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As global per-capita fish consumption hits all-time high, UN warns on overharvesting

Kenyan fishermen on Lake Victoria use special nets to conserve dwindling fish stock.
FAO/Ami Vitale
Kenyan fishermen on Lake Victoria use special nets to conserve dwindling fish stock.

As global per-capita fish consumption hits all-time high, UN warns on overharvesting

A new report out today from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that while growth in aquaculture has helped drive global per capita fish consumption above 20 kilograms a year for the first time, almost a third of commercial fish stocks are now overharvested at biologically unsustainable levels.

The latest edition of the agency’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report attributes stronger aquaculture supply and firm demand, record hauls for some key species and reduced wastage as some of the reasons for the increased consumption. It also notes that despite notable progress in some areas, the state of the world's marine resources has not improved.

“Life below water, which the Sustainable Development Agenda commits us to conserve, is a major ally in our effort to meet a host of challenges, from food security to climate change,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in a news release.

“This report shows that capture fisheries can be managed sustainably, while also pointing to the enormous and growing potential of aquaculture to boost human nutrition and support livelihoods with productive jobs,” he added.

On the nutritional aspect of the food source, the report notes that globally, fish provided 6.7 per cent of all protein consumed by humans, as well as offered a rich source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, calcium, zinc and iron.

It further notes that some 57 million people were engaged in the primary fish production sectors, a third of them in aquaculture and fishery products accounted for one percent of all global merchandise trade in value terms, representing more than nine percent of total agricultural exports.

“Worldwide exports amounted to $148 billion in 2014, up from $8 billion in 1976. Developing countries were the source of $80 billion of fishery exports, providing higher net trade revenues than meat, tobacco, rice and sugar combined,” said FAO.

Growth in aquaculture

A major factor attributed to the global supply of fish for human consumption outpacing population growth in the past five decades is the growth in aquaculture.

The sector's global production rose to 73.8 million tonnes in 2014, a third of which comprised molluscs, crustaceans and other non-fish animals.

It is important to note that in terms of food security and environmental sustainability, about half of the world's aquaculture production of animals such as shellfish and carp, and plants, including seaweeds and microalgae, came from non-fed species.

Aquaculture’s strengths and challenges are also influencing the types of fish consumed. The report showed that, measured as a share of world trade in value terms, salmon and trout are now the largest single commodity, replacing shrimp that held the position for decades.

State of global fish stocks

The report also reveals that about 31.4 percent of the commercial wild fish stocks were overfished in 2013, a level that had been stable since 2007.

Decreased fish landings have been observed in some regions due to the implementation of effective management regulations, like in the Northwest Atlantic, where the annual catch is less than half the level of the early 1970s. Halibut, flounder and haddock species in that area are showing signs of recovery but this is not yet the case for cod, according to FAO.

Furthermore, in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, where 59 per cent of assessed stocks are fished at biologically unsustainable levels, the report described the situation as “alarming,” particularly for larger fish such as hake, mullet, sole and sea breams.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the possible expansion of invasive fish species associated to climate change is a concern.

FAO continues to work with all countries to improve the quality and reliability of annual landing figures. The doubling since 1996 of the number of species in the FAO data base – now 2,033 – indicates overall quality improvements in the data collected, according to the report.

The report further notes that supply-chain and other improvements have also raised the share of world fish production utilized for direct human consumption to 87 per cent or 146 million tonnes in 2016, up from 85 per cent or 136 million tonnes in 2014.

The growing fish-processing sector also offers opportunities to improve the sustainability of the fish supply chain, as a host of by-products have multiple potential and actual uses, ranging from fishmeal for aquaculture, through collagen for the cosmetics industry to small fish bones humans can eat as snacks.