Aquaculture for all

Fish in the Global Food Chain: Challenges and Opportunities

Economics +1 more

Fish plays an important role in the worlds food system. In the rich world it is increasingly seen as a healthy luxury food, but in many developing countries it still constitutes an important part of the staple diet, writes Grimur Valdimarsson Director, Fish Products and Industry Division, Food and Agriculture Organisation.


Capture fisheries and aquaculture supplied the world with about 106 million tonne of food fish in 2004, providing an apparent per capita supply of 16.6 kg (live weight equivalent – LWE). Of this total, aquaculture accounted for 43 per cent. However, because of the overwhelming importance of China in aquaculture production, this figure drops to 22 per cent for the world without China. Figure 1 shows development of fish production.

In 2004, per capita food fish supply was estimated at 13.5 kg, if data for China are excluded. Overall, fish provided more than 2.6 billion people with at least 20 per cent of their average per capita animal protein intake. The share of fish protein in total world animal protein supplies grew from 14.9 per cent in 1992 to a peak of 16.0 per cent in 1996, declining to about 15.5 per cent in 2003. Notwithstanding the relatively low fish consumption by weight in lowincome food-deficit countries (LIFDCs) the contribution of fish to total animal protein intake was significant—at about 20 per cent—and is probably higher than indicated by official statistics in view of the unrecorded contribution of subsistence fisheries (FAO, 2007). Figure 2 shows how fish supply per capita has been constantly increasing.

It is expected that fish consumption will go up in both developed and developing countries alike (FAO, 2005a). Not only has the availability of fish and fishery products been increasing, but FAO estimates that total food production in the world measured on a per capita basis has also been steadily increasing over the last 30 years, averaging an annual growth rate of 1.2 per cent over the last decade. This growth has been much higher in developing countries than developed countries. Despite this good news, the world is faced with the sad fact that in 2000 to 2002 it was estimated that 852 million people were undernourished. Food security is a complex phenomenon that relates more to economic development and poverty than to increasing production per se (FAO, 2005b).

From 1982 to 2002, the increase in fish consumption has been much in line with that of pig meat, but albeit lower in consumption; chicken meat consumption has been growing faster; whereas consumption of bovine meat has been decreasing (FAO, 2005c). Figure 3 shows the developments in fish and meat consumption.

There is a renewed international commitment to fight hunger, not the least by FAO and its programme termed “The Right to Food”, and FAO Council has produced specific “Right to Food Guidelines”. This work is based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

Figure 1 : Development of fisheries production in the last half-century

Figure 2 : Changes in fish supply and utilization over the last half-century

Figure 3 : Comparative development of fish versus meat production, 1961-2002

Two international targets for hunger reduction have been established. The World Food Summit in 1996 set a target of halving the absolute number by 2015, but the Millennium Summit in 2000 set a somewhat less ambitious target of halving the percentage of hungry by 2015. Regrettably, it seems obvious that neither of these targets are likely to be reached.

The explosive growth in fisheries and aquaculture over past decades has been accompanied by a boom in international fish trade. In 2004, total world trade in fish and fishery products reached a record value of US$71.5 billion (export value), representing 23 per cent growth relative to 2000 and 51 per cent increase since 1994. Preliminary estimates for 2005 indicate a further increase in the value of fishery exports. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), exports of fish and fishery products increased by 17.3 per cent during the period 2000–04, 18.2 per cent during 1994–2004 and 143.9 per cent between 1984 and 2004. Fish is traded widely, so today it can be said that fish from all corners of the world can be found on the international market. In 2004, about 38 per cent of all fish produced (LWE) was exported as various food and feed products. Developed countries exported some 23 million tonne of fish (LWE) in 2004. Although a part of this trade may be re-exports, this amount corresponds to about 75 per cent of their production. Exports from developing countries (30 million tonne LWE) totalled around one-quarter of their combined production, but, remarkably, the share of developing countries in total fishery exports was 48 per cent by value and 57 per cent by quantity (FAO, 2007).

The globalization of fisheries and the wide participation by both developed and developing countries in world fish trade is testing the current and emerging regulatory framework regarding safety and quality regimes, but today’s environmental concerns are increasingly coming into play in a marketplace that is ever more competitive.

State of fish stocks

FAO estimates that 52 per cent of fish stocks are fully fished to Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), whereas 25 per cent of the stocks are overfished, and only 23 per cent of the stocks could produce more (FAO, 2007). It has taken a while for the sector to come to grips with the fact that there are practically no more virgin fisheries to be developed. The widely used interpretation of MSY is now increasingly contested by fishery biologists, because it is currently widely interpreted as a goal to be reached rather that the absolute maximum, and thus outside safe limits. Therefore, the “fully utilized” fisheries are exceeding precautionary and sensible limits. Yet, this situation has been relatively stable over the past 10–15 years.

Moreover, there is general agreement that aquatic ecosystems are in decline in most parts of the world. The cause is well publicized in the news media: widespread overfishing, coastal degradation, and pollution. This is all well documented and has been a media favourite for years. The focus of the media has been very much on the outcome of failed fisheries management rather than on their causes.

The long list of problems negatively affecting fisheries include:

  • overfishing, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), on a significant scale;
  • overcapacity and overcapitalization—which means too many vessels chasing too few fish, increasing the risk of collapse;
  • by-catch and discards, and the negative impacts of these on biodiversity; and
  • degradation of aquatic habitats and ecosystems: primarily coastal, adding fishing to other land-based stresses, but degradation is also apparent in high seas areas.

The increase in the number of coastal fishers and fishing vessels over the last decades is one of the major contributors to overexploitation of fisheries resources.

There is widespread agreement that capture fisheries plays an important part in these problems and fisheries as a sector is on the defence. Indirect environmental effects of fishing—such as entanglement of marine mammals in lost fishing gear—can be another problem often highlighted in the media. Unregulated aquaculture can also degrade the coastal system.

There is an agreement among politicians, industry, NGOs and the public that sustainable and responsible fisheries must be achieved because, despite the limits on capture fisheries production, these fisheries continue to be very important for many countries, in terms of both income and nutrition. Therefore, the issue of how to restrain capture fisheries and prevent further overfishing is gaining wider attention.

Why is managing fisheries so difficult?

The main message coming from analyses around the world is this: the methods by which the world has chosen to govern fisheries are largely ineffective in restraining an ever increasing fishing effort. But perhaps more seriously, as many authors have pointed out, is that today’s management objectives are often unclear or even contradictory (Cochrane, 2000; Cochrane and Doulman, 2005). In addition, when cultural values or socio-economic objectives of fisheries are also taken into account, management does indeed become complicated. This, of course, makes management of fisheries more difficult than for most other production systems, which simply concentrate on producing goods that the market wants at competitive prices.

When the need for limiting the amount of fish caught first became generally acknowledged, fisheries agencies focused on the need to ensure that enough fish remained in the water to keep reproducing. However, this biological mandate expanded as new instruments were developed. The Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 of the Summit on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries are all instruments that recognize the nutritional, economic, social, environmental and cultural importance of fisheries and the interests of all those concerned with the fishery sector—in addition to the need for biological considerations. In summary, contemporary thinking focuses not only on the biological sustainability of the fishery sector, but also on its contribution to the economy and society as a whole.

This author believes that the various futile attempts to manage fisheries have somewhat echoed the seductive inexhaustibility idea, i.e. some restrictions to fishing may be necessary but that it is not necessary to be too pedantic about it as “long gives the ocean”. Exact landing figures are really not necessary—keep the accountants away. Ironically, the main lesson that we have learnt—or should have learnt—about fisheries over the last decades is that sooner or later the open or semi-open access fisheries will suffer from overfishing.

Whereas we have extensive literature and persistent media attention highlighting the symptoms of poor fisheries management policies, and texts describing where we want fisheries to be, there has been much less attention given to the fundamental flaws in current management policies and to what is at the heart of getting to sustainable fisheries. The fisheries management failures, largely the institutional ones, were neatly summarized by (Garcia, 2005) as:

  • the free and open nature of fisheries (lack of enforceable rights);
  • perspectives of short-term political or financial gain or losses;
  • poor decision-making processes (in Regional Fisheries Management Organizations [RFMOs]);
  • the poor participatory nature of most systems (top-down systems);
  • lack of transparency and accountability;
  • weak enforcement (both at national and regional levels); and
  • scientific uncertainty (affecting the precision of the advice) and errors (affecting the accuracy of interpretations).

Small-scale fisheries versus large-scale fisheries

By far the highest number of fishermen operate small, non-motorized vessels. Various names are given to these fisheries, such as artisanal, small-scale or subsistence fisheries. The numbers of these fishers has been constantly rising over the last decades and were estimated to be over 41 million in 2004, including some 11 million fish farmers, but often the same individuals are engaged in both (FAO, 2007). In contrast, fishers in industrialized countries were estimated to be about 1 million. The contribution of the small-scale fleet to fish for human consumption may be as high as 50 per cent.

The distinction between the small-scale fisheries and the large-scale (or industrialized) fisheries is not clear cut. Traditionally, the small-scale sector has been seen to be very important for local food security or subsistence, and the industrial fishing fleet for exports and thus generating financial revenues. This distinction is becoming more blurred with time as it now acknowledged that pure subsistence fisheries are indeed very rare, and that almost all fisheries involve some kind of economic activity in terms of trade or barter.

Due to technological advances, smaller vessels are getting much more effective at locating and catching fish and they are increasingly engaged in fisheries that aim for marketing the products on the international market. Due to increased pressures on inshore areas there is now mounting pressure to “professionalize” the small-scale fisheries sector so as to make fishing effort commensurate with the productive capacity of the resources. This is particularly important in the light of the economic and nutritional dependency on these fisheries by millions of coastal people. The importance of involving the stakeholders in the fisheries decision-making process is becoming increasingly recognized, as well as devolving fisheries management to the communities themselves, and establishing defined fishing rights plays a significant role in various types of co-management arrangements.

Ecosystem approach

The obvious failures of the methods currently employed to govern capture fisheries have spawned a swathe of suggestions as to how that situation can be improved. An obvious one is that the classical single-species focus is inadequate, as each fish stock is only one piece in the whole eco-puzzle. Taking one species out of the system has various consequences for all the other components. Thus, the ecosystem approach to fisheries management aims at looking at the bigger picture—a more holistic approach.

Collectively, the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the 2001 Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem and the 2002 Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development establish an ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF).

The interactions between fisheries and the ecosystem can include direct impacts of the fishery on target species, on by-catch species (whether retained or discarded) and on critical or important habitats. Indirect impacts of fishing are typically transmitted through the food web: for example, heavy fishing of a prey species is likely to lead to a decline in abundance and productivity of its predators, which may be target species for other fisheries, or constitute food for higher marine life.

In all cases, a pragmatic approach to EAF needs to make use of the best available information with reasonable application of the precautionary approach in a participatory manner. Good progress is being made in this way in Australia (e.g. Fletcher et al., 2005), the Alaska region of the United States of America (Fluharty, 2005) and by Angola, Namibia and South Africa, the countries of the Benguela Current large marine ecosystem (Cochrane et al., 2007).

Nevertheless, high levels of scientific uncertainty are a significant obstacle in many cases to implementation of EAF. The Reykjavik Conference on Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Ecosystem reinforced the point that ecosystems, as such, cannot be controlled. They are simply too complicated. “As the models become more detailed and complex, they are able to address more issues that are of concern to managers, but at the same time it becomes ever more difficult to interpret results” (Stefansson,2003).

Thus ecosystems as such cannot be managed, but only the human activities exploiting them (FAO, 2003a). And for the human activities to be amenable to management, the incentive structures have to be right. Fishing rights and responsibilities must go hand in hand (Garcia and Boncoeur, 2004) because without rights there is little reason for fishers to engage in responsible fishing (France and Exel, 2000). Defined and secure fishing rights are the core of what is good fisheries governance (Sinclair et al., 2002). Finally, the main conclusions of an FAO study on non-sustainability and overexploitation in fisheries (FAO, 2003c) were:

  • Poor governance is a major cause of the inability to attain sustainable fisheries. Failure to have good governance is in itself sufficient for fisheries management to fail.
  • There is a need to grant secure rights to resource users (individually or collectively) for the use of a portion of the resource, space, or other relevant aspect of the fishery.
  • Inappropriate incentives and lack of good governance are often predominant issues preventing sustainability, and both link to the absence of secure rights.

Whatever way the “Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries Management” might develop, it is clear that it will require far more information to be collected about the fishing operations than hitherto, and that such information will have to be presented to the authorities, and even to society at large, in a manner that is transparent and verifiable. To prove compliance with ecosystem-related standards, fishing operations would have to address and report such things as amount of by-catch and incidental catch of seabirds, turtles and dolphins, to name only a few. Ultimately, as with other Quality Management Systems (QMSs), the fish producers will have to be able to prove that they have complied through auditing and verification by independent inspection bodies.

The industry will request that the objectives of eco-certification be set clearly, specifying what information will need to be collected and how that information will be used. That underlines the all-important issue of incentives for such an undertaking, and the cost implications (Valdimarsson and Metzner, 2005).

Since the launch of the Marine Stewardship Council in 1996, retailers have increasingly committed their companies to sell only fish that comes from sustainable fishery resources. They see this as a response to apparent consumer demands. Many leading food retailers in the developed world have now decided to sell only fishery products that are sustainably harvested, and that carry a statement to that effect. This is already putting significant pressure on both governments and the industry to set in place processes to respond to these demands. FAO has made guidelines that lay out the basic requirements for such Ecolabelling schemes (FAO, 2005d).

Utilization of fish

In 2004, about 75 per cent (105.6 million tonne) of estimated world fish production was used for direct human consumption, and the remaining 25 per cent (34.8 million tonne) was processed into feeds, mostly fishmeal and oil (FAO, 2007), besides 7.3 million tonne discarded (see below).

Some 61 per cent (86 million tonne) of the world’s fish production (2004 figures) underwent some form of processing, and 59 per cent (51 million tonne) of this processed fish was used for manufacturing products for direct human consumption in frozen, cured and canned form. The rest went for non-food uses. Unlike many other food products, processing fish does not necessarily increase the price of the final product, and fresh fish is often the most highly priced product form.

Freezing is the main method of processing fish for food use, accounting for 53 per cent of total processed fish for human consumption in 2004, followed by canning (24 per cent) and curing (23 per cent). In developed countries, the proportion of fish that is frozen has been constantly increasing, and in 2004 accounted for 40 per cent of total production. In comparison, the share of frozen products was 13 per cent of total production in developing countries.

Utilization of fish production shows marked continental, regional and national differences. The proportion of cured fish is higher in Africa (17 per cent in 2004) and Asia (11 per cent) compared with other continents. In Europe and North America, more than two-thirds of fish used for human consumption was in frozen and canned forms. Fish for non-food purposes comes mostly from natural stocks of small pelagics, and some 90 per cent of such catches were processed into fishmeal, with the remaining 10 per cent being utilized directly for aquafeed or as feed for fur animals.

By-catch, i.e. non- targeted species and discards, is seen as an important issue in fisheries. In 1994, FAO estimated that the global discard could be as high as 27 million tonne annually. A more recent study by FAO re-estimated this figure by analysing data over a 10-year period (1992 to 2002) and came up with a very much lower figure of 7.3 million tonne (FAO, 2005e). Most of the discards (over 50 per cent) are associated with trawl fisheries for tropical shrimp and demersal finfish.

Lower discard figures are probably a reflection of the fact that more of the by-catch is retained for use, particularly as feed for the booming aquaculture fish industry. From a utilization perspective, good use can be made of everything that comes out of the water, which puts the “by-catch” issue into a new perspective. This development, of course, underlines the need for effective fisheries management systems that properly address the need to protect spawning fish and their offspring.


The wild capture fisheries potential worldwide is largely at its limit: it has reached a plateau. Increases in wild capture fisheries would have to come through restoring overfished populations by vastly improved management practices. All projections point to increased demand for fishery products in the future, and it is evident that aquaculture will play a crucial role in satisfying that demand. The large amount of fish entering international fish trade will continue keep fish prices relatively high, and this may compromise access of the poor to adequate fish protein.

Over recent decades, the fish processing sector of the industry has gone through a significant change in philosophy concerning how to respond to ever more demanding product safety and quality regimes. In large, the successful approach has been to move away from centralized government controls towards making the industry responsible for implementing “self control” systems that are verified and audited by governments.

Such systems require clearly specified objectives and ample record keeping for industry to be able to prove due diligence. A similar approach could well apply in complying with the new environmental demands, particularly at the hands of the large retailers that are increasingly committing their companies to sustainably sourced seafood.

To balance the utilization and conservation points of view, more effective and more sophisticated managements systems are being developed. Experience shows that for such systems to evolve, secure, legally binding fishing rights are necessary. Secure fishing rights foster responsible fisheries, leading to long-term stewardship of the fishery resources and their ecosystem.

July 2009

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