Can alternative proteins protect the ocean from overfishing?

As the sea is emptied of life to feed a growing human population, innovation in protein sources holds promise in diverting seafood production away from the ocean.

A coral reef in Southeast Asia
A coral reef in Indonesia. In Southeast Asia, over 18 million tonnes of seafood was extracted from the region’s seas in 2020, which is equivalent to the weight of more than one million buses. Image:

Up to 2.7 trillion wild-caught fish are believed to be slaughtered globally each year, resulting in approximately 90 per cent of wild fisheries being overfished or fully exploited. As stakeholders work to accelerate marine protection, alternative seafood products are increasingly embraced as a solution to address our insatiable appetite for marine life.

In Southeast Asia, over 18 million tonnes of seafood was extracted from the region’s seas in 2020, which is equivalent to the weight of more than one million buses. This scale of extraction is taking its toll, with coastal fish stocks in the region reported to have been fished to under 30 per cent of unexploited levels. Yet, meat and seafood consumption in Asia is expected to rise by a staggering 78 per cent between 2018 and 2050.

Target species are not the only ones facing depletion. Incidental capture in fishing gear is considered the single greatest cause of mortality for many endangered species in the region, including sharks, rays and dolphins. 

Animal populations are not the only ones affected, however. Humans are suffering as well, with fishers across Southeast Asia reporting declining catches, the need to travel farther afield to fish, the erosion of their financial and food security, and forced slave labour on fishing boats. 

The issue is that there are simply too many fishing boats competing for far too few fish; and using over-efficient and destructive fishing gear that empties the ocean faster than it can replenish itself. 

A number of initiatives are underway in Southeast Asia to address this problem. Marine protected areas are expanding, and bans around some of the most destructive fishing practices, such as dynamite fishing, have been enacted in many countries. Bycatch-release programmes and size-limits for certain target species have also been implemented in some areas. 

But the looming issue is that the world population is predicted to grow from eight billion today, to almost ten billion in 2050. If efforts to make fisheries more sustainable are insufficient now, how will we cope when our population, and the corresponding demand for food, grows even further? Although aquaculture is often hailed as a solution, this comes with its own set of problems, including disease management, antibiotic use, organic pollution, and significant welfare concerns. 

Ultimately, the unsustainable supply of seafood is driven by an unsustainable demand from consumers, and regulations at-sea are not going to be enough. While unpopular, consumers will have to start self-regulating what is on our plates to avoid further devastation of fisheries. 

Despite the well-documented benefits of plant-based diets which include reduced carbon emissions, ecological footprint and mortality; many people still remain unwilling to substantially change their eating habits by reducing or eliminating conventional proteins. According to global thought leader Bill Gates, expecting people to become vegetarian is unrealistic. Instead, the innovation of solutions is a more productive outcome. 

This is where alternative proteins are tabled as a promising solution to divert a portion of seafood production away from the ocean. As alternatives to conventional animal proteins; plant-based and cultivated seafood products offer consumers the same taste and texture they know and love, without the destructive fishing practices, stressors to fisheries and ethical controversies. 

Made from plants such as legumes, mushrooms and algae, plant-based seafood products have long been available on the market. In contrast to the seitan fish fillets commonly found in Chinese restaurants and hawker centres, next-generation plant-based foods are quickly gaining sophistication with the introduction of new technologies that seamlessly integrate ingredients, and replicate complex structures. One prime example is Revo Foods from Austria, which offers a range of products from salmon spreads and slices, to juicy and flaky fish fillets. 

For consumers who prefer ‘the real thing’, scientists and entrepreneurs are actively developing cultivated seafood options, producing genuine seafood from animal cells grown in bioreactors. By moving seafood production to a controlled environment, cultivated seafood is often considered to be a healthier alternative that is free from mercury, microplastics, and other contaminants commonly found in wild-caught and farmed seafood. It also dramatically reduces the need for antibiotics in our food supply, thus benefitting public health.

While there have been notable successes in growing seafood cells, challenges in accelerating and scaling cultivated seafood persist. One such challenge is the less advanced understanding of seafood cell biology compared to that of terrestrial livestock like cows, pigs and chickens, making cultivated seafood more challenging to produce. Additionally, the high cost of production and difficulty in creating structured seafood products have prompted innovators to explore hybrid products that combine cultivated and plant-based ingredients. Singapore’s Umami Bioworks has adopted this approach as a pathway to scaling in the near term. 

Another trend emerging in the hybrid animal protein space is substituting a portion of conventional protein content with alternative protein sources. While not 100 per cent plant-based or cultivated, proponents believe that these hybrid products still have the potential to aid the transition towards a healthier and more sustainable food system. 

So, what would it take to achieve mass adoption of alternative seafood products?

According to the non-profit think tank the Good Food Institute APAC, the commercialisation of the industry is contingent upon developing seafood products that compete with ocean-derived seafood not just on price and taste, but also nutrition and accessibility. 

Despite its short lifetime, the alternative protein industry continues to experience significant growth, with innovators, philanthropists, investors and governments recognising the opportunities and importance of achieving these outcomes. The reality, however, is that for now, price and access render the solution affordable only for a limited segment of the population. This situation is likely to change when government support drives innovation, and consumer preferences align to enable price parity.

As the ocean is emptied of life, it is a race against time to transform our global food system, and convince consumers that alternative seafood products deserve a prominent place on our plates.

Kathlyn Tan is a principal of Rumah Group and director of Rumah Foundation. Naomi Clark-Shen is the ocean-climate science lead at Rumah Foundation

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