1 Introduction

Seafood is one of the world’s most traded commodities and is strategically important in future food systems and healthy diets (Asche et al., 2022; Hertel et al., 2021; Phillips et al., 2021). Global demand for freshwater and marine foods is rising (FAO, 2022; Gephart et al., 2021) and in 2020, fisheries and aquaculture production reached an all-time record of 214 million tonnes, worth US$ 424 billion, with 65% coming from farmed seafood production (FAO, 2022; FAO Globefish, 2023). Globally, aquatic foods provide approximately 17% of animal proteins, rising to over 50% in several countries in Asia and Africa. Aquatic foods are increasingly recognised for their key role in food security and human nutrition, providing a major source of protein and essential omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients (FAO, 2022; Farmery et al., 2022; Hertel et al., 2021).

Contemporary global challenges are exposing critical flaws in the resilience of our current food system, including in the global seafood industry. These include the recent COVID-19 pandemic and resulting monetary and fiscal policies to alleviate the pandemic’s impact, the war in Ukraine and its ongoing fallout disrupting food and energy security, persistent strains on supply chains and risk reduction mechanisms, and climate change. Collectively, these are generating an unprecedented crisis. Even before these challenges, the food system was far from functioning efficiently, sustainably, or equitably (Steffen et al., 2015; Von Braun et al., 2021). Approximately 828 million people in 2021 were affected by hunger (FAO, 2022), while, contrastingly, one in four people globally is overweight (Von Braun et al., 2021). In fisheries, overfishing and biodiversity loss continue (FAO, 2022) and there is growing evidence of human rights abuses in seafood supply chains (Garcia Lozano et al., 2022; Nolan & Bott, 2018; Tickler et al., 2018; Wilhelm et al., 2020); while extreme weather events associated with climate change are becoming more common, disrupting supply and capture (Myers et al., 2017). These challenges exist within the context of a growing world population of over 8 billion people and where global consumption of meat proteins over the next decade is projected to increase by 14% by 2030 compared to the base period average of 2018–2020, a trend driven by rising income and increasing populations favouring meat protein (OECD, 2021).

These multiple, complex, and long-term challenges to the wider food system, along with maladaptive responses to the food crisis, have the potential to disrupt society at multiple scales including access to secure and affordable healthy diets for a growing population, while safeguarding livelihoods and natural resources (Fanzo & Davis, 2021; FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP & WHO, 2022; Webb et al., 2020; Wijerathna-Yapa & Pathirana, 2022). Pro-active policy intervention is urgently needed to reduce and mitigate current vulnerabilities, ensure future food security, strengthen the ability of seafood supply chains to adapt, and meet Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and malnutrition (Ben Hassen & El Bilali, 2022).

This opinion piece will outline the challenges to the wider food system that are transforming the seafood supply food system. Although there is a focus on the UK, much of the synthesis contained here can be applied across many developed countries – particularly those in the global north. While recognising that there is no single dietary pattern or food system that should be imposed globally, and that food systems are dynamic and complex, a key set of policy actions are needed to ensure food systems that are environmentally and economically sustainable as well as socially just. We use the term resilience to mean the capacity over time of a food system to provide sufficient, appropriate and accessible food to all, in the face of various and unforeseen disturbances (see Tendall et al., 2015). Our piece contributes to gaps around governance instruments that could be strengthened to support food security and nutrition. We conclude by calling for bold leadership by governments to facilitate changes in demand that focus on affordable foods that are essential for healthy diets, while driving more sustainable production and trade.

2 Current drivers of transformative change

2.1 COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 disrupted food systems and shifted the structure of global seafood trading (FAO, 2022; Future of Fish, 2021; Love et al., 2021), leading to a surge in demand from supermarkets and a collapse in demand from restaurants, hotels, catering, and open markets. This led to a recalibration of seafood imports towards increased frozen rather than fresh products in developed countries (Future of Fish, 2021). Covid also led to a loss of jobs, economic losses that impact food security and increased vulnerability in the industry (Kakaei et al., 2022), many of which persist today. Changes in food consumption habits, lower catches, reduced imports of certain species, increased volatility for exports, and more costly and complex delivery and collection services for seafood are disruptive legacies of COVID-19 (Ruiz-Salmón et al., 2021; White et al., 2021). In low and middle-income countries and for lower socio-economic groups everywhere, lockdowns and mobility restrictions led to a reduction of diet quality and food security - this was further exacerbated by restricted household incomes and physical access to food, and continues to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable (Béné, 2020; Bisoffi et al., 2021; Devereux et al., 2020; Picchioni et al., 2022).

2.2 War in Ukraine and the energy/cost of living crisis

Increases in the costs of energy underpinned by the war in Ukraine and exacerbated by rising price inflation (Francis-Devine et al., 2022), are rendering food increasingly unaffordable (Power et al., 2020). In addition, higher non-tariff barriers due to Brexit are affecting food price inflation (Bakker et al., 2023). Global food prices reached their highest ever levels in March 2022 and have since dropped back to pre-2021 levels (FAO, 2023), part of a wider trend of cost-of-living increases escalating in advanced and emerging economies (IMF, 2022). Rising fuel costs in wild capture fisheries and high production costs in aquaculture due to greater freight, feed, labour, and energy costs (Belton et al., 2021) are cascading in turn to higher retail prices; consequently, shoppers are buying less seafood (Blank, 2022). Furthermore, the UK became heavily reliant on whitefish imports of cod, haddock, and Alaska pollock from Russia, representing around one quarter of UK import value in 2020 and one fifth in 2021 (Seafish, 2022). Russia controls 45% of the global whitefish supply and in 2020 the UK imported over 430,000 tonnes of whitefish (and landed only 47,000 tonnes of cod and haddock). When the UK imposed a 35% tariff on Russian whitefish as a sanction in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this policy intervention to restrict Russia’s exports impacted UK supply and increased fraud (Jagtap et al., 2022).

2.3 Climate change

Expected changes in climatic and environmental conditions over the coming decades will have important implications for future food security, nutrition, and human and planetary health, intensifying the role that seafood can play in global food security (Luyten et al., 2023; Myers et al., 2017; Talukder et al., 2022; Taylor et al., 2015; Tong et al., 2022). Relating to seafood, environmental variability and extreme events are already impacting upon fishing grounds, leading to harvest losses and distribution disruptions each year (Davis et al., 2021; Fanzo & Davis, 2021). Climate change is driving changes in the biogeography of marine species, moving them towards higher latitudes, deeper waters, or tracking favourable temperature gradients (Brander, 2007; Cheung et al., 2022). For example, distribution and migration patterns of fish in the North Sea have changed (Little et al., 2020; Queirós et al., 2018), meaning that future fishing quotas may not match fishing opportunities. A more diverse or diminished fish population among certain species could lead to conflict as fish move location, reducing landings in some areas, and leading to changes to food security and supply chain pressures (Gomez-Zavaglia et al., 2020; Harte et al., 2019; Mendenhall et al., 2020).

2.4 Risk management processes

In response to increased media attention on the legal and social risks within some seafood supply chains, and governmental traceability requirements, private-sector sustainability commitments and other risk management processes have incentivised the application of traceability issues from food safety to food quality and corporate social responsibility initiatives (Lewis & Boyle, 2017), using multiple, complex, public and private standards, regulations, tools and certifications (Stoll et al., 2020). The costs of compliance and implementation are associated with the cost of doing business, but without sufficient integrity and commitment, this can lead to company image being prioritised over sustainability performance (e.g., Bailey et al., 2018).

3 Facilitating resilience

If left unresolved and unmanaged, challenges related to pandemics, war and energy costs, climate change and supply chain pressure points, have the potential to undermine global food security (with seafood featuring among those sectors impacted), as well as ecological and human wellbeing. For example, aquaculture faces a reduced availability of feed materials from Ukraine and Russia, alongside escalating energy costs (Scholaert, 2022). This has cascading impacts on prices and supplies for retail consumers. The impacts of the drivers outlined above on seafood supply and security are foreseeable, but uncertain in timing and scale, and will require active preparation to increase consumer resilience to reduced food security. Ensuring legislation and seafood supply is framed in terms of securing human needs can improve supply resilience and national food security through the following policies:

3.1 Focus on sustainable food models

Favouring regenerative seafood models, including the circular economy, and extracting more value from organic waste, can positively influence human wellbeing and environmental health outcomes (Fletcher et al., 2021; OECD, 2019). Proposals that centre on increasing the production of aquatic foods often focus on species, environmental and hi-tech solutions that will mainly benefit those living in high-income countries, but also increases environmental and social challenges that in some cases undermine their ability to achieve sustainable outcomes (Naylor et al., 2021). Instead, redistribution of economic production and consumption in industrialized countries can move food systems towards environmental sustainability, social justice and wellbeing as part of democratic downscaling of a capitalist, growth-compelled economy (Ertör & Hadjimichael, 2020; Guerrero Lara et al., 2023; Scheidel et al., 2021). Whether these production potentials are realized sustainably will depend on policy regulation and reforms, technological innovations, and the extent of future shifts in access to, and demand for, seafood (Costello et al., 2020; Farmery et al., 2021, 2022).

3.2 Make local seafood a greater part of national food security

In many ways, the UK has lost its strong cultural connection to the sea as an island and seafaring nation where coastal communities were shaped by fishing and fish was a large part of human diets (Andrews et al., 2021; Stead, 2005). Making local seafood part of national food security and building resilience in food chains requires giving local seafood more prominence within national food security. This relies on governmental policy to facilitate changes in consumer demand, encompassing a range of species and cultivation methods that lead to diverse social, economic, nutritional and environmental outcomes (Gephart et al., 2021). For example, Love Seafood was a 20-year initiative to encourage people to want to eat more fish and shellfish in the UK, which closed in April 2022 as a result of a change in priority issues after the COVID-19 pandemic (Smith, 2021). Privileging shorter and local supply chains and adapting to transitions in species strengthens the engagement of local workers as well as transparency and traceability. However, increased demand for local sourcing will also require changes in infrastructure such as processing plants, and may even raise the cost of seafood and of standards and certifications in response to growing consumer interest in local provenance (Reich et al., 2018). Nevertheless, as global food systems face increasing pressure, attention by governments to ensuring benefits from fishing and farmed seafood production are shared equitably along locally-based supply chains can help avoid rising levels of food insecurity (Taylor et al., 2019).

3.3 Increased diversification

Diversity of seafood species enables alternative pathways of protein consumption during disruptions (Biggs et al., 2012). The UK imports most of the seafood consumed and exports other types of seafood not favoured by local consumers. The top main species of seafood consumed are salmon, haddock, cod, shrimp and tuna, of which around 60–80% is sourced from outside the UK. Consumer resistance to eating more types of seafood will require targeted education campaigns, and exposure to alternatives to persuade, for example, young people to be more adventurous and experimental in their diets, with shellfish being one of the species types less consumed by this cohort (Jones & Chikwama, 2021). Improving understanding around price and sustainability of seafood for consumers with point-of-sale information regarding sustainable seafood, or tools such as eco-labels and dietary guidelines (for example, exhorting the benefits of Mediterranean seafood diets), may also help shift preferences (Kelling & Lawan, 2023). The main species by volume and value produced in the UK are salmon (which is primarily exported) and then mackerel, langoustine, scallops, herring and crab (Marine Management Organisation, 2022). Increased diversification in seafood sourcing can reduce human pressure on critical stocks (Gephart et al., 2021), and lead to maintaining food security from seafood following external distrurbances, and overall more flexible food systems. This also applies to diversification of distribution. For example, after the pandemic, direct-to-consumer sales through online purchasing and catering eased pandemic supply chain pressures and reduced restaurant food waste (Stoll et al., 2021). In the future, local supplies of seafood driven by different forms of diversification, which will need to be underpinned by seafood campaigns and dietary guidelines (such as a revived Love Seafood campaign by the Seafood Industry Authority in the UK), will help ensure the stability of food access and provision, reducing the need and demand for imports. This change in demand will need to be balanced with social and ecological protection through fisheries management around the British Isles to prevent overfishing.

4 Conclusion

The seafood supply system is facing numerous challenges that threaten its resilience and ability to meet global food security needs. The COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, energy cost crises, climate change, and supply chain pressure points are generating an unprecedented crisis for the global food system, including the seafood industry. These challenges exacerbate existing issues of hunger, overfishing, biodiversity loss and supply chain conditions, further highlighting the need for urgent and proactive policy intervention. Seafood has significant health benefits as well as cultural, social and economic benefits, but recent short-term crisis management has failed to promote long-term wellbeing equality and food security. Economic slowdowns and downturns caused by system shocks will disproportionally impact food security and nutrition where social and economic inequalities already exist. To address these challenges, proactive intervention is required to create a positive food future. Focusing on sustainable food models such as regenerative systems, promoting local seafood as part of national food security, and increasing diversification in seafood sourcing and distribution can combat future food insecurity and poverty and make progress towards the SDGs. Policy reforms in line with these strategies will lead to more stable food access and provision, mitigating supply chain disruptions and promoting both environmental sustainability and social justice. Bold leadership by governments is needed to drive changes in demand towards affordable and sustainable seafood. By implementing the proposed strategies and addressing the challenges outlined, governments can enhance the system’s ability to adapt, meeting growing global needs, and safeguarding livelihoods and natural resources. We advocate collaborative and focused action by decision-makers to realise the opportunities and resilience that current challenges require.