Currently supplying only 17% of the world’s protein supply, most of it wild-caught, the ocean holds great potential to help satisfy the global demand for meat, a new study shows.

The global population is expected to exceed 10 billion people in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. That’s a lot of people to feed. Traditional, land-based means of meat production are facing hard limits for expansion and challenges due to climate change, making the ocean an important source of protein as we strive to feed three billion more people than we have today.

In a new study in Nature, researchers took a thorough look at the potential of a warming ocean to satisfy the growing global appetite.

“Climate change will challenge the ability for the ocean to meet the seafood demands of a growing population,” says lead author Christopher Free, a researcher in the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “However the ocean could produce more food than today through swift and ambitious actions.”

The ocean is subject to global greenhouse gas emissions, which results in effects such as warming and acidification—phenomena that are expected to decrease the ocean’s ability to meet the seafood demands of a growing population.

“Warming waters are changing where fish can live, what prey they can eat, and how well they can survive,” says Free. “Both fishers and fisheries managers have to adapt to these changes.”

Fisheries can maintain or increase their yields by adapting their practices to shifts in the productivity and location of their fish stocks, the researchers say. However, these reforms alone, though necessary, will be insufficient to fulfill future demand. Finfish and shellfish farms will be essential to fill that gap.

“Expansion of sustainable ocean aquaculture could build on fisheries reforms to increase the availability of healthy and sustainable seafood to our growing population,” says coauthor Halley Froehlich, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara.

According to the study, the expansion of mariculture is projected to be limited by consumer demand or availability of feed ingredients derived from wild fisheries, rather than by climate change. With the appropriate selection of species and location, for example, the researchers found that “the availability of area for profitable finfish mariculture to be insensitive to changing temperature, oxygenation, and salinity.”

Additionally, because food production by its nature generates impacts to the environment, the sustainable expansion of mariculture must be conducted carefully.

Read the full article about ocean warming by Sonia Fernandez at Futurity.