of ecologically intensive aquaculture systems, which have the potential to result in negative environmental consequences.

While other species that are not included in this indicator may be as ecologically intensive as some of the species we included, we did not include species if they were produced using a variety of production methods—such as tilapia, which is produced using both large-scale and small-scale, intensive and semi-intensive methods—given that it would be inappropriate to label all of these production practices as ecologically intensive. We also did not include species that were not widely produced or consumed on a global scale during the period under investigation in this study—for example, yellowfin tuna. That is to say, we developed a conservative estimate of ecologically intensive aquaculture.

The independent variables included in the model were selected to assess the effects of economic and demographic forces that have been shown to influence resource exploitation of various types (e.g., Clausen and York 2008; York et al. 2003). The variables we included to measure globalization, or global integration into the food system, were the value of total exports of all fisheries commodities and the total value of trade—combined imports and exports—in food commodities. Both variables are expressed as a proportion of gross domestic product. Other variables included non-ecologically intensive aquaculture as a proportion of gross domestic product, which was employed to control for the scale of aquaculture production in general. This variable represents the total value of aquaculture production within a nation less the value of ecologically intensive aquaculture, so as not to include the dependent variable within an independent variable. Nations that have higher levels of aquaculture production are likely to have infrastructure and technology that promote all types of aquaculture production, which may influence the level of ecologically intensive aquaculture systems.

We included the gross domestic product per capita as an independent variable to measure the effect of economic development on ecologically intensive aquaculture. We tested for an environmental Kuznets curve by including a quadratic version of gross domestic product per capita, a common practice in cross-national research. Finally, total population size was included since it will likely influence the production of food commodities such as aquatic food sources and aquaculture production. Data on the aquaculture variables are from the UNFAO (2011a). All other variables are from the World Bank (2011b).

In order to address common concerns in cross-national data about the distributions of variables, we transformed all variables into a natural logarithmic form. This approach is widely recognized and applied in the commonly used STIRPAT model, which examines environmental impacts as a multiplicative combination of driving factors (Dietz and Rosa 1994; York et al. 2003). This is similar to methods used in economics research and is the equivalent of an elasticity model, where the coefficients indicate the percentage change in the dependent variable for a 1 % change in each independent variable.

We used a fixed-effects panel regression model which focused on temporal variation within nations as opposed to cross-sectional variance across nations, allowing us to assess changes in ecologically intensive aquaculture. To control for period effects common across nations, we included dummy-coded variables for time. The fixed-effects model with time dummies controls for any potential omitted variables that differ across nations but that do not change over time, such as geographic factors—e.g., being mountainous, being land-locked—and for general temporal trends common across nations, such as international commodity prices (e.g., oil). This approach more closely approximates experimental conditions than other procedures, such as random-effects models. We also corrected for first-order autocorrelation using the Prais–Winsten procedure.


The results of the model are presented in Table 2. Because we transformed all the variables into logarithmic form, the coefficients can be interpreted as the percent change in the value of ecologically intensive aquaculture for a 1 % change in each independent variable, all else being equal. The results from our analysis suggest that ecologically intensive aquaculture increased with exports in fisheries commodities, trade in food, economic growth, and population growth. Each of these variables had a positive and significant effect on the dependent variable. Non-ecologically intensive aquaculture did not have a significant effect, suggesting that the two forms of aquaculture develop independently of each other.
Table 2

Results from fixed-effects multivariate panel regression analysis of ecologically intensive aquaculture (1984–2008)

Independent variables


Standard error

Exports of fisheries commoditiesa



Non-ecologically intensive aquaculturea



Trade in fooda



Gross domestic product per capitab






“Within” R2



Nations/total observations



All variables are in logarithmic form. The model included period dummies, which are not shown

*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01; ***p < 0.001 (two-tailed test)

aVariables are expressed as a proportion of GDP

bExpressed in constant year 2000 US dollars

With coefficient values approximately equal to, and not significantly different from, 1.0, the relationships between the value of ecologically intensive aquaculture and both population and gross domestic product per capita were approximately unitary elastic, meaning that ecologically intensive aquaculture changes in roughly equal proportion to these two factors. The effects of fish exports and trade in food were inelastic, but significant.

In an alternative model, a squared term for gross domestic product per capita was included to test for the possibility of a nonlinear environmental Kuznets curve relationship. The results of the model were substantially the same, but the squared term did not reach the level of significance. Therefore, this variable was not included in the model we present here.

Discussion and conclusion

It is important to assess modern trends in the global food system in relation to its ecological implications. Our investigation of the expansion of ecologically intensive practices revealed that modern global aquaculture systems that make use of intensified methods of production are associated with particular global structural processes. Therefore, we highlight the socio-structural dimensions of modern aquaculture systems and their potential ecological impacts.

Our analysis indicated that socio-structural factors play a key role in shaping the scale and type of aquaculture that is developed. The dependent variable, which conservatively measures ecologically intensive aquaculture, is also, by extension, an indicator of the environmental demands and impacts of this form of production. The results highlight the expansion of this form of aquaculture and indicate that these food systems are likely affecting ecosystems and the prospects for marine conservation. In the case of global aquaculture production, our results contradicted the general hypotheses put forward by neoclassical economics regarding the supposed benefits of economic development and international trade. Increasing integration into the modern global food system through trade led to the expansion of ecologically intensive aquaculture, which also likely increases the overall demands placed on aquatic ecosystems. Economic growth was positively associated with ecologically intensive aquaculture, failing to support the environmental Kuznets curve hypothesis. Likewise, population growth contributed to the expansion of ecologically intensive aquaculture. These findings raise important questions about conservation strategies, given that international financial institutions and sustainable development policies often actively promote the globalization of aquaculture as a way to enhance human well-being and biological conservation (World Bank 2007; OECD 2010).

The indicator of ecological intensive aquaculture in this study is a proxy for measurable environmental impacts and, as such, can only provide an estimate for an unqualified environmental impact assessment. Nevertheless, the complexity of measuring the impacts of global systems of seafood production and available data on associated environmental impacts necessitated the construction of an indicator for this type of cross-national time series analysis. Thus, our findings, while not unconditionally definitive, provide a good point of departure for further analysis and discussion on this critical socio-ecological issue.

Our findings stand in contrast to the general claims, assumptions, and policy recommendations of leading international economic institutions. For example, the World Trade Organization (WTO 2011, p. 3) asserts that international trade serves as the basis for increased “investment, innovation and technological change—all of which are vital for sustainable development and the transition to a green economy.” Embracing the logic of neoclassical economics, the WTO (2011, p. 5) proposes that “Trade stimulates growth and raises income levels which over time can help increase demand for a better environment. Trade can also improve access to green goods, services and technologies needed to reduce pollution and energy use, or help develop them.” Additionally, in a report focused on globalization and aquaculture, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2010) claims that the global trade of fish commodities, due to comparative advantage, provides a foundation to improve the living standards of citizens and the wealth of nations. While noting that the negative environmental externalities must be kept in check, fisheries and aquaculture are seen as an important source of “further economic growth stemming from the more efficient use of fisheries resources, from more liberal trading regimes” (OECD 2010, p. 11).

The conclusions of this study require that we reconsider the dominant policy prescriptions offered by these, and other, international organizations. Our study further substantiates that there has been an extension of globalized and intensive systems of aquaculture production, which are associated with global socio-structural variables. Rather than promoting ecological conservation or sustainable development, we contend that the expansion of globalized systems of aquaculture production will likely increase ecological degradation due to the focus on high-value commodities using ecologically intensive systems. While comparative advantage relationships may enhance economic development, it is not clear that these global trade relationships will translate into ecological sustainability. In fact, our analysis indicates that these global trade dynamics can have the opposite effect.

Export-oriented production of fisheries commodities is focused on the expansion of high-value commodities, which, in the aquaculture sector, are generally associated with more ecologically intensive practices, resulting in a broad array of negative environmental consequences. To the extent that these practices hold, it helps in part to explain the persistent pressure and demands placed on marine ecosystems and the various threats to conservation. Furthermore, the globalization of production may not increase food security, but may actually heighten food insecurity since some aquaculture production systems that make use of intensive practices are associated with the farming up the food web phenomenon, leading to greater pressure on small pelagic species that are used as fish feed in aquaculture, such as mackerel, sardine, and anchovy. These species, which are being turned into feed for economically high-value fish species, are an important source of protein for human consumption, particularly in the global South, where they are directly and readily consumed (Tacon and Metian 2009b).

This study provides insights regarding the prospects of environmental sustainability in relation to the development of aquaculture within the global food system. The rise of globalized ecologically intensive aquaculture systems in the modern era raises substantial concerns about social policy and environmental conservation. Our investigation confirmed that socio-structural factors greatly influence the interactions between social systems and ecosystems. Economic patterns and trends influence the type and form of production that is created. We propose that it cannot be taken for granted that economic growth and an expansion in global trade foster the conservation of resources and improvements in environmental conditions. These are issues that need to be investigated further. The uncritical acceptance of such claims may minimize social action to protect vital resources.

When examining conservation issues, Lawn (2008, p. 1422), recognizing the importance of accounting for political–economic context, argues that modern macroeconomic policy “contributes significantly to the growing pressure being exerted upon the ecosphere.” Our analysis indicated that the macroeconomic policies that have been promoting the globalization of food production, in this case aquaculture, in order to improve food security, economic development, and environmental conservation should be reevaluated. Future research should further investigate the relationships between modern systems of globalized aquaculture production and the ecological consequences associated with impacts on wild fisheries, energy inefficiencies, and marine ecosystem impacts. There are serious questions that must be addressed regarding the ecological sustainability of social policies that promote the globalization of ecologically intensive aquaculture.


Fishmeal consumption has stagnated recently following the trend of total annual fish captures. This is in part due to the increasing efficiency of production, but also related to the increasing use of other sources of protein in aquaculture systems that can substitute for dwindling and increasingly expensive sources of fishmeal. These substitutes are derived from terrestrial systems, which have a different set of environmental impacts. It is important to note that these may or may not increase the total impacts on the environment.


Since our dependent variable is not a direct measure of environmental impact, our analysis cannot be considered a traditional environmental impact assessment. However, in light of available data, we make use of a measure that we contend provides a suitable substitute based on the scientific literature in that it indicates the prevalence of aquaculture production that has been shown to lead to environmental problems. We also tested a model in which the ecologically intensive aquaculture was measured in tons. The results were identical to the model included in this study since the data source estimates the dollar value and the weight of production based on a system of conversion from one to the other.


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