Plant-Based Seafood: Giving Seas A Chance

January 28, 2021

Our ocean, planet Earth's greatest carbon sink and eco-system, is on a death spiral. In fact, 87 per cent of the world's oceans are dying. A natural question arises out of this: Is 'sustainable seafood' really working? Are we being sold a marketing lie? What other immediate measures need to be put in place to give our oceans some necessary breathing space?

Seafood consumption continues to rise, with a 122 per cent increase in total fish consumption between 1990 and 2018. Fish accounts for 17% of all animal protein consumed in the world and the ocean is also an important income source. A lot of fish is going where it shouldn't: Anchovies and sardinella, part of a traditional local diet, are fished by international fleets off North West Africa. Many coastal communities, particularly in poorer nations, simply miss out.

Peculiarities also exist:  Australia, surounded by ocean, yet 70% of the seafood eaten by Australians is imported, making seafood Australia's largest food product import. The truth is, Australian seafood is exported at a premium price and a price Australians generally won't pay, a perfect illustration of how price, taste, convenience drive consumer habits. Farmed seafood can be imported at low prices to satisfy Australian seafood lovers, but forget the romantic notion of most of this being from our shores! Australia's prized export, Blue Fin Tuna, is ranched in aquaculture cages, which began years ago in response to overfishing by international fleets. In coming months, thousands of baby snapper fingerlings will be released in South Australian gulf waters in an effort to rebuild stocks of this native species in crisis, highly-prized for eating and sport-fishing.

The United Nations First World Ocean Assessment considers the ocean seriously-degraded. There are even some predictions the world's oceans will have no fish by 2048. The new High Seas Treaty  being developed under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, with a fourth negotiation session in New York last year delayed because of the pandemic, urgently needs to be finalised and ratified by all member nations in 2021.

Our largest eco-system is being trashed. The ocean occupies 70 per cent of our planet. Everything ends up here: drug residues, microplastics from our clothing, pollution, plastics en masse, fishing waste, agricultural and mining runoff, other extractive industries. We also need to include in  this menacing mix an existing global fleet 2-3 times larger than what our oceans can support, criss-crossing our oceans.

Large factory ships trawl our oceans - even poach our oceans, particularly in unregulated areas such as the high seas, to the point where as a species example, 100 million sharks, our apex predators of the ocean, are killed each year.   Many end up as bycatch. Overall, the world wastes around 50 million tons of fish a year - or 27 per cent of all captured fish.

Terms such as 'sustainable seafood'  are considered contentious, even worse by those who have devoted their lives to protecting our oceans. Trying to navigate around what is sustainable seafood also proves quite difficult. Different factors need to be assessed:  breeding habits, migration routes and fishing methods employed, impacts on the broader ecosystem.

Then there's the issue of fuel: Demand is growing  for crustaceans like prawns or shrimp. Asia consumes 3/4 of the world's supply of shrimp, which is why Singaporean biotechnology company Shiok Meats with its focus on cultivated crustaceans, is so important. Catching shrimp conventionally in our oceans results in higher emissions as the global fishing fleet goes further out to sea to catch shrimp, and unfortunately,  high rates of bycatch as well.

Aquaculture is controversial, even though on the rise and in some inland locations, better controlled and more efficient in terms of what is fed to the fish. However, most fish farming is in freshwater and oceans, where warming waters and changing environmental conditions put a big question mark over their long-term viability in this era of climate change. We still can't get away from the fact that eating animals is highly-inefficient: Food must be grown to feed  animals that are ultimately consumed. As it stands, twenty per cent of global wild fish catch goes to feed other animals. Plant-based seafood needs real focus and serious support, alongwith the eventual commercial viability of cultivated, or cellular seafood.

The crisis in our oceans needs immediate intervention. Let's explore 2 solutions:

High Seas Fishing Moratorium

A powerful intervention would be an immediate Moratorium on fishing the high seas, and creation of further mobile marine reserves, that are nimble enough to follow migratory animals and those creatures whose habitats alter due to climate and current changes, is long overdue. The high seas are our last global commons.

Monitoring  this moratorium via satellites and other technological solutions to watch fishing activity is feasible, given the strides in monitoring systems, new technology and social media, making it possible to watch boat activity across the entire ocean. If ever there were a right time for this, it is now. 

The impact of a moratorium would result in 2/3 of our oceans being protected, so that fish stocks could rebuild while at the same time give less-developed coastal nations a much fairer share of fisheries resources. As well,   sustainable, climate-ready infrastructure projects for further economic, nature-centred diversity and stability in these vulnerable coastal nations could be advanced. Algae farms, where deemed suitable offer one such alternative . Seaweed is being heralded as a better ingredient in the production of  faux tuna steaks as the plant-based meat category continues its expansion into new areas. Richer in protein than soybeans, we've only just begun with seaweed - and it can be grown super-efficiently. Red seaweed is currently being researched at a molecular level.

One immediate beneficiary of a moratorium would be the Galapagos Marine Reserve, holding the largest concentration of sharks in the world.  Fishing vessels have been known to fish in the high seas pocket between the Galapagos Marine Reserve and Ecuador's sovereign waters. Many of the species in the Marine Reserve are migratory, regularly leaving the protection of the UNESCO-declared reserve for the high seas.

Corals too, would be given more recovery assistance allowing the 4,000 fish species living around coral reefs to do their work removing algae off corals.

Plant-Based Seafood

At this critical juncture, plant-based seafood has a huge, immediate role to play in taking pressure off our oceans.  It is also delicious, comparatively low-cost, sustainable, highly-marketable and available now. Just think, no mercury, no microplastics, viable for people with seafood allergies, or others simply overwhelmed and downright confused by the 'sustainable' label. Some commercially-available plant-based seafood varieties to date include fish fillets, seafood fingers, tuna, crab meat, crumbed prawn/shrimp. By using a mixture of pea, soy, chickpeas and lentils a flaky texture can be achieved. Konjac is also a preferred ingredient in some plant-based seafood produced in Malaysia. For 'from scratch' cooking enthusiasts, recipes are appearing in social media and alternative news/lifestyle platforms emulating the look and to a certain degree, the taste, of fish.

A Global Data Report predicts plant-based seafood as the next big trend in plant-based protein. What are we waiting for? Time to take a deep, deep dive!

There is every chance industrial fishing with insufficient accountability will become a stranded asset. Leading cellbased/cultivated seafood companies like Blue Nalu are committed to collaboration with the seafood industry, providing not only a viable third option to conventional seafood, but also a sustainable, viable way forward, without compromising on taste or ethics.

Three out of four of the 60 largest listed protein companies, and that includes both meat and fish groups have not put in place reduction targets for emissions, according to investor advisory research network, FAIRR Initiative.  Investment continues to move across into the alternative protein sphere, with investment/targets to grow alternative proteins jumping by more than four fold since 2018. Add China's increasing interest in and support  for plant-based meat alone, and the alternative protein spectrum has the  appearance of being  an unstoppable trajectory. Plant-based seafood and cellular seafood will form a critical part of this.



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