To plan a sustainable future for seafood access in small island developing states, researchers highlight solutions hiding in plain sight

Small boats in shallow ocean water with a palm tree on the beach
Kiribati depends on seafood as a cornerstone of local food systems. Photo: Getty Images

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the small island developing state of Kiribati is a collection of 33 far-flung tropical islands that are home to more than 126,000 people. Kiribati depends on seafood as a cornerstone of local food systems, but the nation’s marine resources are increasingly threatened by climate change and other environmental, social, and economic threats. 

Other nations around the world face similar issues. So, to better understand how fisheries-based food systems might respond to change, researchers took a deeper look at the strategies that people in Kiribati currently use to access seafood. 

The research team’s findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, share lessons from Kiribati, including how different strategies impact local diets, and how successful strategies could potentially be bolstered in the face of growing challenges.  

UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Katherine Seto led the study, which used machine learning to analyze data from a nationally representative household income and expenditure study and a village resource survey. She says the study’s focus on understanding current pathways to seafood access lays an important foundation for efforts to ensure stable and sustainable food systems into the future.   

“There are many existing studies around the world that recommend institutional, legal, or technological innovations to improve food systems, but at the same time, there’s a surprising lack of data on how food that’s produced in a region actually finds its way into local people’s diets,” Seto explained. “That should really be our starting point, because otherwise, we risk overlooking important local dynamics and proven solutions that are already working for people.” 

To study this issue, researchers first used computer modeling to determine which of eight access mechanisms—technology, capital, markets, labor, knowledge, authority, social identity, and social relationships—had the greatest influence on households in Kiribati that ate the most seafood. The team found that market participation was the most important variable, but it was the households with the lowest market access who tended to eat the most seafood. This is likely because local seafood in Kiribati is often produced and shared non-commercially. 

To get a deeper understanding of which specific combinations of variables led to high-seafood diets in Kiribati, and under which conditions, researchers next performed a cluster analysis. This revealed six main types of households that consumed the highest levels of seafood. The different strategies used by each group also affected the specific kinds of seafood they ate. 

Understanding which types of households are eating which varieties of seafood is important for assessing the nutritional value, reliability, toxin exposure, and long-term sustainability of diets resulting from each strategy, the paper explains. The findings also have the potential to inform new resource management approaches. 

“One example we discuss in the paper is that, in Kiribati, sea snails and lagoon and sandflat fish are crucial for households that produce their own seafood, but these animals are much less studied than reef fish and are rarely the focus of management or conservation efforts,” Seto said. “So this type of research has the potential to help better align resource management planning with the existing pathways of seafood access.”  

The research team’s findings also offer insights into how broader social and environmental context shape household strategies. Households that produced their own seafood were more male-dominated, while those that relied on purchasing seafood or receiving it as gifts were more female-dominated. Households that focused on low-tech, low-effort methods were disproportionately located in the Line Islands region of Kiribati. And in more urban areas, those who consumed the most seafood were usually either wealthy or received their seafood as gifts, suggesting that social relations may serve as a safety net for seafood access.

Overall, the largest number of households that attained high levels of seafood consumption did so by receiving seafood as gifts. Seto says this finding demonstrates how traditional market-focused studies of food systems can “miss crucial pieces of the puzzle” when it comes to local food security and nutrition. Taking a more holistic approach could result in dramatically different recommendations for ensuring continued seafood access. 

For example, because gifting is a key seafood access mechanism for many households in Kiribati, and gifting takes place primarily through social networks, investing in telecommunications networks or inter-island transportation to increase interpersonal connection could improve seafood access too. 

Uncovering these types of unexpected opportunities for other communities around the world will require continued research to deepen understanding of food access pathways. 

“Rather than assume someone benefits from a resource, we can measure and track these flows of benefit and take seriously the really ingenious approaches that people have for ensuring their household benefits from a resource like seafood,” Seto said. “The best policies and management approaches will work to support these practices, rather than impose new ‘solutions’ to misunderstood problems.”