Nearly half of all fish eaten today farmed, not caught

Aquaculture only way to meet surging demand, but challenges to future growth loom, says new FAO report
September 7, 2006

Nearly half of all fish eaten today farmed, not caught
Rome/New Delhi - Nearly half the fish consumed as food worldwide are raised on fish farms rather than caught in the wild, says a new report from FAO.

"The State of World Aquaculture 2006" was presented today to delegates from more than 50 countries attending the biennial meeting of the FAO Sub-Committee on Aquaculture (New Delhi, 4-8 September*).

While in 1980 just 9 percent of the fish consumed by human beings came from aquaculture, today 43 percent does, the report shows.

That's 45.5 million tonnes of farmed fish, worth US$63 billion, eaten each year. (Currently, freshwater and marine capture fisheries produce 95 million tonnes annually, of which 60 million tonnes is destined for human consumption).

Not enough fish in the sea

Globally, consumer demand for fish continues to climb, especially in affluent, developed nations which in 2004 imported 33 million tonnes of fish worth over US$61 billion -- 81% of all fish imports that year, in value terms.

But levels of captures of fish in the wild have remained roughly stable since the mid-1980s, hovering around 90-93 million tonnes annually.

There is little chance of any significant increases in catches beyond these levels, FAO says.

The agency's most recent global assessment of wild fish stocks found that out of the nearly 600 species groups it monitors, 52 percent are fully exploited while 25 percent are either overexploited (17%), depleted (7%) or recovering from depletion (1%). Twenty percent are moderately exploited, with just three percent ranked as underexploited.

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

This levelling off, coupled with a growing world population and increasing per capita demand for fish, spells trouble.

FAO's report estimates that an additional 40 million tonnes of aquatic food will be required by 2030 -- just to maintain current levels of consumption.

The only option for meeting future demand for fish, Subasinghe argues, is by farming them.

There's just one question.

Can aquaculture actually deliver?

The jury is still out, according to FAO's report.

"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," it notes.

Aquaculture has been experiencing a boom since the mid-1980s, sustaining a growth rate of around 8% per year. Today it continues to expand in almost all world regions, with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa.

But 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.

One serious bottleneck, says FAO, is the lack of investment capital for producers in the developing world. Another is a shortage of land and freshwater for use in aquaculture. Rising energy costs also pose a problem, and environmental impacts and questions of product safety continue to require attention.

Let them eat...?

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 tonnes and one million tonnes, respectively.

While the vast bulk of fishmeal is used for livestock feed, chiefly by the poultry sector, aquaculture now accounts for 35 percent of the world's fishmeal supply. So as aquaculture's fishmeal needs grow, competition with terrestrial livestock for a limited resource will intensify, with ramifications for both price and availability.

Key to resolving the dilemma will be continued progress in improving the efficiency of feed formulations -- reducing the amount of fishmeal they contain -- and coming up with adequate vegetable-based additives.

"We need to start planning now for handling these challenges, because aquaculture is crucial to the fight against global hunger," Ichiro Nomura, FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries, says. "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."
Related FAO links

Related article


FAO Releases global and regional reviews on aquaculture development

State of world aquaculture: 2006 and regional reviews on status and trends in aquaculture development have been published by FAO. more...