Aquaculture key to meeting demand for fish

Posted: 16 September 2006

Aquaculture is critical to feeding the world's growing appetite for fish, but it is unclear if the industry will be able to overcome its economic and environmental challenges and meet that demand, cautions a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

An additional 40 million tons of fish will be required 2030 just to maintain current levels of consumption, according to the report, and there is no way wild stocks can meet the demand.

"Aquaculture could cover the gap between supply and demand, but there are also many forces which could pull production in the opposite direction, making it difficult for the industry to grow substantially enough to meet demand in the decades to come," the report said.

Fish farming could be the answer to the world's growing demand for fish, but environmental - and social - concerns remain. (Photo by R. Faidutti courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Fish farming could be the answer to the world's growing demand for fish, but environmental - and social - concerns remain. (Photo by R. Faidutti courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Fish farming could be the answer to the world's growing demand for fish, but environmental - and social - concerns remain. Photo credit: FAO/R. Faidutti
It finds that the aquaculture industry now accounts for 43 per cent of fish consumed by people - in 1980, that figure was only 9 per cent.

Wild catches

Annual consumption of farmed fish has topped 45 million tons and is worth some $63 billion. By comparison, some 95 million tons of wild fish are caught each year, with 60 million tons destined for human consumption.

Levels of fish caught in the wild have remained roughly stable since the mid-1980s.

There is little chance of any significant increases in wild catches beyond these levels, the report said.

Although it is difficult to determine the exact condition of all marine fish stocks, the FAO says there is ample cause for concern.

Modern fishing techniques, population growth and economic pressures have brought a rapid expansion of commercial fishing and greatly increased the capacity to exploit fish stocks.

FAO's most recent global assessment of wild fish stocks found that of the 52 per cent of the 600 species it monitors are fully exploited. Some 17 per cent are overexploited, 7 per cent are depleted and 1 per cent are recovering from depletion.

"Catches in the wild are still high, but they have leveled off, probably for good," said Rohana Subasinghe of FAO's Fisheries Department and Secretary of the Sub-Committee on Aquaculture.

Developing world consumption

Rising populations and increasing affluence in the developing world driving the demand for fish. (Photo by I. de Borhegyi courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Rising populations and increasing affluence in the developing world driving the demand for fish. (Photo by I. de Borhegyi courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Rising populations and increasing affluence in the developing world driving the demand for fish. (Photo by I. de Borhegyi courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
But the depletion of natural fish stocks comes as consumer demand for fish continues to increase, in particular in the developed world. Wealthy nations imported 33 million tons of fish - valued at some $61 billion - in 2004.

Aquaculture is the only answer to meeting growing demand, the report said, but the rapidly growing industries faces a slew of economic and environmental challenges.

The report finds that aquaculture has been growing about 8 per cent annually since the mid-1980s and it continues to expand in almost all world regions, with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa.

But the FAO is concerned that momentum could taper off if governments and development agencies don't adjust their policies to respond to emerging challenges that threaten to damper the sector's future growth.

The report highlights the lack of investment capital for producers in the developing world as a serious challenge, as well as the shortage of land and freshwater for use in aquaculture.

The aquaculture challenges could prove in particular difficult within the developing world, where many nations are ill-equipped to regulate fish farms.

Rising energy costs also pose a problem, as do environmental impacts and questions of product safety.

Fishmeal demand

The agency's report also points to doubts regarding future supplies of fishmeal and oil, used to feed carnivorous cultured species, such as salmon, grouper and sea bream.

Since 1985, world production of fishmeal and fish oil - manufactured using fish which are caught in large volumes but which are not consumed by humans - has stabilized at 6 to 7 million tons and 1 million tons, respectively. The vast bulk of fishmeal is used for livestock feed, in particular for the poultry sector, but aquaculture now accounts for 35 per cent of the world's fishmeal supply.

As the aquaculture's need for fishmeal increases, competition with terrestrial livestock for a limited resource will intensify, with ramifications for both price and availability, the report said.

Resolving the dilemma will require continued progress in improving the efficiency of feed formulations - reducing the amount of fishmeal they contain - and coming up with adequate vegetable-based additives, FAO said.

"We need to start planning now for handling these challenges, because aquaculture is crucial to the fight against global hunger," said Ichiro Nomura, FAO assistant director-general for Fisheries. "It offers a source of food that is rich in protein, essential fatty acids and vitamins and minerals. And it offers a way to boost development by providing jobs, improving people's incomes, and increasing returns on natural resource use. We must ensure that the sector continues to expand, sustainably, to provide more people with food and income, especially in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where hunger and poverty prevail."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2006. All Rights Reserved.