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In November 2017, the European Academies published a report on Food from the Oceans, which was subsequently endorsed by the EU Group of Chief Scientific Advisors as the foundation for a range of recommendations. The central question put to the European Academies was: ‘How can more food and biomass be obtained from the oceans in a way that does not deprive future generations of their benefits?’ The scientific evidence in answering this question clearly points to sustainable culture and capture at lower trophic levels as a way to bring about such increase in biomass. Moreover, the greatest and most feasible potential identified for expansion globally lies in mariculture of herbivore filter feeders and cultivated algae/seaweed for direct human consumption or as a more ecologically-efficient source of feed for farmed marine carnivores. Another point addressed in the report is that ocean-derived protein should play an increasingly important role globally to fulfil the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The co-PI, Poul Holm, was co-chair of the report on behalf of the European Academies. The real value of seafood is not well understood, protected or integrated into global food security and nutrition policy considerations (e.g. Béné et al., 2015). Food sourcing from the ocean to date has mostly focused on top predators such as salmon, tuna, cod and haddock and much less on the vast amounts of potential food at lower trophic levels such as filter feeders and algae which are already harvested as economically viable and nutritious products. Our knowledge on what is sustainably available at our local coasts and shore is also incomplete. Ireland is an island nation with hundreds of years of experience in sourcing food from the sea, but a lot of that knowledge has been lost since the 20th century when costal activity was declining and largely neglected due to conflict, political indifference and economic abandonment. Only recently, an appreciation of diverse seafood is evident with celebrity chefs introducing novel cuisine. However, much needs to be done to bring back what has been lost and may be revived in an innovative dialogue between past knowledge and present palates.

Fig. 1: Ocean food permit energy transfer (carbon) from primary production (phytoplankton) to top-level predator fish (tuna, cod, salmon etc.). The energy transfer in the pelagic food-web between primary (green) and secondary (blue) production is about 20% while the energy transfer to higher trophic levels is about 10%. To put this in context: when you buy two tins of tuna from your local supermarket, it takes about 2500 KG of plankton to produce! Other food-web systems such as the benthic or coastal system with seaweed, seagrass, demersal and flatfish differ in their energy transfer and are more complex.