Global farmed fish production overtakes wild catch for first time

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Global farmed fish production overtakes wild catch for first time

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The amount of fish farmed globally has surpassed the wild catch for the first time as production soars to meet rising demand.

In 2022, some 94.4mn tonnes of fish were farmed in pens and ponds, compared with 91mn tonnes caught in open water, according to a new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. 

The boom in aquaculture — concentrated in Asia, which the FAO says accounts for 90 per cent of global production — was allowing the world to consume ever more fish, said Manuel Barange, director of the UN agency’s fisheries and aquaculture division.

Average consumption per person per year has more than doubled since the 1960s, from around 9kg to 20.7kg, with more than 3bn people now relying on fish or seafood as their main source of protein, according to the FAO.

“[Aquaculture] is the fastest-growing food production system in the world,” said Barange. This was good news in terms of food availability, he said, “because the increasing consumption of aquatic foods does not come on the back of greater exploitation of oceans, lakes and rivers”.

However, environmental and animal welfare NGOs have criticised the FAO’s position. In an open letter addressed to Barange and published on Friday, signatories from some 160 organisations urged the UN body to exclude farmed salmon, sea bass, sea bream and other carnivorous fin fish from its definitions of sustainable aquaculture. They say the industrial farming of these species is “destroying local environments, depleting wild fish stocks and harming local economies”.

The UN agency expects global aquaculture production to surge to 111mn tonnes by 2032 and the amount of caught fish to rise more moderately, reaching 94mn tonnes within the same period. 

The increase would be necessary to provide a growing world population with sufficient protein and ensure food security, said Barange.

Africans consumed only around 9kg of fish per person per year, he noted. Just to maintain that level between now and 2050 amid projected population growth, the aquaculture sector would need to expand by nearly 75 per cent, according to the FAO.

“If we are in the business of feeding people, we have to be able to provide that,” he said, adding that the industry was not only a tool for ending hunger but also provided employment.

Barange rejected claims that aquaculture damaged local ecosystems. “Is the growth in aquaculture putting more impact on the marine environment? The answer to that is fundamentally no,” he said.

Some 40 years ago, as much as 40 per cent of wild-caught fish was used for animal feed but this was now down to less than 20 per cent, he said. In the past, around 3kg to 4kg of fish meal was required to produce 1kg of a farmed fish such as salmon, he added. But different feed formulations meant this was now down to 1kg of fish meal to produce 1.2kg.

On average across all fed aquaculture species, 1kg of fishmeal produced 4kg of fish, and for prawns, shrimps and salmon around 90 per cent of feed was vegetable-based, Barange said. This evolution had allowed aquaculture “to grow without using more fish from the ocean”.

But critics say the industry’s practices for sourcing feed harm food security in poorer countries — hoovering up small species on which communities rely in order to manufacture fish meal for the farms. They also argue that overuse of antibiotics to treat disease in farmed fish is exacerbating the rise of drug-resistant pathogens and that waste from the farms pollutes and harms the environment.

“All food systems have challenges,” acknowledged Barange. But for the FAO, “sufficient, accessible and healthy foods are non-negotiable objectives”.

The UN agency has negotiated new guidelines for sustainable aquaculture, which will be approved by the FAO fisheries committee in Rome next month. These lay out “basic principles for aquaculture, including biosecurity, disease control and limiting environmental impacts”, said Barange.

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