Strategic Research Agenda section 2

Target action area 1: Sustainable seafood for healthy people

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Why is this important?

Our vision for food from the oceans is for fish and seafood to be healthy, nutritious, safe and accessible to all, while ensuring sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture.

The ocean as a source of food is being highlighted for several reasons: the health benefits, the need to feed ever-growing populations and the increasing impact of marine pollution. We do not yet have a holistic understanding of the provision of health benefits from seafood, and this will affect our ability to adapt to future changes. Considering food chain contaminants, the SOPHIE literature and evidence review found a significant body of research on the risks of mercury to human health, with development of appropriate advisories. However, emerging threats such as persistent organic pollutants and increasing concerns about additives in plastic pollution, along with other aspects of food in a changing environment, had not yet been comprehensively addressed.

In 2015, it was estimated that the average European consumes 25.1 kg of fish or seafood per year, almost 4 kg more than the global average(1). Fish and seafood are a lean form of protein and a key source of omega-3 fatty acids which are both thought to play an important role in a healthy balanced diet; these nutrients in turn can have benefits including reducing non-communicable diseases (NCD) such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke (Yashodhara et al., 2009). However more recent research is less conclusive (Abdelhamid et al., 2018), with variations in omega-3 efficacy depending on its source, which need to be further researched.

Research also suggests that in addition to omega-3 fatty acids, a range of other nutrients found in fish are beneficial to human health (Kawarazuka & Béné, 2011); but the SOPHIE systematic map of evidence(2) suggested that we know relatively little about this. There is a lack of nutrient composition information for many fish species and other seafood, although new methods for prediction are increasingly being explored (Vaitla et al., 2018). The benefits of fish and seafood to nutritional security may be undervalued and there is a need to look beyond biomass and protein (Hicks et al., 2019), again indicating that further study is required. Paradigm-shifting management changes may be needed both in developed and developing countries to optimize this resource (Garcia et al., 2012).

Concerns about the impacts of meat production on climate change have led, among others, to the creation of a ‘Planetary Health Diet’(3) which proposes the consumption of more seafood and chicken in place of red meats, alongside significantly increased amounts of plant-based foods. This does however add to the existing demand for food from the oceans.

Responding to a request by the then EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella (2014-2019), the EU Group of Chief Scientific Advisors(4) produced the Food from the Ocean report(5) on how to increase the amount of food and biomass that could be sustainably extracted from the ocean. The recommendations are of great relevance here. However, natural resources are limited and overfishing beyond biologically sustainable limits continues, with only 67% of stocks worldwide estimated to be fished within sustainable levels in 2015(6). These resources need to be maintained for future generations, meaning that the recommendations of Food from the Ocean and other reports (e.g. FAO, 2018) should be carefully considered, taking local contexts and trade-offs into account.

There is no perfect global solution to the challenges of feeding an ever-increasing population in a sustainable way. However, this SRA seeks to highlight the apparent lack of explicit consideration of the human component in these discussions. While both the health and marine communities in Europe and globally recognize that the consumption of high-quality fish and other seafood is an important component of a balanced human diet, there are nevertheless important questions to answer. These include:

  • What food systems will deliver the required nutrition to humans in the future?
  • What is the carbon footprint of the fisheries, seafood and aquaculture industries, and how sustainable are current extraction practices and projected growths in demand?
  • What are the potential cumulative effects of chemical and microbial pollution contamination of all kinds in fish and seafood?
  • How will this pollution affect the health of marine ecosystems, the availability of fish and seafood, and subsequently human health via consumption?
  • Who has and is already collecting related data, and are these data sufficient to provide the required evidence for updating policy?
  • How much will climate change affect ocean productivity and cause changes in biodiversity such as species abundance, size, and location?
  • Will people want to eat new more sustainable foods from the ocean that become available?
  • What impact will climate and other global changes have on the quantity, quality and diversity of key nutrients in fish and seafood?
  • What impact will these changes in nutrients have on human health outcomes?
  • How can we address unequal access to nutritious and safe fish and other seafood across different socioeconomic groups?

In order to balance demand with the need to ensure that seafood sources remain safe and sustainable, we need to look beyond traditional approaches, and adapt to new realities. Work exploring areas such as sustainable production methods is already underway in projects like Seafood Tomorrow(7), but more needs to be done to explore fisheries and human health issues together.



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Research gaps to be addressed

In order to achieve our vision of sustainable seafood for healthy people, three key research areas need to be addressed:

Chemical and microbial pollution and seafood

  • What are the combined exposures and integrated/cumulative impacts (a ‘cocktail effect’ or mixtures) of pollutants on both food sources and humans, and how do these exposures and impacts translate from source to consumer?
  • How will these exposures and impacts be affected by climate- and planetary change, and by variations in human populations (e.g. socioeconomic context, equity, pre-existing levels of health)?
  • Where does the balance lie between dietary benefits and safety issues linked with pollution ingestion?

Nutrition and distribution

  • How do and will the nutritional content and distribution of fish and seafood change with location, climate and global change?
  • How can we use this to recommend adaptable optimal sustainable harvesting and consumption patterns, in terms that can be used by health providers, fishing and marine communities?

Sustainable and equitable provision of seafood

  • How can sustainable access to, and uptake of, high-quality fish and other seafood be improved across all socioeconomic groups in Europe?
  • Can sustainable aquaculture increase the availability of affordable high-quality seafood, and still deliver the related health benefits for the population?



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Research timeline

For the research gaps identified above, there is no specific chronological sequence in which the research should be done. It would be beneficial to conduct research to answer the questions in parallel, as there are interlinkages and complementarities within the different areas.



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Linking Oceans and Human Health research and policy

Fisheries and aquaculture activities are already well regulated at a European level and are covered by a number of Directives and policies, most notably the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)(8), which “… aims to ensure that fishing and aquaculture are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable and that they provide a source of healthy food for EU citizens.” However, it is not clearly specified how “environmentally, economically and socially sustainable” and “a source of healthy food” is measured or ensured, as this is elaborated at Member State level.

New threats, and knowledge on monitoring and addressing them, will continue to emerge and the OHH research community should support the ongoing expansion of understanding around both these areas, to provide policymakers with implementable approaches to monitor and ensure healthy and sustainable food in line with the latest knowledge. This research should explore wider interpretations of sustainability in relation to fisheries activities. It should consider the health and nutrition benefits of the fish/seafood being captured/harvested and sold, and the current and required future equity of access to these benefits.

It is not clear how far the (longer-term) impacts of climate and other environmental changes and social pressure on fisheries are currently considered in the implementation of the CFP. The current ecosystem-based management approach to fisheries has been criticized by some for its lack of human-relevant indicators (Hornborg et al., 2019). The OHH research community could support policy by gathering data and hence developing predictions in line with future scenarios, and supporting the development of ocean-human-relevant indicators.

The quality of and levels of pollution in terrestrial and marine waters (up to one nautical mile from the coast) are covered by policies such as the Water Framework Directive(9). Full implementation of the requirements of these policies is intended to (among others) help ensure that the food produced in these waters remains safe. However, recent research shows that there is still some way to go to achieve full implementation(10). Furthermore, not all pollutants (including chemicals and pathogens) in marine waters are legislated for or monitored under this Directive; and the monitoring that does take place is often on a reactive basis rather than being implemented on a preventative and early warning basis. In this regard, the OHH community should support the regular revision and/or addition of requirements and indicators for marine pollutants in relation to food safety, especially for new and emerging pollutants and their safe consumption levels (in isolation and in combination). Improving links between research and fisheries governance mechanisms such as Regional Fisheries Management Organizations(11) could also help to bring information on relevant aspects (such as nutrition and pollution) into fisheries management decision-making more efficiently.

The SOPHIE project case study in the Eastern Scheldt showed that seafood is now monitored routinely for pathogens (indicated by E. coli), algal toxins and five chemical substances known to be harmful: mercury, cadmium, lead, polycyclic aromatic carbon (PAH) and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). Monitoring data on all other chemical and microbial pollutants are generally lacking and it would be very costly and time-consuming to get appropriate spatial and temporal distribution information on all relevant substances and organisms through monitoring. Modelling the use, fate and transport of potentially harmful substances would be one way to get a better understanding of human health risks and mitigation measures. However, data on the use of chemical substances (including pharmaceuticals) are also currently hard to access.

A complementary Directive at European level, which also addresses pollutants, is the Marine Strategy Framework Directive(12) (MSFD). The MSFD aims to provide greater protection to the marine environment in European waters. It addresses a wide range of fisheries- and aquaculture-relevant aspects such as contaminants (see Descriptor 9(13), although not the environmental reality of multiple pollutants in a ‘cocktail effect’), extraction of living resources (see Descriptor 3(14)), and biodiversity (see Descriptor 1(15)). At present, the Directive only directly refers to human health twice, and in both cases the statements are very general. To support the development and implementation of appropriate measures at Member State level, the OHH research community should support policy in helping to develop ocean and human health-relevant indicators that could be included within this framework.

The European Commission’s Blue Growth Strategy(16)is the long-term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole”. It identifies five key areas that offer a high potential for growth in the near future, including aquaculture. The Strategy calls for aquaculture that is both economically viable and environmentally sustainable, but that also enables EU citizens to have equal access to safe, nutritious and sustainable seafood, as well as equitable jobs. Measuring the implementation of this Strategy may require the addition of other human health and well-being indicators alongside those of economic growth and job creation, such as those discussed in Coulthard & Britton (2015).

From a health and nutrition perspective, there are also a number of relevant European-level policies such as Food 2030(17), and the Strategy on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity-related Health Issues(18), which led to the formation of the high level group on nutrition and physical activity(19). Further research is required into understanding to what extent these health-driven aims are linked to requirements for safe fish and seafood, and to highlight any additional or differing needs in resource provision. This research will be especially relevant at a national level, given the significant variations across Europe in terms of resource access and levels of consumption.



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Public and stakeholder needs identified by the SOPHIE project

The safety, security and sustainability of food from the ocean has been identified as a priority for OHH societal stakeholders as part of an online survey(20). More than 270 societal stakeholders from across marine and public health sectors identified food safety and supply and sustainable fisheries management as their key priorities. Food safety and supply was also voted as a top priority in these workshops. The societal stakeholders also identified promoting local and sustainable food options as a relevant action. Citizens participating in a similar workshop came to similar conclusions, and also highlighted concerns over practices that only appear to be sustainable, or ‘greenwashing’. Interestingly, this process also identified reframing the Blue Economy as a top priority with calls to reframe EU policy priorities on blue growth to include social, environmental and cultural aspects, as well as taxation of the blue economy and penalties for polluters. It was noted that when comparing these discussions, societal stakeholders tended to focus on the regulatory and governance systems and social justice issues whereas citizens prioritized the need to hold industry accountable via sanctions and stricter penalties. Sustainable fisheries management and the need to balance human actions with marine protection were identified as key priority areas by a nationally representative sample(21) of citizens in 14 European countries through the SOPHIE Survey(22).

In the SOPHIE Survey, eating seafood was ranked in the top five recreational activities engaged in while at the coast. It is interesting to note that when asked how good or bad they felt commercial fishing and aquaculture were for the environment and for human health and well-being, the citizens ranked both activities as neutral in both cases. This contrasts with another result from the same survey, which ranked contamination of seafood and collapse of fish stocks as 4th and 5th out of 16 respectively in terms of potential threats to public health and well-being about which respondents felt most concerned. This might be an indication that additional education and awareness of the balance between positive and negative aspects of these activities among citizens is needed.



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Capacity and training needs

In order to address the outlined research questions, the development of a dedicated community of researchers from relevant fields such as marine biology and fisheries science, public health, nutrition and diet, and climate change is essential. A human-centric perspective from the social and economic sciences should also be integrated. These researchers need to work with a view of the ‘whole system’ beyond their own area of expertise. Despite some examples of valuable collaborations and interdisciplinary teams already emerging, it has thus far been difficult to engage the medical and public health communities, despite the benefits that could be gained. Understanding of the reasons for this, and exploration of approaches to address it, are needed.

The development of this inter/transdisciplinary OHH community would benefit from students and graduates who leave university with experience in transdisciplinary research, along with a base of

knowledge and awareness of the wider context in which their specialist subject sits. This will require an increase in opportunities for students to have exposure and experience across relevant sectors throughout their studies. For example, nutrition and public health courses should include at least one module that covers the link to marine food resources, and vice versa for marine biology and fisheries science courses. These would ideally be offered as part of a comprehensive degree programme, however extracurricular options such as summer schools would also be appropriate. Specific courses in the field of Oceans and Human Health are also recommended, with existing examples being the undergraduate module offered at the University of Exeter, UK(23), and the summer school held in 2019 by AZTI in Spain(24).

Opportunities for lifelong learning, continuing professional development (CPD) courses, and online resources etc. are required for researchers already working in relevant sectors to gain wider knowledge and understanding of relevant topics and to keep up to date with the latest developments.

The availability of learning opportunities and general ocean literacy is equally relevant outside academia, e.g. as a professional development component for those working in marine and public health policy, fisheries management, and regional development. Having significant first-hand experiences and dialogues with other relevant actors can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the context, problems and decision implications of their roles over both a shorter and longer term. Ocean literacy development and the communication of related risks and benefits is also important for citizens.



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21. A nationally representative sample is where the sample reflects the demographics and non-demographic properties of the full national population of interest. Return to source text