Issues Magazine

Fish: The Way of the Future?

By Meryl J. Williams

The seas, ponds, lakes and rivers play an important role in feeding the world. Meryl Williams explores how fish are produced and some of the interesting challenges facing fish production.

Most of us buy our fish from a shop, supermarket or restaurant. We rarely think about how it was produced, and less about the amazing developments that led to farmers and fishers being able to grow or catch it.

In 2009, world fish production passed a historic milestone when, for the first time, fish for direct human consumption came equally from wild stocks and from farmed fish. For all our other foods, the comparable milestones occurred many thousands of years ago and now farmed product has completely replaced wild-caught and gathered food. Is this the way of the future for fish also?

Plants such as wheat and rice were cultivated first about 10,000 years ago. Over the next few thousand years, gathering of wild food plants was gradually phased out in favour of farming of varieties selected and bred for human needs.

Also about 10,000 years ago, a few types of terrestrial animals such as dogs, horses, sheep, goats and cattle became domesticated for human use, providing food, transport, draught power for agriculture, clothing, shelter and companionship. Farming know-how grew slowly at first, gathering speed in recent centuries due to better communication, farm mechanisation, improved modern breeds, fertilisers and feeds.

In the case of fish, meanwhile, hunting and gathering from the wild remained almost the only source of supply, although fishing methods modernised rapidly in the past century. Fish played a key role in the early development of human settlements, societies and probably human brain development.

Scientists have found that aquatic food was very important in the lives of many of the earliest humans. Fish from rivers and lakes and shellfish from the coasts were easy pickings for early people, but as one source of fish or shellfish became overexploited, people moved on to other sources. For example, in Europe, fishers started seriously exploiting fish from the sea about 1000 years ago when freshwater fish became scarce. This pattern of moving to the next source of fish has continued until the present, resulting in recent decades in major changes in how we meet our needs for fish.

The changes have caused a historic transition in how our fish is produced. This transition has four main characteristics: the limits of fish production from the wild have been reached; dominance of wild fisheries production has shifted from developed to developing countries; aquaculture production has grown rapidly; and world demand for fish has grown rapidly and continues to grow.

Limits of Fisheries Production

By the 1990s, most major natural fish stocks were fully exploited and some had even collapsed from overfishing, leaving only some smaller and usually more remote stocks, such as deepwater fisheries on seamounts on the high seas. In some countries, mainly in Australia, parts of Europe, New Zealand and North America, governments began to impose stronger controls on fishing in order to stop further stock collapses. In the countries that moved to manage their fisheries, the fishing sectors contracted, many but not all stocks gradually recovered, and additional fish was imported from other countries and grown in aquaculture.

In many of the fish-exporting countries, however, most fish stocks were already overexploited but the foreign exchange from fish has become vital to national economies. The challenge of how to limit fishing is greatest when large numbers of people rely on fish as a key source of food and livelihood and when fish stocks are shared across national borders. Asian, African, Pacific island, Caribbean and most South American countries have large coastal and inland communities relying on full- and part-time employment in the fishing sector. Many small-scale fishers compete with each other and with larger-scale operators for heavily exploited fish stocks. Illegal fishing creates enormous challenges in many countries and in international waters.

Reducing catches to achieve more sustainable fisheries is very difficult, yet if it can be achieved, greater economic value can be obtained from fisheries. Globally, the World Bank estimated in 2008 that poor marine fisheries management causes at least US$50 billion in annual losses, compared with the potential value of these fisheries if they were well-managed. This loss is just to the fish production sector and does not include losses further along the supply chain. The production sector represents only 40% of the value of the whole supply chain.

Despite nearly 20 years of international and national awareness of the need to control fishing in order to maintain fish stocks in a productive state, much fish from the wild still comes from overexploited stocks. And these stocks and their aquatic ecosystems are going to be under new threats from global warming (see Box: Are Climate Clues in the Ocean?).

Changing Geography of Fisheries Production

With production from wild fish stocks at its limits and different degrees of success in controlling fishing, the geography of fish production from wild stocks has shifted. Until the mid-1980s, industrialised countries – especially Japan and those of Europe, North America and the former USSR – produced more fish than developing countries. The balance of fish production then switched towards the developing countries, especially those in East, South-East and South Asia and South America.

Another factor that changed the geography of fishing was the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which gave countries jurisdiction over 200 nautical mile economic zones and raised awareness of the riches of ocean resources. Whereas many of the developed countries were able to fish close to the coast, after UNCLOS most countries further developed their own fishing capacity.

Along with the changing geography of fish production have come changes in who handles the fish from water to plate. The contributions of women are substantial but rarely recognised (see Box: Women Add Value to Fish).

Rapid Growth of Modern Aquaculture

The limits of wild fish production were certainly key drivers for the development of aquaculture. The rapid development of modern aquaculture started roughly in the 1960s when artificially induced breeding became possible for many species, and was combined with improved animal feed technology and fish farm management.

Farming of fish and other aquatic species began, in small ways, only about 4000 years ago in Egypt for Nile tilapia and about 2500 years ago in China for common carp. However, early aquaculture was simple and relied on a few species that bred naturally and easily in captivity, and grew slowly with simple feeds and farming methods. Current aquaculture is varied and includes enterprises that are still simple,from fish farming in small farm ponds up to the Norwegian Atlantic salmon farming industry.

By volume, world production has been led by Asian fish farmers, who are now producing about 90% of all aquaculture products. However, nearly all countries are striving successfully to develop their aquaculture, and the growth of aquaculture is occurring widely across the world and across many different species. Hundreds of different types of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and plants are now farmed.

Fish are particularly important in freshwater aquaculture, especially several species of carp that originated in Asia and Europe, Nile tilapia that originated from Africa, and several native catfish species from North America and Asia. Production of Nile tilapia and Vietnamese catfish (basa and tra) have increased greatly and become important in fish trade.

In brackish water, prawns (or shrimp as they are called in some countries) are still the most important economic crops, and efforts have been made to make their farming more environmentally friendly.

In marine waters, aquaculture is dominated by molluscs (mussels, oysters, clams etc.) and seaweeds, with growing contribution from fish such as salmon, sea bass and sea bream. Marine fish are generally expensive to grow as they depend on high quality protein feeds.

The rapid growth of aquaculture has brought problems as well as wealth and benefits to farmers and consumers. The environmental costs have been high, such as through the destruction of natural environments to create fish ponds and the pollution of coasts, rivers and lakes from intensive cage farming. Several diseases of farmed fish and shellfish have devastated production, such as infectious salmon anaemia in Chilean salmon farms, which is caused by a highly contagious virus.

A major link between the limits to wild fish production and aquaculture comes from the fact that most of the fish not directly eaten by humans now goes into feeds for farmed fish, with the share going to aquaculture more than doubling in the past decade. Although ongoing research is trying to replace fish in fish food, complete solutions are still far off.

Poorer members of society have greater difficulty taking up aquaculture unless special assistance is given for small-scale farmers. Nevertheless, international researchers have been influential in helping to develop accessible technologies for small-scale operators. For example, much of the Vietnamese catfish on world markets is grown by relatively small-scale farmers supported by industry and trade organisations.

Increasing Demand for Fish

At the same time that wild fish stocks were reaching their limits to exploitation, world human population was growing and many countries entered periods of strong economic growth. The demand for fish thus grew, generated by population growth, a greater desire for and means to purchase fish and other animal products, and the increasing evidence for the health benefits of eating fish.

One sign of the increasing demand for fish was that fish prices have remained strong and are projected to remain so for several decades to come. Increasingly, the demand for fish will come from developing countries as their populations and affluence grow.

What Next in the Transition from Hunting to Farming Fish?

Although these characteristics describe the transition in fish production, its speed has surprised even the experts. In May 1995, the world’s pre-eminent grouping of international agricultural research organisations working to achieve sustainable food security, the CGIAR said, “within 15 years, fish farming and sea ranching could provide nearly 40 per cent of all fish for the human diet and more than half of the value of the global fish catch” (From Hunting to Farming Fish: Rapid Production Increases Are Possible).

Although this prediction seemed optimistic at the time, the figures were exceeded by 2006, just 11 years later. Moreover, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that, in 2009, 50% of fish directly eaten by humans will come from aquaculture.

No other major food has undergone such a rapid transition from wild production to farming, yet the wild fish stocks still form a vital part of the world’s fish supply and will do so well into the future. Especially in the sea, significant parts of aquatic ecosystems in which wild fish live are not likely to be ever fully taken over for other human needs, including fish farming, as has been the case for much of the land. Indeed, the fates of wild fish and aquaculture production are strongly linked. If wild fish stocks collapse from overfishing, ecological or climate reasons, aquaculture will also suffer directly from a lack of feed materials such as fishmeal and fish oil, and will also be affected, probably negatively, by ecological and climate factors.

In 2003, the International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Fish Center published an analysis of several future scenarios for fish supply and demand. In light of aquaculture growth, climate change and the still unfolding story of future wild fish stocks, as well as emerging climate change, some of the results bear renewed attention.

One future scenario was that of “ecological collapse” of wild fish stocks (i.e., a slow but continuous decline in wild fish production). Under this scenario, the price of fish escalated the most, even if aquaculture continued to expand. Slower aquaculture expansion also had a large impact on price increases, even without an “ecological collapse”. These and other results show that the fates of aquaculture and wild fish production are interlinked.

Also, the recent global food price, fuel and financial crises have shown that fish supply chains are very vulnerable to crises in other key sectors of the economy.

All of the links between wild fish and aquaculture production and the links between these sectors and their supply chains indicate that fish supply continues to navigate choppy waters. The transition from hunting to farming fish is not likely to be simply an eventual replacement of one form of food production by another. Rather, we will face ongoing challenges to nurture both systems of fish production in a mutually supportive way and within a very challenging external environment.