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Rights and representation support justice across aquatic food systems

Hicks, C. C., Gephart, J. A., Koehn, J. Z. et al. 2022

An analysis of the barriers to participation within blue food systems and how policy can steer us towards justice.

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Aerial image of three women crouched down over buckets of fish in a fish market in Vietnam.
Image Credit: Khánh Hmoong

Around the world, blue food supports the livelihoods and diets of billions of people. It also generates vast economic benefits, including about $424 billion in value globally. Yet the benefits of blue food systems are vastly unequal across nations, which climate change and demographic shifts will only exacerbate. It is critical to understand the conditions of injustice in blue food systems in order to support decision-makers in evaluating tradeoffs and implementing solutions to build healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems. 

This paper explores injustices embedded within blue food systems through an environmental and social justice lens to identify pathways to more just systems. Across all countries, the research team investigates economic, political and social barriers to blue food benefits. The paper also analyzes laws and policies from 173 countries to understand how these shortcomings might be addressed. Results indicate that where policies lower barriers to participation—for example, by ensuring inclusive representation in decision-making, or through greater recognition of human rights—they have made a difference. Centering justice in policy dialogues can lead to a more equitable blue food future for all.


Pursuing wealth benefits, like profits and exports, often comes at the expense of pursuing welfare benefits, like nutrition and livelihoods. This tradeoff can worsen inequities in global blue food value chains, especially for lower-income countries.


Wealthier countries with higher educational attainment tend to produce and consume more blue foods, suggesting that economic barriers may limit how a country might benefit from the blue foods sector.


When economic barriers were present, blue foods tended to contribute more to welfare by providing more jobs and higher levels of nutrition.


Nations with more diverse and varied cultural systems often have more diverse food systems, with a greater reliance on a variety of blue food for nutrition and more jobs in the aquatic food sector.


Blue food tends to be more affordable, and economically accessible, when gender equality is greater. However, 55% of production-related policies make no reference to gender.


Blue food policies can center the right to food and support international efforts to embed principles of justice in future food systems.


Blue food policies should recognize the interconnected nature of food systems—across ministries and sectors. Cross-sector policy engagement and participatory processes can ensure representation and accountability for decision-making in production and consumption policies.

Christina Hicks.

“We’ve known that food systems are incredibly unequal. This research helps us understand where barriers exist and how changes in blue food policies can support more inclusive and just food systems.”

— Christina Hicks, Lancaster University
Jessica Gephart.

“Policymakers need to collaborate across borders to overcome injustices that extend beyond national boundaries, especially when it comes to tensions between wealth and welfare benefits.”

— Jessica Gephart, American University
Nitya Rao

“Ensuring that justice is front and center in decision-making can enable local communities to have a direct say in blue food management. Greater community participation encourages more inclusive policies and a more equitable future.”

— Nitya Rao, University of East Anglia
Christina C. Hicks*Jessica A. Gephart*J. Zachary Koehn*
Shin NakayamaHanna J. PayneEdward H. Allison
Dyhia BelhabibLing CaoPhilippa J. Cohen
Jessica FanzoEtienne Fluet-ChouinardStefan Gelcich
Christopher D. GoldenKelvin D. GorospeMoenieba Isaacs
Caitie D. KuempelKai N. LeeM. Aaron MacNeil
Eva MaireJemimah NjukiNitya Rao
U. Rashid SumailaElizabeth R. SeligShakuntala H. Thilsted
Colette C.C. WabnitzRosamond L. Naylor
*Asterisk denotes shared first coauthorship

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