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The World's Aquatic Genetic Resources: Status and Needs

by the Fish Site Editor
18 June 2007, at 1:00am

By FAO.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Genetic resources within the fisheries and aquaculture sector
  3. The need of coherent aquatic genetic resources policies and management
  4. Mapping the international environment with respect to aquatic genetic resources
  5. Proposals for initiating coverage of aquatic genetic resources in the Multi-year Programme of Work
  6. Draft timetable for the Multi-year Programme of Work
  7. Advice sought from the Commission

I. Introduction

  1. The 28th Session of the FAO Conference that decided to broaden the mandate of its Commission on Plant Genetic Resources (now the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) to cover all components of biodiversity of relevance to food and agriculture, recognized that approaches to plant, forestry, animal and fish genetic resources are different and require specialized expertise in each field, and that the implementation of the broadened mandate of the Commission should be step by step.

  2. The time has now come to address aquatic genetic resources and in 2004, at its Tenth Session, the Commission agreed that its Secretariat, in cooperation with FAO’s relevant services, should submit to its Eleventh Session a Multi-Year Programme of Work (MYPOW)1; the Secretariat was asked to document the status and needs of the various sectors, including fisheries.

  3. For this purpose, the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture with support of the Commission Secretariat, and in collaboration with the World Fisheries Trust (WFT)2, convened in 2006 a workshop of internationally recognized experts to review the status of and trends in genetic resources for aquaculture and capture fisheries3.

  4. The elaboration and elements of the MYPOW complement other activities within the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department’s regular programme. In 1995 the FAO Conference unanimously adopted the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries that established principles and standards applicable to the conservation, management and development of fisheries and aquaculture. In 2006, at its Sixth Session, the FAO Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research recommended that strengthening FAO’s partnership through the Commission for work on fish genetic resources would be timely, as genetic resources were becoming increasingly important in view of their roles in improved aquaculture production and threats to biodiversity and genetic resource conservation4. In regards to the MYPOW, the 27th Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries5, “... welcomed the proposed work on genetic resources management in fisheries and aquaculture”.

  5. This working document describes the aquaculture and capture fisheries sector, the status of fish genetic resources for aquaculture and capture fisheries and the need for coherent policies for and management of aquatic genetic resources. Throughout this working document, management is defined as use and conservation. The international environment for work on aquatic genetic resources is then broadly mapped and proposals follow for initiating coverage of fish genetic resources in the MYPOW. Guidance on these proposals is then sought from the Commission.

II. Genetic Resources Within the Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector

Importance of fish for food security and poverty reduction

  1. Production from capture fisheries increased substantially during the mid- to late 20th century and has levelled off in many areas of the world; aquaculture production continues to expand, especially in developing countries (Figure 1). Fish and fish products are important sources of high quality animal protein, and health giving lipids and micronutrients. The chains of fish supply, from aquaculture and capture fisheries, through post harvest processing and fish trade, provide important livelihood opportunities and incomes.


  1. FAO’s reviews of world aquaculture and capture fisheries6 indicate that:
  • approximately 236 species of fish, invertebrates and plants were farmed in 2004; over 1000 species were harvested from the world’s capture fisheries;

  • fish provide more than 2.6 billion people with at least 20% of their animal protein intake and that an additional 40 million tonnes of fish per year will be required by 2030;

  • aquaculture and capture fisheries employ at least 38 million persons;

  • in 2004, world aquaculture production of fish and aquatic plants was 59.4 million tonnes, valued at US$ 70.3 billion;

  • in 2004, world capture fisheries production (excluding plants) was 95.0 million tonnes, valued at about US$ 84.9 billion;

  • in 2004, total world export of fish and fish products trade was 52.8 million tonnes worth US$ 71.5 billion.
  1. About 90% of world aquaculture production and most of the world’s capture fisheries production come from developing countries and are a vital source of food security and employment for the rural and urban poor.

Types of aquaculture

  1. Aquaculture is as diverse as agriculture in its range of farmed species and wide variety of production systems. The major groups of farmed aquatic organisms are: finfish; crustaceans; molluscs; other aquatic invertebrates such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers; and aquatic plants, including seaweeds and freshwater macrophytes.
  2. The contribution of aquaculture to world fish production (excluding plants) has grown from 3.9% in 1970 to about 35% and this growth is continuing (Figure 1). Aquaculture also provides increasing proportions of the world’s supply of ornamental aquatic organisms, retail sales of which were valued at US$ 3 billion in 2000. About 84% of aquaculture production currently comes from Asia but aquaculture has high scope for growth in all developing regions.
  3. Aquaculture takes place in fresh-, brackish- and marine waters; in lakes, rivers reservoirs, farm ponds, ricefields, lagoons, coastal waters and the open sea. Production systems range from natural, modified or artificial systems where populations use natural feeds, to semi-intensive aquaculture systems and intensive ponds, pens, cages, tanks and other containments. Fish farms and hatcheries range in size from small-scale/backyard to large scale corporate ventures, some resembling broiler poultry farming operations.
  4. Fish production from culture-based fisheries (CBF) is usually included in aquaculture production statistics because these fisheries rely upon the release of large numbers of hatcheryreared fish. These are released to water bodies for subsequent harvest as adults. Successful CBF include the stocking of carps in lakes and reservoirs, the release of salmon that can be harvested on their return migrations, and the stocking of some marine finfish and invertebrates in relatively enclosed coastal waters.
  5. In capture-based aquaculture (CBA), fish seed of species for which mass production in captivity is not yet practical are taken from the wild and then fattened in fish farms. This type of aquaculture is currently enjoying success with species such as eels, groupers and tunas, but faces some constraints from overexploitation of the wild seed fisheries, high feeding costs and the need to avoid adverse environmental impacts.

Types of capture fisheries

  1. Capture fisheries are also extremely diverse in type and scale. They take place in inland, coastal and oceanic waters: from mountain streams to the deep sea. Fishing gear and vessels range from simple handlines operated by individual fishers to industrial vessels that are as long as football pitches and able to fish in all seas. Between these extremes there is a huge diversity of nets, dredges, traps and other fishing gears, operated from shorelines and from a wide range of inland, coastal and open sea vessels.
  2. Compared to recent expansion and high scope for growth of aquaculture, most of the world’s marine capture fisheries are already fully exploited or in decline, largely through overexploitation and ecosystem damage. Their continuation and rehabilitation will require in many instances improved management to address socioeconomic and ecological constraints.
  3. Most inland fisheries face similar problems with the added complication that freshwater and inland ecosystems are used by other sectors that impinge on fishery resources, e.g. hydroelectric power generation, navigation, irrigation. Most inland fisheries have limited scope for growth, though some are of high local importance. Poor persons have traditionally supplemented their diets and income by fishing with simple nets and lines in inland and coastal waters. For 4 CGRFA-11/07/15.2 example, the rich aquatic biodiversity of some Asian rice -field ecosystems provides over 100 species of aquatic plants and animals of use to humans.
  4. Deepwater fisheries operate on continental slopes and seamounts and extend from 400 m down to around 1200 m though trawling is possible to a depth of 2000 m. Many deepwater fisheries target species that are slow growing and are highly vulnerable to overexploitation. Many stocks of such fisheries have declined. Substantial landings are derived from fisheries that are not regulated by any regional fisheries management organization and thus do not have the protection of management plans. Many small-scale deepwater fisheries may target stocks with annual sustainable yields of only a few hundred tonnes, however, these are important for some small island states. Deepwater fisheries, as with those in more shallow waters, target resources that are valuable fishery genetic resources and need characterization and management7.

Status of Aquatic Genetic Resources

  1. Fish genetic resources comprise the DNA; genes; gametes; wild, farmed and research populations; species; and genetically altered forms - selectively bred strains, hybrids, polyploids, and transgenes - of all exploited and potentially exploitable finfish and aquatic invertebrates.
  2. Fish genetic resources management merits high emphasis in ecosystem approaches to the development of responsible aquaculture and ecosystem-based management of responsible capture fisheries. Fish genetic resources help determine the performance of the farmed fish and their interactions, including genetic interactions, with aquatic biodiversity. In capture fisheries, fish genetic resources help determine the productivity of fished populations and their adaptability to environmental change, including climate change.
  3. Aquatic genetic resources encompass also the genetic diversity of farmed and harvested aquatic plants, which are plant genetic resources, but have not yet been adequately covered by the Commission and by other organizations that are participating in policymaking for and management of plant genetic resources.
  4. The most important fish genetic resources for aquaculture and capture fisheries by species groups are:
  • for aquaculture - carps, catfishes, milkfish, salmon, tilapias, mussels, oysters and shrimps, as well as their wild relatives;
  • for inland capture fisheries - carps, catfishes, characins, salmonids; tilapias and other cichlids;
  • for marine capture food fisheries - small and large pelagic fishes, reef fishes, sharks and other elasmobranchs, demersal fishes, and diadromous migratory fishes such as salmon and sturgeons;
  • for marine industrial and low value/trash fish fisheries – small pelagic and demersal species that provide fishmeal and fish oil for farmed animal and fish feeds.
  1. Important plant genetic resources for farmed aquatic plants include those for marine seaweeds and freshwater macrophytes.
  2. With few exceptions, substantial domestication and genetic improvement of farmed fish is not as advanced as in the crop and livestock sectors. This is now changing for some widely farmed aquatic species, with rapid benefits to fish farmers and fish consumers.
  3. Fish genomics is also developing rapidly and is seen as having many potential applications including marker-assisted selection for the genetic improvement of farmed fish, accurate identification of fish genetic resources for their conservation and use, and the diagnosis and prevention of fish diseases. The farming of distinct strains, hybrids, mono-sex populations, polyploids, is increasing, bringing increased needs for effective biosecurity procedures. Private sector research for the development of biotechnological products and processes in aquaculture and capture fisheries is increasing.
1 CGRFA-10/04/REP, para. 83 – 91.
2 www.worldfish.org.
3 Background Study Paper XX. The Status and trends in aquatic genetic resources: a basis for international policy: Report of a Workshop.
4 FAO 2006. Report of the Sixth Session of the Advisory Committee on Fisheries Research, Rome, 17-20 October 2006. FAO Fisheries Report No. 812. 22p.
5 Report of the 27th Session of the Committee on Fisheries 5-9 March, 2007, Rome.
6 FAO (2006) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture; and FAO (2007) State of World Aquaculture 2006.
7 Shotton, R. 2006. Deepwater Fisheries. Pages 188-200 in, State of the World Marine Fishery Resources. FAO, Rome.

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June 2007

the Fish Site Editor