Telecoupling helps us understand our disconnected seafood trade

Using telecoupling to examine the current global fish market.

Dave Brenner | Michigan Sea Grant
Dave Brenner | Michigan Sea Grant

Editor's Note: This article is Part Four of a four-part series seeking to bring new scientific concepts to the public to inform policy discussions about future and current issues. James Roche is a Glassen Scholar working with the Michigan Sea Grant Extension Program office. He also is a James Madison Student majoring in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, and is a member of the Science, Technology, and Environmental Public Policy Specialization conducted jointly by James Madison College and Lyman Briggs College. This article should be cited as: Roche, J. and Triezenberg, H.A. 2015. The Global Seafood Trade and the Influence of Aquaculture. Michigan State University Extension/Michigan Sea Grant.

The global fish market is based on a series of complicated relationships between different countries. Natural and socioeconomic forces drive the need, and fulfill the demand of seafood for global populations. Around 90 percent of fish consumed by the public in the United States originates overseas. Currently the U.S. exports about 3 billion pounds of mostly wild seafood overseas every year (Greenberg 2014). Some of that comes back to us after being processed overseas but the exact amount that is caught here, exported and then imported is unknown. By using the telecoupling framework, which we have discussed in a previous article, we can better understand our role in the global seafood market and use this knowledge to consider a more sustainable global seafood industry.

The U.S. is the second largest importer of fish in the world, second only to Japan, and the national demand continues to grow. In the U.S. we import more than 90 percent of our seafood. In 2011, this resulted in an $11.2 billion dollar trade deficit that continues to increase. About half of all the seafood imported originates from a foreign aquaculture production facility (Basic Questions About Aquaculture). Much of the imported fish originates in Asia, including some of the most popular seafood products such as shrimp, tilapia, scallops, and clams (FishWatch). The U.S. was once a major producer of seafood consumed here, such as oysters, but pollution and overfishing practices resulted in declines of native fish populations. In response, consumer demand shifted to other readily available seafood products, for example shrimp and tilapia.

As a result the practice known as aquaculture has become necessary in order to feed the growing demand. Aquaculture, in the most basic of terms, is fish farming, similar to how ranchers raise cattle. There are three broad types of systems farmers use to raise fish in an aquaculture set up: closed systems recirculation, flow through systems, pond, and open cage systems. Aquaculture can be used to produce an array of fish including shellfish, sport fish, commercial fish, bait fish, algae, and even sea vegetables. In 2009, half of all the seafood consumed in the world was produced on an aquaculture farm. By 2030 it is predicted that as much as 63 percent of all seafood consumed will be produced from aquaculture (Mathiesen 2014). The majority of fish for consumption produced by aquaculture originates outside of the United States.

We can examine the role of the U.S. in the global fishing system by using the telecoupling framework to better understand the roles all the key players fill. Within the U.S. seafood trade, currently the U.S. acts as the receiving system and the rest of the seafood producing exporters providing seafood to the U.S. act as the sending systems. As discussed earlier these roles are a result of the changes to the socioeconomic and environmental systems in the sending and receiving systems. For example, from 1800s until the 1920s the U.S. produced large amounts of oysters, totaling 2 billion pounds per year at its peak. After the 1920s, urban sewage runoff and industrial waste caused the once thriving oyster communities to die off. The once abundant oyster has been replaced by imported shrimp raised in Asian aquaculture farms. A similar situation occurred with the Atlantic cod, which was the mainstay of many popular American seafood products such as fish sticks and filets-o-fish. Once the North American codfish populations declined due to overfishing, the white fish used to replace these foods were Pollock from the Bering Straits, a number of Asian tilapia species, and the Pangasius catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus); the latter two both grow very well in Asian aquaculture systems. In both of these examples we see how socioeconomic systems such as industry and demand for food resulted in the overfishing or contamination of natural systems that traditionally maintained seafood populations. This shift in the natural balance created the need for a distant interaction between nations resulting in an inward flow of foreign seafood.

Not only are we replacing our native fish in the marketplace with farmed and wild caught foreign fish, we also are exporting high quality wild caught fish in favor of imported fish. Every year more than 600 million pounds of wild caught Alaskan Pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) is exported to fish processing plants in Europe and Asia and replaced with farmed fish from many of the same countries (Greenberg 2014). The fish sent to Asia in exchange for foreign fish or to be processed act as a feedback loop in response to the flow of fish being sent from markets in Asia and South America.

When we examine the potential spillover systems that arise from the interactions between the U.S. and foreign nations the impacts of this global trade pattern become apparent. Shipping native caught wild fish overseas for processing and then shipping it back for consumption releases greenhouse gases. For other fish imported to the U.S., specifically those raised through aquaculture abroad, greenhouse gases are also spillover system impacts. Consideration of the global seafood trade system and its spillover system impacts, as well as the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the sending and receiving systems, indicates costs and benefits locally and globally that might not otherwise be apparent without thinking about the issue within a telecoupling systems framework. 

Our reliance on imported fish also helps to fuel an illegal fishing market that damages international ecosystems and fish populations. In the U.S. it is estimated between 20 percent and 32 percent ($1.2 billion to $2.1 billion) worth of wild caught seafood is harvested illegally and then imported into the United States. A locally based seafood market could significantly impact this illegal trade (Pramod et al. 2014). Another spillover effect of a globalized seafood system is the extent of public concern over coastal ecosystem health in the U.S. To what extent will Americans be active stewards of coastal ecosystem health if their seafood does not come from local areas? To what extent will Americans be stewards of global coastal ecosystems if they are disconnected from the sources of the majority of their seafood?

The issues surrounding sustainability and the global seafood trade are all related to the interactions between the local and global systems. The U.S., foreign exporters, and the potential spillover systems are results of the interactions of environmental and socioeconomic systems. Michigan and the Great Lakes region could play a key role in the global seafood sending system if commercial aquaculture is developed. Michigan Sea Grant recently released a final report after two years of research on the possibility of aquaculture here in Michigan titled A Strategic Plan for A Thriving and Sustainable Aquaculture Industry in Michigan. Michigan has the second longest coastline in the U.S., second only to Alaska, containing 10 percent of the world’s freshwater supply lying directing in state borders (Colyn et al. 2014). Currently 60 percent of all aquaculture production comes from a freshwater source, meaning this region has the opportunity to not only provide a source of good quality local fish but also export it to reduce the seafood trade deficit, and generate revenue in this region. Researchers estimate that by the year 2025, if Michigan follows a sustainable plan for the introduction of commercial aquaculture, a billion-dollar sustainable seafood sector may be created, up from the current $5 million annual aquaculture sales (Colyn et al. 2014). 

While the potential for economic gains stemming from large scale commercial aquaculture in the Great Lakes region are substantial, questions relating to how net pen aquaculture could impact the environment, the tradition of sport fishing in the Great Lakes, economic development in the region, and other concerns exist. The Michigan departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, and Agriculture and Rural Development are currently working together and have established an independent scientific panel to review the science and implications of commercial aquaculture in the Great Lakes. The panel will present their findings in October 2015.

The issue of aquaculture in the Great Lakes region and the global seafood system result in many questions. Michigan Sea Grant hosts many fisheries-related events across the state aimed at educating stakeholders on current issues so that they can make informed decisions. One example is the Michigan Seafood Summit that brings together stakeholders to discuss aquaculture, commercial fisheries, and local seafood in Michigan. The inaugural Michigan Seafood Summit was held in Lansing in 2015; plans are underway for the 2016 event to be held in Traverse City.


Read the article series:

Part One: Using telecoupling framework helps promote sustainability in global trade

Part Two: Invasive species and global trade: Finding the connections

Part Three: Telecoupling and the spillover system: Causes and effects of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes

Part Four: Telecoupling helps us understand our disconnected seafood trade


Basic Questions about Aquaculture. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2015, from

Colyn, J., G. Boersen, C. Weeks and B. Knudson. 2014. A Strategic Plan for a Thriving and Sustainable Aquaculture Industry in Michigan. Final report prepared for Michigan Sea Grant [MICHU-14-208].

FishWatch. (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2015, from

Greenberg, P. (2014, June 21). Why Are We Importing Our Own Fish? Retrieved August 17, 2015, from       

Mathiesen, A. (2014, February 5). News. Retrieved August 11, 2015, from

Payette, P. (2014, September 8). Could Great Lakes Fisheries Be Revived Through Fish Farms? Retrieved August 19, 2015, from

Pramod, G., Nakamura, K., Pitcher, T., & Delagran, L. (2014). Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA. Marine Policy, 48, 102-113. doi:10.1016

Photo: Dave Brenner, Michigan Sea Grant


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