Using Synthesis Science to Map Global Aquaculture Potential

We wanted to know more about the future of sustainable marine aquaculture, so pulled on the vast resources available through open science

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photo credit: Mike Rust

By Rebecca Gentry and Halley Froehlich

Our article, “Mapping the Global Potential for Marine Aquaculture,” published this week in Nature Ecology and Evolution, provides the most comprehensive multiple-species assessment of marine aquaculture production potential across the globe. But, as many scientific processes go, our journey started by asking questions that were quite different from those we answer in this paper. 

We began this research as a collection of experts from diverse backgrounds, tasked with investigating sustainable offshore aquaculture (aka open-ocean aquatic farming). As expected, we had a lot of questions – as scientists do – about the future of marine aquaculture: How can it be done sustainably in different environments? What are the primary drivers of development?  How will the changing ocean environment affect the potential for marine aquaculture?  But the more we pondered such questions, the more we realized that we needed to take a step back. Although aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world and produces as much food as wild-caught fisheries, there is a surprising lack of research on broad-scale, aquaculture ecology – particularly in the oceans. We realized we could not answer the array of questions we had about what a future with sustainable marine farming could look like until we had a more fundamental baseline of where offshore aquaculture could go, in terms of production potential and literal ocean space. 

Ecological research is fundamentally grounded in long hours of fieldwork immersed deep in the natural environment or sleepless nights running 72 hour experiments in the lab – both of which we know  well and have the dark circles to prove it. Yet, the heart of this research really belongs to open science, the accumulation of and access to scientific data and publications from research conducted over the decades around the world.  Through synthesis science we compiled and applied some of the immense amount of information that already exists to create new insights about our world – in this case, for marine aquaculture. Synthesis science brings together multiple fields of knowledge and data to address some of the most challenging, but important questions in the sciences, including the conservation and resource management of our oceans. For us, one of the most exciting aspects of this research is the plethora of ways it can be used to gain insights that can’t be accomplished through other methods and create new dialogs around aquaculture’s role in our global food system.  

We hope this work can serve as a foundation for further research about the potential of marine aquaculture development, the effects of this expansion on the human and natural environment, and the governance that will help ensure marine aquaculture is done sustainably.  We see this research as just the beginning to help guide, plan, and critically assess how we produce food in our oceans, considering both people and nature. In fact, it inspired us to begin a new scientific journey: to build a research initiative called the Conservation Aquaculture Research Team to expand upon this science and continue answering some of the big, important questions that can guide sustainable ocean aquaculture moving forward.

The paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is here:

Rebecca R. Gentry

_ , University of California Santa Barbara