Aquaculture: A catch for all?

Could fish farming help secure the food supply of the future? Yes, but there are challenges.

Aquaculture–which covers more than just fish, but the farming of aquatic animals and plants as well–is widely viewed as an important weapon in the global fight against malnutrition and poverty, particularly within developing countries, where over 93% of global production is currently realised. In fact, the aquaculture sector provides in most instances an affordable and much needed source of high-quality animal protein, lipids and other essential nutrients.

Aquaculture has been the fastest growing animal food-producing sector globally for over half a century, with production, excluding aquatic plants, growing at an average compound rate of 8.1% per year since 1961, compared with 3% for terrestrial farmed meat production, 3.4% for egg production and 1.5% for milk production over the same period. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 340 different species of farmed aquatic plants and animals were produced in 2007, the latest year for which complete statistical information exists.

Total global production that year was reported at 65.2 million tonnes worth some $94.5 billion. Finfish accounted for 48.9% of production, aquatic plants 22.7%, mollusks 20.1% and crustaceans 7.5%. Over 91.1% of total global production that year was produced in Asia, followed by the Americas with 3.8%, Europe with 3.6%, Africa with 1.3% and Oceania with 0.2%. China alone produced over 41.2 million tonnes of farmed aquatic produce in 2007 or 63.2% of total aquaculture production worldwide.

In marked contrast with capture fisheries, where the bulk of the fish species harvested are marine carnivorous fish species positioned high in the aquatic food chain, the mainstay of farmed fish production are omnivorous and herbivorous fish species positioned low in the aquatic food chain, including carp, tilapia and catfish.       

Moreover, whereas the per capita supply of food fish for direct human consumption from capture fisheries has not been able to keep pace with population growth–per capita food-fish supply from capture fisheries decreased by 10.4%, from 10.6 to 9.5 kg/capita, from 1995 to 2007–foodfish supply from aquaculture continues to grow. It increased by 74.4%, from 4.3 to 7.5 kg/capita, from 1995 to 2007 and, at its current growth rate, is expected to match food supply from capture fisheries in 2012. At present, food fish contributes more than 25% of the total animal protein supply for about 1.25 billion people within 39 countries worldwide, including 19 sub-Saharan countries.

As with the terrestrial livestock production sector, the aquaculture sector has not been without its problems and critics. Major issues have been mainly related to the unregulated development of more intensive industrial-scale production systems, in particular farming systems for producing high-value crustacean and carnivorous finfish species. These issues have raised environmental concerns regarding habitat loss, pollution, escapes, genetic and disease interactions with wild populations, and possible marine mammals, turtles and bird interactions.

They raise resource concerns too, notably regarding feed selection and use, water use, land use, energy use and wild seed collection. There are also social issues to address, particularly the displacement of coastal fishing and farming communities by large operators, disruption of seafood prices and local food security. Other problems include livelihood impacts, reduced access to community resources, salinisation of drinking water and ground water, social exclusion, potential conflicts with tourism, recreational fishing and commercial fishing. And there are potential food-safety concerns regarding the possible contamination of farmed produce with unwanted heavy metals, pollutants, chemicals, medicants and pathogens.

The list goes on. Most of these issues and concerns are usually species-, farm- and country-specific and affect a fraction of the whole industry. They can be mitigated, or their impacts greatly minimised, by stricter adherence to the principles and guidelines within the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The solution is better governance to ensure this adherence, not just by policymakers, but by operators, too. Unless action is taken to ensure implementation of the principles and guidelines, the concerns could undermine what is a truly promising sector.


FAO (1995), Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, Rome.

Tacon, AGJ and M Metian (2009), “Fishing for feed or fishing for food: increasing global competition for small pelagic forage fish”, Ambio, 38(6):294-302.

©OECD Observer No 278 March 2010

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