Is the aquaculture boom starting to fade?

FAO poses new questions on the future of fish farming
October 8, 2008

Is the aquaculture boom starting to fade?

The aquaculture industry has reached an important crossroads, with new challenges emerging regarding the sector’s ability to meet future world demand for fish. Small-scale farmers in developing countries are facing difficulties in exporting their produce, and need help to become competitive and access global markets, according to FAO.

In 2006, the world consumed 110.4 million tonnes of fish, with 51.7 million tonnes of that originating from aquaculture.

Production by traditional capture fisheries has reached a plateau, so to meet the projected demand for fish of an expanded world population, in 2030 aquaculture will need to produce an additional 28.8 million tonnes – 80.5 million tonnes overall - each year just to maintain per capita fish consumption at current levels.

However FAO cautions in a paper to be presented this week to countries attending a meeting of the UN agency’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI), Sub-Committee on Aquaculture in Puerto Varas, Chile (6-10 October) that a series of emerging challenges need to be addressed if aquaculture is to live up to its potential.

“The question remains whether the aquaculture sector can grow fast enough to sustain projected demand for fish while ensuring consumer protection, maintaining environmental integrity, and achieving social responsibility,” the report said.

Already there are some signs that the sector’s rapid growth over the last three decades is starting to slow. The sector sustained a yearly growth rate of 11.8 percent from 1985 to 1995. That slowed to 7.1 percent during the following decade, and to 6.1 percent for the 2004-2006 period.

The feed bottleneck

Most farmed fish that are consumed in the developing world, such as carps and tilapia, are herbivores or omnivores.

But species like salmon or shrimp – often raised in developing countries and exported to wealthy consumer markets, providing jobs and income for millions of people - need other fish, in the form of meal or oil, to eat.

In 2006 aquaculture consumed 3.06 million tonnes (56%) of world fishmeal production and 780,000 tonnes (87%) of total fish oil production. Over fifty percent of the sector’s use of fish oil occurs on salmon farms.

Fishmeal and fish oil production has remained stagnant over the last decade, and significant increases in their production are not anticipated, according to FAO. At the same time, the volume of fishmeal and fish oil used in formulated aquaculture feeds tripled between 1996 and 2006. This was made possible due to significant reduction of the poultry sector’s reliance on fishmeal in poultry feeds.

“It is probable that the livestock and poultry sectors will continue to use less and less fishmeal in their feeds, which is good for the future of feed-based aquaculture,” noted Rohana Subasinghe, an FAO expert on fish farming and Secretary of the COFI Subcommittee. “However, more and more formulated feeds are being used for non-filter feeding omnivorous fish like carps, thus the need for fishmeal is increasing. So we must make efficiency improvements in the use of feed and also some serious strides in terms of coming up with alternative protein supplements,” he said.

Small farmers at risk

Small-scale aquaculture farmers are benefiting from the US$79 billion a year international trade in fish, although they face a number of challenges in doing so

And FAO is now seeing that, for some commodities and in some producing countries, the overall number of fish farms is decreasing, while the size of individual farms is increasing, pointing to the concentration of fish farms into fewer hands.

“These trends need to be addressed, for example by establishing innovative producer networks so that small farmers can join forces, improve their operations, access markets, and remain competitive against bigger producers,” said Subasinghe.

Other challenges highlighted by FAO’s paper include the environmental impacts of fish farming, food safety and antibiotic use, and the impacts that climate change may have on aquaculture.

Guidelines for certification in the offing

One way to help aquaculture limits its environmental impacts and ensure that it benefits small farmers to the maximum extent possible is to certify products so that buyers and consumers can chose those that are produced in a sustainable, healthy, and socially responsible way.

The practice is being used in both capture fisheries and aquaculture with growing frequency, but is not without its problems.

As such programs proliferate, producers are struggling to meet the various standards being applied by different companies, countries or certifying organizations, which can differ significantly.

An overabundance of schemes also increases the likelihood that watered-down unreliable certification labels are used alongside credible ones.

To tackle these problems, FAO has been working with the Network of Aquaculture Centres in the Asia Pacific (NACA), holding consultations with various certification bodies, producer groups, processors and consumer organizations in order to draw up global guidelines on how aquaculture certification schemes ought to be established and applied.

A set of draft guidelines has been finalized and will be submitted to the COFI Subcommittee this week for discussion and decision.

The guidelines won't serve as certification standards in and of themselves but rather provide a common blueprint that will ensure that whoever is certifying farmed seafood -- be it a government, an NGO, or a private company -- is going about it in the same way, according to the same standards.

FAO has already developed similar guidelines for certification of fish products from marine and inland capture fisheries.