FAO calls for ‘blue transformation’ as seafood production swells

Fisheries and aquaculture production rose around 3 per cent since 2018, to an all-time high of 214 million metric tons in 2020, with a first-sale value of around $406 billion, an FAO report found.

A seafood monger at the Tsukiji Outer Market in Tokyo, Japan. Image: Shawn Harquail, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Nearly one in four people across the planet don’t have access to a nutritious diet. But the latest “State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture” (SOFIA) report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) outlines a “blue transformation” with the potential to take the edge off critical food security issues.

Aquaculture production hit a record-breaking 122.6 million metric tons in 2020, and has the potential to contribute more to human nutrition than it currently does, according to the report that the FAO released June 29 at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon.

Sustainable aquaculture expansion and better fisheries management form the backbone of the report’s blue transformation vision, which aims to maximise global capacity to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

We need to “accelerate actions to address food security while preserving our natural resources,” it says, noting that right now, “the world is not on track to end hunger and malnutrition and achieve the SDGs.”

Key data points

The SOFIA report has been giving policymakers, scientists and civil society a deep dive into the global fisheries and aquaculture sectors since 1995. The flagship report, released every two years, reviews FAO and broader UN statistics, including those the FAO has been collecting on 500 fisheries stocks globally since 1974. It provides data, analysis and projections that inform decision-making internationally.

The new report brings in data that became available since the last SOFIA report was published, in 2020. According to it, more than 58 million people rely on direct employment in fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods.

This figure leaps to 600 million when counting indirect workers and their dependents, Manuel Barange, director of the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Division that produces the report, told a Lisbon press conference announcing the report’s release.

We must find and nurture new and better ways of production that take into account not only efficiency, but also the health of the fish and the waters.

Bryton Shang, CEO, Aquabyte

Around half of these are women and more than 84 per cent are based in Asia, which continues to dominate both wild fisheries and aquaculture, accounting for 70 per cent of global aquatic animal production.

Fisheries and aquaculture production rose by around 3 per cent since 2018, to an all-time high of 214 million metric tons in 2020, with a first-sale value of around $406 billion, the report found. Growth was driven by a 6 per cent rise in aquaculture production — farmed aquatic animals and plants, such as fish, shellfish and seaweed — over the same period, while wild fish capture dropped by almost 4.5 per cent, largely due to Covid-19 pandemic impacts.

The number of sustainably fished marine fish stocks continued to decline, according to the report, falling another 1.2 per cent between 2017 and 2019. Less than 65 per cent of stocks are now being fished within biologically sustainable levels, down from 90 per cent in the 1970s. The report categorises the great majority of these, more than 57 per cent of all stocks, as “maximally sustainably fished” and only 7 per cent of stocks as “underfished.”

“Fundamentally, globally, the report makes a case for more blue and sustainable protein,” Bryton Shang, CEO of a San Francisco-based aquaculture tech startup called Aquabyte, told Mongabay. “It underscores that we must find and nurture new and better ways of production that take into account not only efficiency, but also the health of the fish and the waters.”

Can more responsible fishing and aquaculture feed the world?

The UN estimates the global human population will reach 10.9 billion by the end of this century. “So the big question is: How are we going to feed so many people?” Chris Ninnes, CEO of the Netherlands and UK-based Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which oversees independent certification of farmed seafood products that pass environmental, social and labour standards, said to Mongabay.

Aquatic foods, both farmed and fished, will be critical to feeding the growing human population, according to Barange. They’re much more efficient “at transferring feed to flesh” than land-based animal protein production, he said. For instance, to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef takes between 5 and 12 kg (11-26.5 lbs) of feed, whereas 1 kg of Atlantic salmon requires just 1.1 kg (2.4 lbs) of feed. Aquatic animals produce fewer greenhouse gases too, Barange said.

On the aquaculture side, production needs to increase by 35-40 per cent by 2030 to “to satisfy the gap in global demand for aquatic foods,” according to the report. But we must do it sustainably, otherwise the oceans won’t remain productive and the extra pressure on our land-based food systems “will be very detrimental to our environment overall,” Barange said.

The ASC’s standards align with seven of the 10 targets of SDG 14, whose goal is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” The SOFIA report is “incredibly valuable” for the aquaculture sector, and as a reference for the ASC’s work, Ninnes said.

However, there are “plenty of things that we haven’t done well” over the five decades during which aquaculture has been our fastest-growing food production system, according to Barange.

Research illustrating how unsustainably practised aquaculture can be detrimental to ecosystems is wide-ranging: Fish farms often pollute aquatic systems with uneaten feed, fish waste and antibiotics, and escaping fish can weaken wild gene pools and introduce disease to wild stocks. And shrimp farming is notorious for destroying mangroves and salt marshes.

Sheila Heymans, executive director of the Belgium-based marine science policy think tank the European Marine Board, says aquaculture currently is a non-starter in terms of sustainability. “Feeding fish to fish is truly unsustainable,” Heymans told Mongabay, referring to the common practice of feeding wild-caught fish to farmed fish. “Until we get that sorted, we will not be going forward with sustainable aquaculture.”

Governance and policy reforms top the SOFIA report’s list of fixes required for aquaculture to become sustainable and expand. Other key areas for transformative action are: innovative financing, reducing dependence on wild fishmeal in aquaculture feed; better biosecurity and disease control; using digital technologies to streamline stock management; repurposing, reusing, recycling and valorizing waste products; and genetically improving fish for faster growth and resistance to climate change and disease.

Companies and research facilities are already innovating production, feed and digitisation. For instance, Aquabyte combines artificial intelligence and photography tech with fish welfare, aiming to give farmers the under-surface data they need to reduce food use, pollution and negative ecosystem impacts while growing heavier fish. People are experimenting with algae, grains, and even insects and bacteria as alternatives to fishmeal-based feeds. And the Green Aquaculture Intensification in Europe project has developed a way to turn fish-farm waste into biofertilisers and pet feed.

Aquabyte’s Shang said he believes a sustainable future for aquaculture is “absolutely realistic.” Norwegian fish farms are already beginning to demonstrate sustainable aquaculture at scale, he said, due largely to enabling regulations and support for technological advances.

Still, he and many others are impatient. “There is a lot of talk around sustainable aquaculture, but not enough initiatives to put this into action,” Shang said. “Enough talk — more action!”

The SOFIA report also looks to increase the catch of wild stocks to feed humanity. It notes that effective fisheries management, where it exists, is successful in rebuilding biologically sustainable fish stocks. This “gives us a clear signal as to what we need to do: We need to manage 100 per cent of resources effectively. And if we do, then they will become sustainable,” Barange said.

If we can pull off a blue transformation to an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable aquatic food value chain, the report says, wild fisheries could bring us an extra 16.5 million metric tons of seafood a year and healthier oceans.

To effectively manage wild-capture fisheries, the report says we need more data, analyzed better. It also calls for stronger regulation and increased capacity for enforcement of management measures.

UN and World Trade Organisation (WTO) members have been trying to negotiate multilateral frameworks to regulate the way we fish and apportion rights to ocean resources for years now, in some cases decades.

These are a minimum requirement to achieve sustainable wild fisheries, Heymans of the European Marine Board said.

“Without these agreements we will not get there,” she said, cautioning against watered-down solutions such as the recent agreement on banning harmful fisheries subsidies, made by WTO members at the Twelfth Ministerial Conference held in Geneva in June. Members couldn’t reach a consensus on certain rules aimed at reducing overfishing, so they simply cut them from the agreement. They’ll come back to the tabled rules at the next ministerial conference, but that may not happen for two years. “We are running out of time for the SDGs and for humanity,” Heymans said.

Barange said he has every confidence improvements in both sectors will be made, but it might take a long time “because nothing happens fast in the world.” The FAO did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment on how much investment might be required to achieve the blue transformation.

Fresh off the back of the North Atlantic Seafood Forum that took place in Norway in late June, Shang said the seafood industry is looking “overwhelmingly” at the need to produce fish more sustainably. But the challenge is so vast that a lot more needs to be done to enable technologies to keep pace with global demand and a growing population, he said.

“This report reinforces why those factors matter,” he said. “Sustainability is the rising tide that lifts us all.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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