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The state and sustainability of Fisheries and Aquaculture

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Context - The production of fish and seafood continues to grow, year after year, even if capture fisheries have stopped expanding since the late 80s.

It’s aquaculture that has been booming since then, and it now provides almost half of the world production of fish.

Is this sustainable?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2018 by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO): "  The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 - Meeting the sustainable development goals." 

  • Source document:FAO (2018)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 30 November 2018

1. Fisheries and sustainability

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations were put forth in 2015 as a vision for a just and sustainable world, free of fear and violence, where no one is left behind.

The Goal SDG 14 is the most directly relevant to fisheries and aquaculture: "Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development" within the context of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (FAO, 1995). This goal says that fisheries and aquaculture should contribute towards food security and nutrition, and the sector’s use of natural resources should aim to ensure sustainable development in economic, social and environmental terms. A major challenge to this is the sustainability divide between developed and developing countries. To eliminate this disparity, the global community needs to support developing nations to achieve their full fisheries and aquaculture potential.

Regarding biodiversity, its erosion would not only affect the structure and function of ecosystems, but would also impair the potential for such systems to adapt to new challenges such as population growth and climate change.

In this context, the Sustainable Ocean Initiative aims to ensure the convergence of actions by regional seas organizations and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) by facilitating partnerships to link various initiatives.

2. How much fish is produced and consumed?

Global fish production (“fish”, here, covers all animals that usually fall under the “seafood” category: fish, crustaceans, mollusks and other aquatic (non-mammals) animals) has been steadily growing for the past decades, and peaked at about 171 million tons in 2016, with aquaculture representing 47 % of the total. This proportion of the total production that comes from aquaculture has grown greatly since the 1990s, when capture fisheries started to level off. Capture fisheries have not expanded in production since that time. In 2016, 37 countries were producing more farmed than wild-caught fish.

Between 1961 and 2016, the average annual increase in global food fish consumption (3.2 %) outpaced population growth (1.6 %) and exceeded that of meat from all terrestrial animals combined (2.8 %). Of the 171 million tons of total fish production in 2016, about 88 %t (over 151 million tons) was utilized for direct human consumption, a share that increased significantly in recent decades. Despite improvements in fish processing and distribution practices, loss or wastage between landing and consumption still accounts for an estimated 27 % of landed fish.

World total marine catch was 79 million tons in 2016, representing a decrease of almost 2 million tons from 2015. Capture fisheries in the world’s inland waters produced 11 million tons in 2016.

Aquaculture continues to grow faster than other major food production sectors (5.8 % during the period 2000–2016), and double-digit growth still occurred from 2006 to 2010 in a small number of individual countries in Africa. Global aquaculture production in 2016 included 80 million tons of food fish and 30 million tons of aquatic plants, as well as 38,000 tons of non-food products.

Marine aquaculture , also known as ‘mariculture’, is practiced in the sea, in a marine water environment, while coastal aquaculture is practiced in completely or partially human-made structures in areas adjacent to the sea, such as coastal ponds and gated lagoons.

3. What is the state of fishery resources?

Marine fisheries have continued to decline in term of sustainability since the 1980s. The percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 % in 1974 to 33.1 % in 2015, with the largest increases in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 2015, stocks that were fished at their maximum sustainable capacity accounted for 59.9 % and underfished stocks for only 7.0 % of the total assessed stocks. The persistence of overfished stocks is an area of great concern.

Meanwhile, despite the continuous increase in the percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels, progress has been made in some regions. For example, the proportion of stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels increased from 53 % in 2005 to 74 % in 2016 in the United States of America, and from 27 % in 2004 to 69 % in 2015 in Australia.

4. What are some of the issues that are affecting the fisheries sector?

It is estimated that some 78 % of fish and fish products are exposed to international trade competition and supply, and demand dynamics for many species are increasingly global in nature. Over 90 % of the quantity (in live weight equivalent) of trade in fish and fish products consisted of processed products (i.e. excluding live and fresh whole fish) in 2016, with frozen products representing the highest share.

In the context of a large-scale transformation of the world economy driven by trade liberalization and technological advancements, the three main issues identified are:

  • Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing: having control over the open oceans, especially over international waters, is a difficult task. In these areas, there are fishing vessels that are operating outside governmental jurisdiction. Despite international efforts in the last decade to address the problem, by addressing flag of convenience and port state issues, it remains a problem.
  • Biodiversity: aquatic ecosystems are very diverse, and maintaining that diversity is vital to keeping ecosystems healthy and able to respond to change. It is important to establish and maintain protected areas, and to monitor the diversity, not just of fished species, but also of the species that are used in aquaculture.
  • Climate change: the impact of ocean warming on fisheries and aquaculture is relatively straightforward: marine species are changing their distributions towards the poles, or towards deeper, colder waters. This can potentially affect whole ecosystems as species composition changes. The increase of CO2 in ocean waters increases acidity and can have an effect on organisms that have a calcium shell; since these species are often at the base of food webs, it could have a very disruptive effect on fisheries.

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