Ecosystem services – why seafood is about more than the food on our plates

Our work on public goods and benefits from commercial seafood species and how seafood production can maintain and enhance ecosystem services.

What are ecosystem services? 

The term ‘ecosystem’ refers to the living organisms and their physical environment or habitat.  

Ecosystem services are the many resources and benefits provided by nature to humans. As shown in the diagram below this includes water, clean air and food, as well as providing raw materials for medicines, construction and other activities. Enjoying the natural environment and its wildlife has also been shown to improve our health and well-being.

Coloured wheel showing list of benefits from the seas organised into four categories: provisioning, cultural, supporting and maintaining.
Graphic provided by NatureScot

The seafood industry draws on these natural resources to provide food. This can have an impact but we also know that aquaculture and wild capture fisheries can help maintain and enhance ecosystem services.  

Marine products touch everyone’s life, almost every day. The most obvious benefit we get from marine ecosystems is food. Seafood provides an important protein source for humans and is also packed with essential vitamins and minerals. Seafood consumption is recommended as part of a healthy, balanced diet. This should include at least 2 portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily fish. 

Marine ecosystems also provide a source of wild food for livestock. For example, mussel meal is being used as an alternative protein source in the diets of poultry intended for human consumption, reducing the carbon emissions and agricultural land use. Crushed oyster shells have also been used for decades as a source of calcium in the egg industry.  

We get other ingredients from seafood that are key to a range of manufacturing processes. Some seaweeds produce alginates, an ingredient commonly found in ice creams, salad dressings, yogurt and toothpaste. Alginate is also used as an emulsifier or gelling agent in the manufacture of papers, textiles, pet foods, and pharmaceuticals. Waste materials, such as crab, prawn or mussel shells, can be used as a fertiliser, biofuels or to create alternatives to plastics.  

The natural environment also supports life by keeping the environment healthy. Shellfish improve coastal health and water quality, including recycling water and nutrients in the marine environment. Through their feeding activity, bivalves such as mussels and oysters help to improve water clarity and light penetration. The filtration of water and nutrients by shellfish also aids in the removal of harmful organic matter such as agricultural runoff. 

A significant benefit from our interaction with these ecosystems is the jobs and opportunities that the seafood industry creates. Seafood production begins with wild capture fishing and aquaculture. Once it moves onshore, seafood is processed and transported and products reach consumers via retail and foodservice outlets across the UK and beyond. 

The seafood industry also helps to sustain communities in other ways too. The coastal spaces where seafood is produced are meaningful and socially valued landscapes. The seafood industry also helps to support a range of opportunities and benefits for wider society. These benefits include tourism, nature watching and other leisure activities, as well as contributions to spiritual and cultural wellbeing. 

People working in the seafood industry can act as custodians of coastal landscapes and marine environments, much like farmers in the countryside. How we produce seafood can help maintain and enhance ecosystem services by preventing coastal erosion, creating create sea defence systems and supporting improved water quality. Producers can also support the long term sustainability of natural resources through the development and application of responsible sourcing practices. 

Why we need to understand the relationship between seafood production, ecosystem services and public benefits 

UK marine ecosystem services and the societal benefits we receive have been estimated to be worth £211 billion. The fishing and aquaculture sectors can play a positive role in supporting, enhancing, and maintaining ecosystem services by ensuring they operate sustainably. We are only beginning to understand the full range of public good benefits that fishing, aquaculture and seafood production provide. These public goods and benefits are attributed directly to the activity of the fishing and aquaculture sectors through responsible catch and cultivation practices, habitat restoration and research projects. 

However, there is still a lack of awareness of the UK seafood sector's contribution to these benefits among policy makers, the public and even the seafood industry itself. The discussion and debate surrounding public money for public goods and the subsequent policy outcomes that apply in UK farming does not yet exist for fisheries and aquaculture. 

Looking at the world through an ecosystem ‘lens’, has already helped reframe land based food production and the role of farmers and is helping to re-structure agricultural policy in the UK. If land based food production can benefit from an ecosystem ‘lens’ then why not seafood? 

Our work on ecosystem services

Cover images of two reports, one shows photos of shellfish in basket and small boats in harbour, the other shows a rippled reflection in water
Some of our reports on ecosystem services

A responsible seafood industry can help protect the natural world and support our access to vital benefits derived from marine environments. We are working to shine a spotlight on the role that seafood production can play.  

We have created a podcast which introduces the topic. It explores how the traditional view of seafood and the marine environment can be changed by considering ecosystem services and public goods and benefits. You can listen to the podcast on Spreaker from the external ink below: 

We undertook an initial assessment of the ecosystem services and the benefits provided by important commercial marine species. This was followed up with a more in depth consideration of industry withdrawals and contributions to ecosystem services. You can download these reports from the links below: 

This initial work highlighted the gap in evidence relating seafood and ecosystem services. We subsequently undertook a literature review of the ecosystem services, goods and benefits derived from commercially important shellfish species covering molluscs and crustaceans. This review was used to support a workshop, which brought together policymakers, industry, and the research community. 

The workshop provided an opportunity to discuss and explore how shellfish aquaculture and wild capture fisheries can mitigate impact, maintain and enhance ecosystem services. The workshop also enabled us to gain a richer understanding of industry experience and understanding of the public goods and benefits delivered. We have published the outputs of the workshop in partnership with MarFishEco. This report provides a robust evidence base to contribute to marine policy discussions and business decision making. 

You can download these reports from the links below:  

Get in touch

For more information on ecosystem services please contact:

Dr Eunice Pinn
Marine Environment Regulation Advisor
07876 035 723
Dr Angus Garrett
Head of Horizon Scanning and Long Term Issues
0131 524 8697