Aquaculture for all

Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture for Food Security and Nutrition

Sustainability Economics +1 more

This report from The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutritionaddresses a frequently overlooked but extremely important part of world food and nutrition security: the role and importance of fish in seeking food and nutrition security for all.

Lucy Towers thumbnail

Fish, either produced through fish farming/aquaculture activity or caught from wild marine or freshwater stocks, is a primary source of protein and essential nutrients, and there is a growing recognition of its nutritional and health-promoting qualities. Fish is one of the most efficient converters of feed into high quality food. Fish and fish-related products provide income and livelihoods for numerous communities across the world.

The contribution of fisheries and aquaculture to food security and nutrition now and in the future is driven by many interactions between several environmental, development, policy and governance issues.

The need to feed a growing global population, and to address a growing demand for fish, puts pressure on natural resources and challenges the sustainability of marine and inland fisheries and of aquaculture development. It also raises several issues relating to the management of fish value chains to realise the right to food of fishing communities and to make fish available for all. It also questions the roles and contributions of the various actors (fishing communities, smallholders and international fishing companies, etc.) in a very diverse and heterogeneous sector, prone to significant inequalities.

In this context, in October 2012, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) requested the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) to conduct a policy oriented, practical and operational study on the role of sustainable fisheries and aquaculture for food security and nutrition, considering the environmental, social and economic aspects of fisheries including artisanal fisheries, as well as a review of aquaculture development.

Recognizing the importance of fish for food security and nutrition, what should be done to maintain or even enhance this contribution now and in the long term, given the challenges that both the fisheries and aquaculture sectors are facing in terms of sustainability and governance, and given the economic constraints and demographic conditions that they have to respond to? This report seeks to address this question.

Main findings

Fish as a critical food source

  • Today capture fisheries and aquaculture provide 3.0 billion people with almost 20 per cent of their average per capita intake of animal protein, and a further 1.3 billion people with about 15 per cent of their per capita intake. This share can exceed 50 per cent in some countries. In West African coastal countries, where fisheries have historically been a central element in local economies, the proportion of total dietary protein from fish is remarkably high: e.g. more than 60 per cent in the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Likewise, in Asia, where fisheries are extremely important and fish farming has developed rapidly over the last 30 years: total dietary protein from fish is between 50 and 60 per cent in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Fish provides a similarly significant proportion of protein in the human diets in most small island states (e.g. almost 60 per cent in Maldives).

  • Overall, 158 million tonnes of fish were produced in 2012 (91.3 million tonnes from inland and marine capture fisheries and 66.6 million tonnes from inland and marine aquaculture), of which 136 million tonnes were used for human consumption. The continual growth in fish production – mostly from aquaculture since the 1990s – and improved production efficiency and distribution channels enabled the supply of fish for food per-capita to more than triple at world level since 1950, from 6 kg/cap/yr in 1950 to 19.2 kg/cap/yr in 2012. However, this global figure masks some important regional distinctions. Asia accounts for almost two-thirds of global fish consumption and 21.4 kg per capita in 2011 – a level similar to Europe (22.0 kg/cap/yr) and North America (21.7 kg/cap/yr). Africa, Latin America and Near-East have lowest per-capita consumption (10.4, 9.9 and 9.3 kg/cap/yr in 2011, respectively). Oceania has highest levels per capita at 25.1 kg/cap/yr.

  • World population growth, but more importantly the combination of urbanization, increased levels of development, living standards and income are key drivers of the increase of fish and seafood demand and of fisheries development. Demand has been rising in both the developed and developing world at more than 2.5 per cent per year since 1950 and, as wealth increases in highly populated countries such as China and India, demand is likely to continue its rise.

Fish has received little attention in food security and nutrition strategies

  • Limited attention has been given so far to fish as a key element in food security and nutrition strategies at national level and in wider development discussions and interventions. Specialist fisheries debates have concentrated predominantly on questions of biological sustainability and on the economic efficiency of fisheries, neglecting issues linked to their contribution to reducing hunger and malnutrition and to supporting livelihoods. Yet increased consumption of fish, and its addition to the diets of low income populations (including pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children), offers important means for improving food security and nutrition for several reasons. First, the bioavailability of fish protein is approximately 5–15 per cent higher than that from plant sources. Fish also contains several amino acids essential for human health; especially lysine and methionine. Second, the lipid composition of fish is unique, having long-chain, poly-unsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) with many potential beneficial effects for adult health and child development. Many low-cost, small pelagic fish such as anchovy and sardine are some of the richest sources of LC-PUFAs. Third, fish is an important source of essential micronutrients – vitamins D, A and B, minerals (calcium, phosphorus, iodine, zinc, iron and selenium) – especially so for many small fish species that are consumed whole (with bones, heads, and viscera).

Risks and pressures affecting the world fisheries

  • Since the early 1990s, numerous media headlines, scientific papers and environmental campaigns have been framed around the idea that all world fisheries resources are in crisis as a result of overfishing. This crisis narrative has some substance. FAO categorizes fish stocks either as underexploited, moderately exploited, fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering. Analyses of world marine stocks show an increase in the per centage of overexploited and depleted stocks over time, while the number of underexploited or moderately exploited stocks decreases. Overall, world capture fisheries production has plateaued since the mid-1990s around 90 million tonnes per year.

  • Fish caught can end-up being dumped overboard (discarded) – either due to accidental by-catch of non-targeted species or legally undersized fish, or due to low quality, partial damage or spoilage – making them not being commercially worth landing. The volume of fish discards varies greatly between fisheries and within fisheries, with discard rates ranging from negligible in some small-scale coastal fisheries or in Atlantic herring fisheries, to 70-90 per cent for some demersal trawl fisheries. Global discard volumes are particularly challenging to estimate, and any global figure is prone to significant uncertainty. The latest report published by FAO in 2005 on the issue has given an estimate of an 8 per cent global discard rate of the world total capture fisheries, with a lower rate of 3.7 per cent for small-scale fisheries.

  • Recent data confirm that the period of high investment in large-size vessels, which peaked around the mid-1980s, is largely over. However, in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs, 200 nautical miles from the coast), where both large and smaller operators are present, the total number and power of smaller boats have increased substantially over the same period. As a consequence, global fishing capacity is still very high and, with some notable exceptions, the required adjustments in fishing capacities have not yet happened. Many fishery resources are severely depleted and subsidies (often in the form of subsidised fuel) continue. Detailed attributed amounts of these subsidies are not systematically made public everywhere.

  • When the environment, production ecosystems and/or the resources bases (fish stocks) are degraded or overexploited, the capacities of the sector to deliver its food security and nutrition functions are limited or reduced. The sustainability of fisheries in their environmental and natural resource dimensions is therefore recognized to be a sine qua non condition for food security and nutrition. In practice, however, the links between the two are complex and remain not sufficiently documented. In addition, food security and nutrition outcomes of fisheries would not depend only on stock recovery but also on access to, and distribution, of the harvest.

  • The impacts of activities such as oil drilling, energy installations, coastal development and construction of ports and other coastal infrastructures, dams and water flow management (especially for inland fisheries), etc. have tremendous impacts on aquatic productivity, on habitats that sustain resources (e.g. erosion and pollution), or on the livelihoods of fishing communities (e.g. through denial of access to fishing grounds or displacement from coastal settlements). Conservation activities and the establishment of Marine Protected Areas can also impact on the livelihoods of local fishing communities.

  • Climate change impacts are already visible, with modifications of the geographic distribution of species and warmer water species moving towards the poles, ocean acidification and changes in coastal conditions that affect habitat. This has various impacts on production. Inland fisheries and aquaculture may face higher mortality due to heat waves, water scarcity and competition for water. Climate change impacts on fish-dependent populations will depend on the evolution of fishing opportunities (evolution of resources available, entitlements and capacities to fish, evolution of operational costs in production and marketing) and the evolution of prices. Impacts of extreme events are increasing, with more risks of damage or loss of infrastructure and housing. Sea level rise might lead to the relocation of communities.

Opportunities and challenges in aquaculture

  • In the last three decades, farmed fish production has increased 12 times at an average annual growth of over 8 per cent, making it the fastest growing food production sector. It is now widely agreed that the foreseen future increase in demand for fish will have to be satisfied through aquaculture production.

  • Aquaculture fish convert more of their feed into body mass than terrestrial animals. For instance, the production of 1 kg of beef (resp. pork and fish) protein requires 61 kg (resp. 38 kg and 13 kg) of grain. Moreover, aquatic animal production systems also have a lower carbon footprint per kilogram of output compared with other terrestrial animal production systems. Nitrogen and phosphorous emissions from aquaculture production systems are much lower compared to beef and pork production systems though they are slightly higher than those of poultry.

  • Aquaculture is expected to continue growing – although at a slightly lower rate than until recently – and there is a strong interest amongst different actors (public, private) in many countries to engage in this activity.
  • Aquaculture development came also with a range of challenges and externalities - including some affecting food security, but aquaculture experts are now more confident that the era of severe environmental problems has passed and that aquaculture is on the road of being more environmentally sustainable.

  • Often, previously existing land and water uses have been disturbed by the development of aquaculture, affecting the livelihoods of many – including a large number of fisherfolks. As more space is progressively allocated to aquaculture operations on lakes, water-bodies or along the coast, smaller wild stocks and more congestion are likely to affect the fishing activities in the areas remaining open for wild harvest. Conflicts are common when aquaculture is introduced into a region where fishery activities are already established, particularly at subsistence level.

  • As for livestock production, fish diseases (e.g. the early mortality syndrome), are a constant threat to production and therefore to local livelihoods. The use of antibiotics and chemicals in intensive systems are also sources of concern and many countries have put in place regulations on the use of antibiotics, drugs and chemicals in aquaculture production.

  • The potential release of aquaculture stock in the environment can constitute a risk for wild populations (e.g. risk of invasive species, or of genetically modified fish becoming invasive or crossing with wild varieties) and ecosystems.

  • Fish is also used as fishmeal and fish oil to feed carnivorous and omnivorous farmed fish and crustacean species (such as salmon, trout, tuna, shrimp and tilapia), poultry and other livestock. This use of fish “to feed the fish”, called reduction, has been highly controversial although the proportion of global fish production used as fishmeal has decreased from an average of 23 per cent (26 million tonnes/yr) in the 1990s to 10 per cent in 2012 (16 million tonnes), thanks to development and use of fishmeal replacers, including plant proteins, waste products from fish and terrestrial animals and use of improved breeds of aquatic animals with better feed conversion. Yet from a food security and nutrition perspective, debate continues on whether it would not be preferable to use such fish directly for human consumption instead as for fishmeal, especially as ‘lower grade’ but nutritious fish could be consumed by food insecure people, instead of being used to feed fish consumed by wealthier consumers.

Small vs large scale fishing operations

  • It is estimated that more than 120 million people in the world depend directly on fisheries-related activities (fishing, processing, trading), a vast majority of them living in developing and emergent countries. Small-scale fisheries account for 90 per cent of fisher folk. Small-scale fisheries, as compared to larger scale fisheries, generally make broader direct and indirect contributions to food security: they make affordable fish available and accessible to poor populations and are a key mean to sustain livelihoods of marginalized and vulnerable populations in developing countries. The importance of small-scale fisheries (including inland fisheries) in terms of overall production and contribution to food security and nutrition is often underestimated or ignored. Catches from subsistence fishing are rarely included in national catch statistics. There is, however, sufficient evidence to support a focus on small-scale fisheries for food security and nutrition interventions in developing countries.

  • Larger-scale industrial fisheries can also contribute to the food security and nutrition of the poor in developing countries, especially when they favour the wide commercialization of cheap, easily stored and transported (e.g. canned) nutritious pelagic fish such as sardine, pilchard, herring, anchovy or even tuna. As noted in relation to international fish trade, revenues generated by large-scale operations can also contribute indirectly to food security through employment creation where legislation to protect decent working conditions is in place.

  • However, small- and large-scale fleets (e.g. trawlers) can compete for resources, fishing zones and gear, leading to conflicts in zones where they jointly operate, which in most cases increases small-scale operators’ vulnerability, threatens their well-being, incomes and food security. Such competition can also negatively impact on coastal habitats.

  • For aquaculture, whether scale of operation is neutral or not with respect to food security and nutrition outcomes is less clear. In Africa, small-scale, subsistence aquaculture has failed to deliver the anticipated reduction of poverty and food insecurity, and interest has now shifted towards slightly larger (i.e. medium-scale), more commercial-oriented enterprises, with the hope that this new model will be more successful at delivering food security outcomes. In Asia, however, the debate is still open. While some scholars claim that medium-scale enterprises are more effective at addressing poverty reduction and food security, the fact remains that 70–80 per cent of aquaculture production has come so far from small-scale farming.

Unsettled debates on fish trade

  • Fish is one of the most internationally traded foods. In 2012, international trade represented 37 per cent of the total fish production, with a total export value of 129 billion USD, of which 70 billion USD of developing countries’ exports. Evidence suggests that international fish trade can have mixed impacts on the well-being and food security and nutrition of local fishing populations. On one hand, some analysts point to the contribution that export revenues from fisheries make to local economies and extra government revenues, with opportunities to redeploy those for pro-poor interventions, including support for food security and nutrition. Additionally the growth and employment effects of fisheries development can have positive indirect consequences on the food security and nutrition of the poor. Other studies, on the other hand, have shown that in many cases very remunerative international fish trade generating millions of dollar of revenues co-exist with miserable living conditions for the local communities who have been displaced by industrial scale operators, or excluded from the trade by stringent commercial regulations, losing access to employment and to a rich food source. Existing evidence also suggests that developing nation governments have not always negotiated good agreements with foreign fishing operators for the resources extracted from their fisheries.

  • As countries compete in the global economy, national and international policies and interventions have so far provided strong support to international fish trade, often giving little attention and support to regional and domestic fisheries trade, despite its potential to improve food security and nutrition, especially for vulnerable groups. The large number of small-scale, informal producers and traders (mainly women) – who are usually marginalized by the globalization of fish trade oriented to a small number of globally traded species – would be able to better engage with the market opportunities created by domestic or regional trade, where demand exists for a diverse set of local species and products that small-scale fisheries can produce, and that are easier to commercialize at these levels. Focusing more policy attention, carefully devised interventions (such as development and market infrastructure) and research, on regional/domestic trade in developing countries would therefore help make more fish available locally, contributing to reduce a growing tension -which fish imports cannot alone alleviate- between the demand and supply of fish. In Africa, renewed focus on local trade of products could also provide a further stimulus for aquaculture, which has been contending with production challenges. Increased demand for fish by the growing urban (and rural) population could also boost investments in, for example, peri-urban aquaculture.

  • The main focus of fish certification schemes to date has been on ecolabelling to address environmental sustainability issues. These schemes are also progressively moving to include social responsibility and labour considerations, but have failed so far to include food security and nutrition considerations. With limited exceptions, certification concerns predominantly developed countries and large-scale fisheries. More work is needed on appropriate indicators of the food security and nutrition outcomes of fisheries operations so that improvements can be better targeted and monitored. As certification schemes currently operate, their effect on food security and nutrition is unclear.

Social protection and labour rights

  • Most of these fishers or farming/fish processing and/or trading people live in developing countries, earn low income, often depend on informal work. They are exposed to three levels of exclusion: the existence or not of regulations of work and social protection in a country; the fact that these apply or not to fisheries; the importance of informal work, without access to social protection schemes (unemployment or pension schemes, health insurance, etc.). Although the International Labour Organisation adopted the Work in Fishing Convention No 188 in 2007, progress towards ratification of the Covenant 188 concerning working conditions in the fishing sector has been slow especially in the developing world.

Gender equity

  • The first comprehensive attempt to estimate the number of fish workers found that 56 million, near half of the 120 million people who work in the capture fisheries sector and its supply chains, are women. This is essentially due to the very high number of female workers engaged in fish processing (including in processing factories) and in (informal) small-scale fish trading operations. However, small-scale fisheries and supply-chain jobs outside production are not well recorded, so the actual number of women may be higher. Comparable estimates are not yet available for the 38 million aquaculture sector workers.

  • Gender, along with intersectional factors (such as economic class, ethnic group, age or religion), is a key determinant of the many different ways by which fisheries and aquaculture affect food security and nutrition outcomes, availability, access, stability and diet adequacy, for the population groups directly involved in fish production and supply chains, but also beyond.

  • Men are dominant in direct production work in fisheries and aquaculture. Much of women’s work, such as gleaning, diving, post-harvest processing and vending, is not recognized or not well recorded, despite its economic and other contributions. Gender disaggregated data are not routinely collected and, partly as a result of this, little policy attention is given to women and to the gender dimension of the sector.


  • Governance is particularly important to determine access to fisheries resources, integrity of fisheries resources and distribution of fish benefits. In most countries, too little attention has been given to the ways different individuals and groups (including poorer and marginalized people in the fisheries and aquaculture supply chains, but also poor consumers more generally) will gain, lose, or be excluded from access to fish resources, to other productive supply chain assets, or to fish as a food commodity. In this regard, evidence suggest that human rights instruments are important effective tools to help ensure that states fulfil their obligations, including those pertaining to the right to food.

  • In the face of increasing and competitive economic exploitation of the oceans and freshwater, fish and food security and nutrition interests are usually acknowledged at the international level, but only in general and rhetorical terms. Analysis of existing international partnerships and initiatives reveals that detailed strategies linking production growth and sustainability to food security and nutrition are lacking.

  • With the notable exception of the UN-driven initiatives for which a very inclusive consultative process has been followed, most of the other recent ocean-related governance initiatives are deficient by their lack of representation of the small-scale operators from developing countries.

  • At the national level, the limited number of recent meta-analyses that are available show that both in terms of direct effects through access to and improved status of the resource base, and indirect pathways through income derived from fishing-related activities, co-management of fisheries’ resources has not yet delivered the expected improvements in food security and nutrition.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

September 2014

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