FAO outlines a holistic approach to sustainable aquaculture

As the blue food sector expands its contribution to global food security, the FAO interviewed Matthias Halwart, head of the global and regional processes team for aquaculture at the FAO, to outline the organisation’s commitment to sustainable practices and the Blue Transformation.

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
1 November 2022, at 7:22am
floating sea cages
Aquaculture cages in The Philippines

Floating fish cages of the "Norwegian style" are seen in this aerial image in the mariculture park in barangay Biasong in Lopez Jaena, Philippines © David, Hogsholt, FAO

Aquatic foods are contributing more than ever before to global food security and nutrition, says the FAO. According to the latest SOFIA report, total fisheries and aquaculture production reached a record 214 million tonnes in 2020, comprising 178 million tonnes of aquatic animals and 36 million tonnes of algae.

In addition to the record production volumes across both sectors, the organisation expects aquatic food production to expand further in the next ten years. For the last three decades, growth has been largely driven by aquaculture, particularly in Asia. As aquaculture continues to expand to meet the ever-increasing demand for aquatic foods, it is essential that this growth is sustainable for people and the planet.

Matthias Halwart, head of global and regional processes team for sustainable aquaculture at FAO, speaks about FAO’s vision for sustainable aquaculture through Blue Transformation and the development of FAO’s Sustainable Guidelines for Aquaculture.

person standing on an aquaculture net pen
An aquaculture net pen

The aquaculture sector has expanded rapidly in the last 10 years © FAO

How would you describe recent growth in aquaculture?

Global aquaculture production reached a record 122.6 million tonnes in 2020, with a total value of $281.5 billion. Largely driven by expansion in Chile, China and Norway, global aquaculture production grew in every region except Africa, mainly because of a decrease in the two major producing countries, Egypt and Nigeria. Asia continues to dominate world aquaculture, accounting for 91.6 percent of the total.

Sustainable aquaculture development is critical if we are to meet the growing demand for aquatic foods. However, as with all agriculture production sectors, both expansion and intensification pose risks to the environment. Responsibly managing natural resources, minimising environmental risks, and ensuring that the benefits from aquaculture are distributed equitably are among the reasons why the global community have asked FAO to help develop Guidelines on Sustainable Aquaculture (GSA).

Is the growth in aquaculture being driven by increasing demand?

Demand is growing and production is striving to keep pace. While much of this is happening in Asia, production is increasing in other parts of the world as well. This is particularly important in regions like Africa, where there is some concern as growth in production is not keeping up with population growth. Africa is actually the only region where we see an alarming decline in per capita availability of aquatic products.

When I started with FAO in the mid-1990s, aquaculture was quite small compared to fisheries. Now the story is completely different. Every second fish that ends up on our dinner table is from aquaculture – about 50 percent of aquatic foods are farmed. The sector has become far more important and everything suggests that this trend is going to continue.

One of the biggest challenges must be balancing biodiversity and environmental sustainability with jobs and livelihoods?

To some extent, but there are so many different forms of aquaculture production and these trade-offs are more important for some than others. We are growing between 600 and 700 different species of aquatic organisms in many different environments from land-based freshwater ponds to coastal and offshore facilities using a huge diversity of practices. There is a massive difference between cultivating mussels along the coast, compared to a fin fish in a cage in a small lake, or a crab in a rice field, in terms of inputs, costs and environmental impacts.

Let’s take the example of integrated rice-fish systems, where the connection of production components – rice and fish – can increase incomes for the farming family, improve food and nutrition for the community, reduce chemicals added to the ecosystem and increase resiliency against shocks and changes.

woman pulling in a farmed seaweed line
Farmed seaweed

Data shows that small-scale farmers produce the bulk of aquaculture products that the world consumes © FAO

Small-scale farmers produce the bulk of aquaculture production, in predominantly inland waters and small-scale environments, which has been highlighted in the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture this year. It has been very rewarding for FAO to be the recent recipient of the Center of Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific’s Aziz-Ul Haq Rural Development Medal which recognises FAO’s leadership and outstanding contributions addressing integrated rural development and eradicating extreme poverty.

With burgeoning growth, sustainability is a priority for FAO. How advanced is the development of FAO’s Guidelines for Sustainable Aquaculture?

Any sector that grows fast, particularly in an agricultural context, will inevitably meet challenges.

Commercial aquaculture has developed quite recently, often with no dedicated national legislation and limited institutional support. In many countries, laws and regulations are fragmented across various institutions and agencies. This can create bureaucratic obstacles for farmers who need multiple permits and licenses, especially if the regulatory framework is not harmonised. The question is how to provide an enabling framework in any given country to make aquaculture grow in a sustainable way.

The GSA are based on sound and enforceable legal and institutional frameworks. They are fundamental if we are to create the right environment for sustainable aquaculture growth and enable the aquaculture sector to optimise its contribution to the development goals of Members.

Improved aquaculture systems also require further technical innovations – with a focus on genetic improvements in breeding programmes, feeds, biosecurity and disease control – coupled with coherent policies and incentives throughout entire value chain. The draft Guidelines propose a holistic approach to aquaculture governance to address the complexities of the sector, namely the immense diversity in cultured species, production systems, sites, practices and ecosystems.

land-based aquaculture facility
Land-based aquaculture facility

© FAO

FAO has been working since 2017, through global and regional consultative processes, on the identification of successful initiatives in support of sustainable aquaculture and their compilation into the draft GSA. As part of the process, FAO has convened a series of formal consultations. First, an expert consultation provided the scope and key issues, which were further refined through seven regional consultations, before the document returned for second expert consultation. During these consultations, government representatives discussed and negotiated the text, ensuring all points of view and national and regional priorities were incorporated and agreed.

The draft GSA have been drawn from these inputs and put forward for discussion at the 11th Session of the Sub-Committee on Aquaculture. COFI has since asked FAO to finalise the GSA for the 12th Session in March 2023. A revised version is currently open for comment, which will be reviewed by a Task Force of interested Members ahead of the next session.