Sustainability Trajectories

What is Sustainability (to us)?

Sustainability is an overused word with abundant pedagogy but little practice. There has been much lip service given to the concept but little progressive action has been taken – especially in situations where there are time-worn political “turf wars” – and in cases where there is a clear need for interdisciplinary actions; but there is little scientific knowledge; or where there are clear winners and losers from environmental action.

Sustainability is oftentimes best defined by what it is not.

To us sustainability is not black or white, it’s many shades of grey.

To give you an explicit example, sustainable seafood are not “green”, and unsustainable seafood are not “red”.


For more specific background on our academic concepts of sustainability have led to our practices of how to make operational sustainability (see Sustainability, Unit 1 Web Chapter).

Sustainability trajectories

To make the principles of ecological aquaculture operational we have developed a rubric we call “sustainability trajectories” as a planning and communications package for our partners. We have used the concept of trajectories to develop strategic, implementation and evaluation plans that are tightly connected to communications plans.

This conceptual diagram illustrates, in an understandably simplistic way, what we mean by “sustainability trajectories”. We do not think sustainability over time (the “x” axis) can be trivialized as black (“the bad old days”) and white (‘global goodness or nirvana”). Rather, we like to point out that sustainability has an important element of TIME, and that there are many social-ecological indices that can be measured over time. We have chosen to illustrate water use in aquaculture on the “y” axis where in the “bad old days” the solution to pollution was dilution (=discharge); but now there are aquaculture systems with no discharge that approach 100% water reuse. The principle point of this illustration is, however, to emphasize that there are to be expected “plateaus” along the way, or pauses before the next sustainability transition occurs, for many reasons (social, economic, environmental, regulatory, etc.). We feel that these pauses, however, cannot be used in any ethical sense to throw a place or a company onto a blacklist (or red list).

Sustainability trajectories are formulated upon the basis of a robust study of ecological and social baselines of a place, or an entity (a company, for example).

Methods include documentation of all material, food, energy, nutrient and social-ecological systems on and off farm as baselines in order to establish its ecology – the structure and functioning – of a particular place or entity.

After developing baselines and vetting them to make sure they are accurate, collaborative,  participatory sessions are held (what Sustainametrix calls a “guide service”) that formulate sustainability trajectories, and help develop a plan to implement actions, measure progress, and how to communicate this to the World.

Benefits of thoughtful approaches that use these concepts of sustainability trajectories and associated program elements include the following:

  • multidisciplinary investigations that balance the design and use of innovative technologies in aquaculture with rigorous analyses of the social, cultural, and economic ecologies of coastal communities,
  • collection of all available primary scientific, social, and economic data on the interactions of designed aquaculture ecosystems with their local and regional environments and society,
  • development of knowledge management systems that serve as critical information depositories on ecological-social interactions and aquaculture advances in communities and industries,
  • explicit planning for the education and training of the next generation of aquaculture leaders by building formal and informal education partnerships with socially responsible investors with special emphasis on aquarium and in-school ecological aquaculture exhibits and demonstrations sites for teachers, students, and the general public.
With some guidance all partners can avail themselves of  “state of the art” strategic and organizational development methodologies and outcome-based evaluation tools. They can use these to demonstrate and communicate to the World the multiple uses, goods and services, and the multiple values (technological, ecological, and social) of aquaculture ecosystems…and how they are on the sustainability highway.

We do not have all the answers you are seeking. Nor do we pretend to have a methodology that meet all of your needs.

There are no formulaic or cookbook approaches to sustainability.

Our methodology helps to put our partners on the path to greater stewardship of not only the environment and the public trust, but also establishes a clear responsibility to people and civil society while promoting the works of aquaculture, and helping along “the evolution of the blue revolution”.

Sustainability is not black or white;  it is many shades of grey.


Costa-Pierce, B.A. 2012. Introduction to ocean farming and sustainable aquaculture science and technology, p. 7263-7267. In: Meyers, R. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology. Springer Reference, N.Y.

Costa-Pierce, B.A. 2012. Ecological aquaculture, p. 533-542. In: Meyers, R. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology. Springer Reference, N.Y.

Costa-Pierce, B.A. and G.G. Page. 2012. Sustainability science in aquaculture, p. 564-581. In: Meyers, R. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology. Springer Reference, N.Y.


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