SMEA postgraduate course: Fish in the global food system

SMEA postgraduate course, Spring 2017

Fish in the global food system SMEA 55OB (2 Credits)

*Fish is taken in the broadest sense to mean food from marine and aquatic ecosystems (i.e. finfish, shellfish, other aquatic and marine animals, and aquatic and marine plants)

Professor Edward H Allison/School of Marine and Environmental Affairs/College of the Environment/ Email:

Zach Koehn/ PhD Student/School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences/ Email:

Course Timetable:

All Fridays, from March 31st to June 2nd

10:00 – 12:00 am – Classroom sessions on 3/31, 4/7, 4/14, 4/28, 5/5, 5/12, 5/26, 6/2

Field visits (all or part-day – tbc) – 4/21, 5/19

Poster presentations: 6/2, 12:00 – 13:30

Optional: ‘Fish on Film’ evenings, once every 2 weeks  – timetable to be decided.

Seafood culinary experience – time tbc with the class, but likely towards the end of the quarter.

Course Overview

This course provides a critical examination of the role that fish plays in providing food for people. This central purpose of fisheries and aquaculture is often taken as a given, with analytical attention generally being paid to questions of ecological sustainability and economic performance, or to the livelihood, cultural and recreational benefits of fisheries.  The course aims to respond to two major shifts in public policy during the last decade: the return of food security to the top of the international development policy agenda since the food price ‘spikes’ of 2007 to 2009; and growing concern in developed economies like the USA for the links between the ecological, economic and social sustainability of our food systems, the quality of our diets, and our health.   How is fisheries science, and fisheries policy, responding to this shift?

The course proposes to ‘re-frame’  the governance of fisheries, aquaculture and other aquatic and marine harvesting  to emphasize the role of fish as part of local and global food systems, and as part of healthy diets.   Contemporary framings that are relevant  to this course include the ‘OneHealth’  and ‘Planetary Health’ initiatives, as well as the value-chain approach, applied to the ‘Sea to Table’ concept.

The course is interdisciplinary, drawing on both social and natural sciences and is open to both natural and social scientists, and those in the humanities with an interest in food, maritime and culinary cultures and contemporary discourses on environmentalism.  The key theoretical underpinnings are in the interdisciplinary fields of political ecology, political economy and development studies, but ideas and readings from geography, environmental science, fisheries and aquaculture science, natural resource and trade economics, anthropology, sociology, history and media and religious studies will prompt students to think broadly about the role that fish have played and continue to play in our food systems. The course will also demonstrate how different disciplines illuminate different parts of the fishery social-ecological system. Students will engage in a contemporary effort to extend the boundaries of the already interdisciplinary field of ‘fisheries science’ to include emerging areas of societal concern.

Course objectives

To engage students in scholarly debate and analysis of contemporary policy issues relating to food policy, human health, and environmental or natural resource management

To understand the production, processing, distribution and consumption of fish, as a major

To apply interdisciplinary thought to the analysis of policy

Skills developed will include both independent and group enquiry, policy analysis, and communication of analytical results (contributions to policy review paper

The intention is to produce a jointly-authored publishable paper from the global food/fisheries policy analysis that forms one of the two assignments.


Teaching approach

The course will take the form of a weekly discussion seminar.  Student are expected to read key readings and explore literature around contemporary fisheries/food issues and come to class prepared to discuss and explore these issues further.  Some sessions will include guests from the seafood sector.  Planned activities include; a visit to a local shellfish farm; visits to seafood processing and retail outlets and a meal at a sustainable seafood restaurant.  These activities will be complemented by workshops and debates around key contemporary food system issues that allow small groups of students to explore their chosen interests in more depth.

Questions debated in class may include:

Fishing for food, welfare, wealth, biodiversity conservation or cultural survival:  options and debates in national and global fisheries policy

Fish and food security:  the sustainability of global fish supplies to 2030 and 2050; supply-demand models; accounting for changing demography, development patterns, and culinary cultures

Aquaculture:  polluting purveyor of luxury food for the rich or means to secure supplies of healthy nutritious food for the poor? Or both, and much else besides…?

Global fish trade:  from herring in the Hanseatic trading empire of the middle-ages to Tilapia in the transnational feed companies of the 21st Century: how fish entered global value chains, who is benefiting and how are global value chains regulated?   Local/global, small-scale/large-scale debates.

Will China eat all the world’s fish?  Or supply all the world’s fish?

Eating sustainable fish:  certification and market-based conservation mechanisms – which certification scheme should you choose to follow?  Eat local or support global fair trade? Eat farmed or wild?

The environmental case for eating fish – ecological footprint of different fishery products, comparison with terrestrial food systems

Is it wrong to eat marine mammals?

Fish, nutrition and health:  debates about the benefits of omega 3s and the risks of mercury and PCB contamination… fish as sources of micronutrients;   fish in  ‘food-based strategies’ to combat malnutrition; plus fish – the healthy alternative to Red Bull as a source of Taurine?

Fish in culinary cultures:   from fish and chips to sashimi, via rotten fish sauce. How fish products define – or are defined – by cultural preferences and social forces – and how this affects fisheries management. How culture is formed and reformed in contemporary society; the role of celebrity chefs in shaping food and fisheries policies.

Fish, history and cultural identity:  salmon iconography in the Pacific North West and the management of Pacific salmon;  Cod – did it really change the world?  Fish mammies and the dried and smoked fish of sub-saharan Africa – resilient trade networks and gendered livelihoods.

Optional “Fish on Film” season

There will be an optional ‘Fish on film’ season (early evenings, day to be decided with the class – suggested 1 every 2 weeks) to accompany the course – options include: ‘The End of the Line’,  ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’,  ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ , ‘The Perfect Storm’, ‘Leviathan’ – and any other fish/food themed movies or documentaries people want to suggest.


The course will be assessed through:

  1. i)  Individual or small-group contributions to a global analysis of the degree to which nutrition and food security or sovereignty concerns are incorporated in fisheries and aquaculture policy, and the extent to which food security, nutrition and health policies and initiatives include fish and other aquatic-source foods in their programming.  Each student (or small group) will review policy documentation for a region of the world and produce an analysis of policy coherence or policy integration.  Methodological guidance will be given.  Deadline: May 18th. (60% of grade)
  2. ii) Preparation of an individual poster presentation on any of the themes addressed by the course e.g. ethics of seafood consumption, farmed vs wild fish,  eat local or support ethical trade, changing food and culinary cultures.  The posters will be presented in the final week, in a public reception.  (50% of grade) Deadline:  June 2nd (40% of grade)



There are no prerequisites, but students without a fisheries background are strongly recommended to familiarize themselves with the basic concepts of fisheries science, principally the means by which sustainable harvesting levels are determined and how management systems have aimed to implement such levelsThis will NOT be the focus of this course but it does provide an important context for all the debates on fisheries and their place in the global food system.   A recommended brief introduction to the issue of fisheries sustainability is:

Hilborn, R. and U. Hilborn (2012).  Overfishing – What Everyone Needs to Know.  Oxford University Press


This is an advanced seminar-type course for which there is no text book.  A reading list will be provided at the beginning of the course, and students will also be involved in locating, reading and critiquing recent academic papers and policy briefings.