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Fish culture vs capture: SE Asia joins the debate

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A discussion of the relative nutritional merits of wild-caught and cultured fish was one of the key themes at a workshop held in Cambodia last month.

Called the global workshop on nutrition-sensitive fish agri-food systems, it took place in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, and was attended by Professor David Little of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture. Here he describes some of the key subjects debated during the workshop.

The meeting drew together an eclectic group of aquaculture promoters and researchers, mainly from the Asia Pacific and Africa with mainstream food systems and nutrition expertise. Noteworthy was the impressive turnout of donors such as the World Bank, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, JICA and IFAD – for whom food and nutrition security and, specifically, the role of aquatic foods, is climbing the list of funding priorities.

The reason for this interest was laid out at the beginning of the meeting by its organiser Dr Shakuntala Thilsted, a nutritionist specialising in people-first food strategies for more than 20 years. While fish consumption continues to grow and become increasingly dependent on farmed fish and other aquatic foods, concern has grown about how its unique nutritional qualities can be retained.

Recognised as an important source of essential micronutrients and fats, fish has had difficulty securing its place in discussions around food and nutrition security, even though its critical dietary value to the global poor is well established. The balance between sourcing from unmanaged stocks – the world’s last major source of wild food, and closing the cycle to produce food under more controlled farmed conditions emerged as a key issue. This is particularly the case as many countries have plans to modernise their aquaculture sectors in the face of declines in wild stocks and growing demand from urbanising populations. Evidence was presented from Bangladesh and Thailand where this trend is well underway and the choice of wild fish has declined in markets and more uniform farmed fish dominates.

Small native fish species can be more nutritious than farmed species such as pangasius

© Sylvann Borei

This contrasts to Cambodia and Myanmar where, despite growth in culture, wild species still abound, somewhat protected by their less regulated floodplains. However, this situation is likely to change as the hydrology of their river deltas systems is increasingly modified to meet these countries targets for more staple food crops, particularly rice production. Differences in levels of certain micronutrients of wild fish compared to commonly stocked species from hatcheries therefore has rung alarm bells. The warning signs have been around for some time, however, especially in Bangladesh. A landmark study by Nanna Roos, now of the University of Copenhagen, pointed to the small indigenous fish species (SIS) being particularly good for poor peoples’ nutrition. At that time SIS were accessible, affordable and part of everyday diets. The study coincided with a take-off and intensification of aquaculture in Bangladesh and a radical recalibration of what species of fish poor people could access.

Today poorer people find farmed fish to be more affordable in Bangladesh as their price has fallen in real terms. In comparison, declining stocks have seen the price of wild fish rise. Since that time a surge of interest has emerged among local researchers, evidenced by the well-worn condition of Dr Roos’ PhD thesis, in the library of the Bangladesh Agricultural University, where the work was based. The Siem Reap workshop, in addition to informative and thought-provoking plenary papers, gave time for 60-second pitches for a wide range of participants to promote their posters. Many of these contributions were based around how such SIS could be retained or reintroduced into modified culture systems.

Grounds for optimism

The workshop, organised by the CGIAR centre WorldFish, should act as a landmark in efforts to join aquaculture with nutritional outcomes. A better understanding of current systems and the potential impacts on nutritional quality of change in farmed fish systems is critical to this process. There are many grounds for optimism.

Firstly, the situation is not as dire as many would present. Most farmed fish are still produced in systems that have high micronutrient quality, despite intensification – especially when compared to alternative animal-source foods and given other changes in diets. Preserving natural feed in the diets of farmed fish appears to be a low cost and simple way to do this, so efforts to intensify fish production should consider this and monitor changes in nutrient quality that result from changed diets and system management.

Secondly, it needs to be acknowledged that intensification is not always desirable or inevitable. On Day 3, workshop participants were treated to an educational visit of surrounding farms that produce fish. Note my wording. Farms that produce fish, rather than ‘fish farms’. In areas of the world where fish is of greatest dietary significance, management of flooding is how people produce most of their food, both staples such as rice and a range of other aquatic animals and vegetables that together make for nutritious diets. We need to consider fish production as part of broader food landscapes. Maybe new to many researchers and donors, there was plenty of evidence presented at the workshop that this integrated concept has a strong cultural connection to farming families in countries like Cambodia. Evidence from other countries in the region showed that such practices can co-exist and co-evolve with more commercial, specialised production that focuses on urban markets.

The micronutrient status of fish, both wild and farmed, is the sector’s unique selling point and it needs to be nurtured. This will require aqua-systems designers, nutritionists and breeders to focus their efforts together into the future.

But there is also an urgent need to ensure that vulnerable groups have improved access to fish. Supporting targeted interventions was a repeated theme of the workshop and also using traditional fish preservation techniques towards products that can be consumed by young children and vulnerable adolescent women was demonstrated during our field trip. If the workshop had a failing, it was the lack of business interests present. Producing such products locally may work for rural people but urbanising fish-eating countries will need well-regulated value chain development to bring safe nutritious products to market at scale. Investors (local and international) and food processors will need to understand the potential of the sector, so it was heartening that one social enterprise producing fish-based snacks was present.

If nothing else, this workshop will have refocused participants’ minds on nutritional outcomes being as critical as other sustainability objectives, and extended and enriched the networks of all who attended.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the Innovative Methods and Metrics for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions (IMMANA) blog.