Posted on September 5, 2006

About 50% of consumed seafood is farmed, not caught

Sustainable fishmeal key to meeting future growth

About half the seafood humans eat comes from a farm, not the wild, said a new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The FAO’s report, "The State of World Aquaculture 2006", was presented Monday to delegates from more than 50 countries attending the biennial meeting of the FAO Sub-Committee on Aquaculture in New Delhi.

In 1980, just 9 percent of the fish consumed by human beings came from aquaculture, today 43 percent does, the report said. That’s 45.5 million metric tons of farmed fish, worth $63 billion, eaten each year.

Currently, freshwater and marine capture fisheries produce 95 mt annually, of which 60 million mt is destined for human consumption.

Globally, consumer demand for fish continues to climb, especially in affluent, developed nations, which in 2004 imported 33 million mt of fish worth over $61 billion – 81 percent of all fish imports that year, in value terms.

But levels of captures of fish in the wild have remained roughly stable since the mid-1980s, hovering around 90-93 million mt annually. There is little chance of any significant increases in catches beyond these levels, FAO said.

FAO’s report estimates that an additional 40 million mt of aquatic food will be required by 2030 — just to maintain current levels of consumption.

The agency’s most recent global assessment of wild fish stocks found that out of the nearly 600 species groups it monitors, 52 percent are fully exploited while 25 percent are either overexploited (17 percent), depleted (7 percent) or recovering from depletion (1 percent). Twenty percent are moderately exploited, with just three percent ranked as underexploited.

"Catches in the wild are still high, but they have leveled off, probably for good," explains Rohana Subasinghe of FAO’s Fisheries Department and Secretary of the Sub-Committee on Aquaculture.

This leveling off, coupled with a growing world population and increasing per capita demand for fish, spells trouble. The only option for meeting future demand for fish, Subasinghe argues, is by farming them.

There’s just one question. Can aquaculture actually deliver? The jury is still out, according to FAO’s report.

"Aquaculture could cover the gap between supply and demand, but there are also many forces which could pull production in the opposite direction, making it difficult for the industry to grow substantially enough to meet demand in the decades to come," it notes.

Aquaculture has been experiencing a boom since the mid-1980s, sustaining a growth rate of around 8 percentr. Today it continues to expand in almost all world regions, with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa.

But FAO is concerned that momentum could taper off if governments and development agencies don’t adjust their policies to respond to emerging challenges that threaten to damper the sector’s future growth.

One serious bottleneck, says FAO, is the lack of investment capital for producers in the developing world. Another is a shortage of land and freshwater for use in aquaculture. Rising energy costs also pose a problem, and environmental impacts and questions of product safety continue to require attention.

The agency’s report also points to doubts regarding future supplies of fishmeal and oil, used to feed carnivorous cultured species, such as salmon, grouper and sea bream.

Since 1985, world production of fishmeal and fish oil — manufactured using fish which are caught in large volumes but which are not consumed by humans — has stabilized at 6 to 7 million mt and one million mt, respectively.

While the vast bulk of fishmeal is used for livestock feed, chiefly by the poultry sector, aquaculture now accounts for 35 percent of the world’s fishmeal supply. So as aquaculture’s fishmeal needs grow, competition with terrestrial livestock for a limited resource will intensify, with ramifications for both price and availability.

Key to resolving the dilemma will be continued progress in improving the efficiency of feed formulations — reducing the amount of fishmeal they contain — and coming up with adequate vegetable-based additives.

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