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Afishianado™ is an e-bulletin sent out periodically throughout the year that keeps you up-to-date on current industry and consumer trends, new market research and sustainable seafood efforts.


Afishianado, July 2012 - Fisheries & Food Security

Fisheries & Food Security

Fish are a healthy source of protein for people around the world, including those in developing countries with scarce nutritious resources. Small-scale fisheries in the developing world also supply millions of jobs that support local communities and ensure economic livelihoods. How will an increasing world population, a surge in large-scale fishing operations in developing countries, and diversion of forage fish into fishmeal for aquaculture affect the livelihoods and security of those relying on small-scale fishing for income and nutrition? These questions around fisheries and food security will be the topic of this issue of Afishianado, and will be discussed at the 10th International Seafood Summit in Hong Kong.

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Interview with Stephen Hall of the WorldFish Center

Stephen Hall co-authored a recent report titled "Blue Frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture" that addresses global fish food security.

Stephen Hall, Director General of Worldfish Center

  • Seafood Choices (SC): Why are fisheries and aquaculture a crucial part of ensuring a stable global food supply?

Stephen Hall (SH): The short answer is that, looking forward, more people will want to eat more fish. This is because, not only is the world’s population growing, it is also getting wealthier and more urbanized; as people become richer their lifestyle and dietary expectations change to include more fish and meat.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization some 95 million tonnes of fish are consumed directly by humans, about half of which now comes from aquaculture. This means we have a very interesting polarity in supply between wild capture fisheries and farming. And we need to recognize that both of these sources of supply are crucial for meeting current global demand. Yet, because we are approaching the limits of what natural systems can provide through wild fisheries, the bulk of the future increase in supply that we will need must come from aquaculture.

Ensuring a stable supply into the future then means we need to focus on both sustaining our wild capture sector and supporting the sustainable growth of aquaculture.

I should also stress that fish are not just a luxury for wealthier urban consumers. They are also a vital food source for millions of poor rural and urban people in developing countries. More than 1.5 billion mostly poor people obtain 20% of their average per capita intake of animal protein from fish. For many developing country communities, especially those living close to coastal and inland waters, fish are the dominant animal source food. Accounting for more than 50% of the animal protein in the diet for 400 million poor people in Africa and South Asia, fish provide both quality animal protein and critical micronutrients. This high dependency on fish by poor and vulnerable communities further emphasizes how important it is to ensure current supplies are sustained and take measure to increase them further – there is a huge market for fish at the bottom of the pyramid.

How do fisheries and aquaculture compare with other global food sources with regard to access and cost?

In developing countries and emerging economies, access to fish is broadly comparable to that for other animal source foods; generally, where there is demand, modern retail supply chains exist. Beyond this it is difficult to generalize because the fisheries and aquaculture sectors provide an enormously diversified range of products that serve many market segments. The trade in lower value wild caught fish for import to countries such as Nigeria differs markedly, for example, from the global markets for farmed salmon.

The dynamism of the sector also makes it difficult to generalize about product price and access; it is hard to imagine, for example that anyone would have predicted 15 years ago the enormous impact on whitefish markets of Pangasius catfish aquaculture in Vietnam? At a more local scale one can find similar dramatic changes. The growth in tilapia culture in Egypt over the last 15 years, for example has increased domestic fish supply to the point where tilapia is now the cheapest animal source food in the country, 36% cheaper than poultry.

We also need to recognize that there are large domestic and regional fish trade networks that are very poorly understood. Visit any remote market in southern Africa, such as those in Malawi and Zambia, and you will see piles of dried kapenta (Limnothrissa spp.) and other small dried fish species. Although data is sketchy, tens of thousands of tonnes of these species are extensively traded throughout the region. Importantly, these fish are often bought by the handful, an affordable amount for poor consumers, and are consumed whole providing a much needed complement of protein, essential fatty acids and micronutrients to a diet of starchy staples.

For the people most dependent on fish though, there is one feature of the fish supply system that we can be certain about – small scale wild capture fisheries are the dominant source of supply.  This is significant because the aquatic systems that provide these fish are widely distributed throughout remote rural areas in many parts of the world and serve vital livelihood and safety net functions that would be difficult for many governments or normal retail supply chains to replace.

How do fisheries and aquaculture compare with other global food sources with regard to environmental impact?

Again, this is a complex issue, but there are some strong arguments to support the conclusion that farming fish is, in many ways, a less environmentally demanding way to produce animal source foods than growing meat. The principle reason for this is that fish are cold blooded so the efficiency of converting the food they eat into animal flesh is higher. As a result, aquaculture contributes less, for example, to global emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus than either beef or pork production.

This is not to say that fish farming is without environmental impacts. Our report “Blue Frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture”, published in 2011 by the WorldFish Center and Conservation International, estimates some of these impacts for the world’s major aquaculture production systems and species.  We showed that there is considerable room for improvement.

The environmental impacts of wild capture fishing are of course quite different and bring with them a whole set of ecological, philosophical and moral debates about the legitimacy of hunting on such a grand scale. What we can say though, is that fisheries reform that ensures long-term sustainable fisheries by preventing overfishing would reduce current environmental impacts. 

What are the current challenges facing the fishery and aquaculture industries relating to global food security?

The global fishery and aquaculture industries face substantial challenges over the next several decades. We need to meet these challenges to ensure that fish are both an available and affordable component of the food basket for the world’s poor and under-nourished as well as a healthy and nutritious option for the better off.

The challenges include:

  • Responding to the structural shift in fish supply that is occurring as capture fishery production reaches it limits, aquaculture continues to develop and the demand for fish changes and grows in the coming years.
  • Sustaining and rebuilding those wild fishery resources that are depleted below sustainable levels and maintaining and enhancing their contribution to food and nutrition security, wealth creation and employment.
  • Overcoming long-term challenges to sustainable growth in aquaculture, such as ensuring the quality of feed and seed, coping with disease and managing and minimizing the environmental impacts of installations and operations.

Climate change will exacerbate these challenges and add further pressure on the sector. Ocean warming will alter patterns of wild fish distribution and productivity in some latitudes and coral reefs will increasingly suffer from thermal stress. Change in water temperature and water flow regimes are expected to lead to fishery decline in many inland waters and aquaculture production systems in both marine and freshwater will be affected by changing temperature regimes. Aquaculture installations and ports will be adversely affected by increased flooding and typhoons. The spectre of ocean acidification and its possible consequences for marine productivity are also a considerable concern.

WorldFish urges the formation of a Global Action Network, to open dialogue between stakeholders and ensure the sustainable continuation of the fish food system. Why is global cooperation and effort necessary, and how will a Global Action Network help address the challenges facing the fish food system?

A key element of meeting the challenges facing fisheries and aquaculture is having effective governance of the sector. I broadly define governance as a set of legitimate and authoritative relationships and processes that define public goals and stimulate collective action to achieve them. By this definition, I think the way fisheries and aquaculture issues are addressed today fails in several ways, all of which stem from our failure to think and talk about them as parts of an integrated “food supply system”. As a result, discussion of aquaculture is largely separate from discussion of fisheries; discussion of ocean fisheries occurs in isolation from those in freshwater; the relationships between supply from small-scale fisheries and large scale fisheries is rarely examined together; and integrated analysis of demand for fish by affluent consumers versus need for fish by the poor and food insecure remains woefully inadequate.

While individual discussions and initiatives on these separate topics are worthwhile, each occurs in its own little bubble with its own distinct community of participants. Nowhere are we trying to bring the various elements of the “fish food system” together to discuss how they affect one another, imagine possible futures, and identify the research and policy gaps we need to fill. This is why we need something more and why I think a Global Action Network (GAN) is worth pursuing.

GANs are not a new idea – familiar examples include the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and the Global Water Partnership. Each of these focuses on a specific public good issue through a network of organizations rather than relying on governance via a single regulating stakeholder. A key feature of a Global Action Network then, is the emphasis on multi-stakeholder collaboration in which government; business and civil society are peers, each with its distinctive competency and responsibility. I believe A Global Action Network for Fisheries would serve as an impartial bridging agent among diverse organizations and drive for systemic change. How one might establish such a network is an open question, but my sense is that it is well worth trying. If we don’t we lessen the prospect of finding the joined up solutions that the world needs.

Stephen Hall is the Director General of the WorldFish Center, an institution dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger by improving fisheries and aquaculture in developing countries. His previous positions include Director/CEO of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Professor of Marine Biology at Flinders University and Head of Fish Biology at the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries. He has published extensively on the structure and functioning of marine ecological systems, focussing especially on the effects of natural and human disturbance. In 2000 he was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation and in 2004 the Australian Public Service Medal.

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Fish Food Security in Science Publications

Fish market in the Cayman Islands
Michelle de Villiers/ Marine Photobank

As global population is projected to increase in the coming decades, the ability of people to secure reliable and economical food products will become increasingly important. Fisheries currently provide a significant protein source to much of the world’s population, and may play a vital role in the food security of future generations. Two recent scientific papers address several important aspects of food security relating to sustainable seafood production, trade, and consumption.

In a 2010 paper titled “Sustainability and Global Seafood”, authors Martin Smith et al. explain the impact of the global seafood trade on food security in developing nations. Generally, developing countries export high-value, commercially desirable fish species to developed countries, and use the profits to both import lower-value seafood and purchase other necessary goods. However, food security associated with seafood is threatened by tight connections between fish and their ecosystems, and fisheries’ dependence on common-pool resources. Poor governance, especially in developing countries, can lead to mismanagement of fisheries and resource depletion that threatens seafood availability and food security. The paper makes an argument for better managed fisheries, often in the form of co-management between the federal government and local fishermen, that create economic incentives for sustainability, and resist the urge to “over expand to increase short-term export earnings at the expense of future resource availability” (786). Because so much of the seafood produced in developing countries is exported to relatively wealthy nations, Smith et al. contend that initiatives such as ecolabeling and third party certification may be a way to increase fisheries sustainability and food security. Although voluntary, consumers of certified seafood would pay a premium to support sustainable management, fishing gear, and traceability systems, allowing exported fisheries in developing countries to remain a sustainable income source used to secure food and other resources.


Food security is examined in a freshwater setting in Cooke et al.’s 2011 paper titled “Sustainable ‘Seafood’ Ecolabeling and Awareness Initiatives in the Context of Inland Fisheries: Increasing Food Security and Protecting Ecosystems”. Cooke et al. describe a lack of consideration of freshwater fisheries as part of the food security of developing countries. Since freshwater

Fish market in India
Deba Prasad Roy/ Marine Photobank

fisheries are generally small-scale, often cultivated for subsistence, and not exported, they are essential for food security in the developing world. However, achieving sustainability in these freshwater systems presents unique challenges, primarily stemming from external threats to the ecosystem from habitat degradation, water funneling to irrigation, and the loss of connectivity between river systems. The authors argue that public awareness campaigns can help foster sustainable freshwater fisheries through efforts similar to the ecolabeling or certification seen with marine species. However, freshwater public awareness campaigns would be much more localized, with a focus on educating producers and consumers about the population status of the fishery product.

Both articles discuss aquaculture production as one way to address food security in the developing world. In the context of freshwater fisheries, Cooke et al. cite increasing demand for fish protein and declining wild fish stocks as an impetus for establishing more inland aquaculture production. Freshwater aquaculture has the potential to serve as a long-term local food source and export product for communities in developing countries, provided that aquaculture is conducted in a sustainable way and additional environmental threats to freshwater ecosystems, are also addressed. Smith et al. also recognize the ability of aquaculture products to provide both export revenue and key nutrition to developing countries, citing China’s recent expansion of aquaculture production as a factor in decreasing malnourishment statistics amongst its citizens.

Together the articles highlight how food security crosses many scales of interaction. It is a local issue affecting small communities utilizing subsistence fishing in freshwater rivers and lakes, as well as a global issue driving seafood imports and exports across an increasingly connected international marketplace.
As food security continues to shape the lives and livelihoods of people all over the world, it is crucial to ensure that fisheries, both wild and aquacultured are managed sustainably to provide economic and nutritional benefits for future generations.

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