Carbon footprint of fishery-derived products for human consumption in 2011 compared to other sources of animal protein. Graphic: Parker, et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

4 April 2018 (University of Tasmania) – A new study by a team of Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and Canadian scientists has found that catching most types of fish produces far less carbon per kilo of protein than land-based alternatives such as beef or lamb.

The researchers undertaking the study found that fisheries for small pelagic species such as anchovies and sardines emit a fraction of the carbon generated by red meat production. 

On average, global fisheries have a low-carbon footprint similar to that of poultry.

The research published in the journal Nature Climate Change provides the first global breakdown of wild fishery emissions by country, and compares the carbon impact of each nation’s fishing industry with agriculture and livestock production.

Lead author Dr Robert Parker, formerly from IMAS and now at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, said producing, distributing and consuming food accounts for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, most of which is from animal production.

“Animal protein is an important source of nutrition but it is also one of the world’s largest contributors to global climate change, responsible for roughly half of all food production-related emissions,” Dr Parker said.

“But limited data has meant that official estimates have previously either overlooked the fishing industry’s carbon emissions or made generalisations based on small samples.

“By filling that information gap our study will inform food and climate policy and shed light on the role that fisheries play in the environmental cost of food production,” Dr Parker said.

IMAS co-author Professor Caleb Gardner said Australia’s fishing industry catches comparatively low volumes and contributes just 0.5 percent of overall global emissions from fishing.

Global marine fishery landings and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for 1990–2011 categorized by species groups. Graphic: Parker, et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

“However, Australian fishers target proportionately more high-value crustaceans such rock lobsters and prawns, which are among the world’s most carbon-intensive fisheries on a per kilo basis,” Professor Gardner said.

“As a result, on average the Australian fishing industry emits 5.2 kilos of carbon for each kilo of fish caught.

“This contrasts with the US, where each kilo of fish landed cost 1.6 kilos of carbon, and South America, where just one kilo of carbon is emitted for each kilo of fish due to high volumes of anchovies trawled off Peru.

“Globally, carbon emissions from marine fisheries are comparatively low compared with the environmental cost of red meat such as beef and lamb, which is estimated to range from 50 kilos to as much as 750 kilos of carbon per kilo of meat.

“The carbon cost of our food needs would be reduced if people consumed less red meat and more low-carbon alternatives such as fish, especially underutilised small pelagic species such as mackerel and sardines, which currently have low demand and are often used for animal feed instead of human consumption,” Professor Gardner said.

Beef, lamb, lobster or fish? Fisheries study shows impact of food choice on carbon emissions


Production and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by fisheries for each country. Graphic: Parker, et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

ABSTRACT: Food production is responsible for a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. Marine fisheries are typically excluded from global assessments of GHGs or are generalized based on a limited number of case studies. Here we quantify fuel inputs and GHG emissions for the global fishing fleet from 1990–2011 and compare emissions from fisheries to those from agriculture and livestock production. We estimate that fisheries consumed 40 billion litres of fuel in 2011 and generated a total of 179 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent GHGs (4% of global food production). Emissions from the global fishing industry grew by 28% between 1990 and 2011, with little coinciding increase in production (average emissions per tonne landed grew by 21%). Growth in emissions was driven primarily by increased harvests from fuel-intensive crustacean fisheries. The environmental benefit of low-carbon fisheries could be further realized if a greater proportion of landings were directed to human consumption rather than industrial uses.

Fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions of world fisheries

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