We are eating more fish than ever.
FAO reports consumption of fish has hit a record high, passing 20kg each per year mark.
But the majority of fish today are now produced by fish farms as wild fish stocks already in collapse continue to be fished at unsustainable levels.
While it is good news that farmed fish numbers are plump, we must bring back the wild fish.
Some great fishy data has just been published in the FAO’s biennial State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture (Sofia) report. Manuel Barange, director of FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources, praised the fact that global per capita fish consumption has passed the 20kg per year threshold though fewer wild fish that farmed fish are reaching our tables.
“I personally think this is a very good thing because it shows that over the past five decades, fisheries supply – which combines aquaculture, inland fisheries and marine fisheries – has outpaced human population growth very significantly,” Barange said.
Fish provide vital nutrition in much of the world including the developing world and also create jobs for a great many people. The growth of aquaculture in particular is featured in the report as being key to boosting the global per capita consumption levels of fish. In the 1960s, people consumed an average of 9.9kg per year; by the 1990s consumption was up to 14.4kg, today the 20kg per year rate signals the vital role of fish in our diet and food production.
Fish is one of the most-traded food commodities and plays a vital role in food security, but “the share of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 percent in 1974 to 68.6 percent in 2013,” the report said. It states an estimated 31.4 percent of fish stocks are being over-fished at a biologically unsustainable level.
Overfishing is particularly flagrant in the Pacific Ocean, where the population of bluefin tuna has shrunk by 97 percent, all of the other species of Pacific tuna are in trouble as well as the region remains as the world’s largest tuna fishing area.
Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel, cites decimated fish stocks as a major global crisis, saying:
Fish biomass in intensively exploited fisheries appears to be about one-tenth the level of the fish in those seas a few decades or hundred years ago. Diverse observations support this estimate. For example, the total population of cod off Cape Cod today probably weighs only about 3 percent of all the cod in 1815. The average swordfish harpooned off New England dropped in size from about 500 pounds in 1860 to about 200 pounds in 1930.
This level of collapse of wild fish populations simply cannot be solely, or even mainly, attributed to the clearly guilty usual suspects, over fishers. Such collapse is surely due to more fundamental problems with the ocean pastures that have lost their fish carrying capacity.
Aquaculture to the rescue of wild fish and hungry humanity
Growing fish is six times more efficient at converting feed to meat than cattle, and four times more efficient than pork. Hence the increasing the consumption of fish which takes fewer resources helps to make it a secure food source, less vulnerable to problems in supply.
Mr Barange said the global aquaculture sector provided 74 million tonnes of fish products. Half of this production came from “non-feed” sources, which were species that did not require additional feeding in order to grow, he explained.
This is an important facet of the report because when aquaculture started to develop as an industry, there was (and remains) pressing, persistent, and pernicious ‘astro-turfing’ by vested and competing interests propagandizing that aquaculture requires feeding with high grade protein from other food sources.
The report shows that the boost in the per capita figure was also as a result of more fish products being used for human consumption, rather than being diverted to feed animals or other fish.
“In the 1960s, we used to eat about 67% of the fish we caught and cultured. Currently, it is about 87%,” Barange said.
The FAO is working with its member countries to develop guidelines for sustainable aquaculture that they can implement in their national policies.
Trouble at sea
In spite of the positive signs from the global aquaculture sector, the FAO Sofia report showed that life beneath the waves is becoming ever more perilous for the remaining wild fish.
“Based on FAO’s analysis of assessed commercial fish stocks, the share of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90% in 1974 to 68.6% in 2013. Thus, 31.4% of fish stocks were estimated as fished at a biologically unsustainable level and therefore overfished,” it reported.
Mr Barange said it was vital to continue to push for sustainability in the fisheries and aquaculture sector because it was an important source of employment and trade. There are about 57 million people that are engaged primarily in fishing; 80% of them are in Asia.
“About 12% of the world’s population rely on the fishing industry for their livelihoods. The majority of these people are in the developing world.”
Export value of fish has increased 20 fold
The report notes that trade in fish has grown exponentially in recent decades: “In 1976, fish exports amounted to only US $8bn. In 2014, it had reach US $148bn.
Of this total, US $80bn was directly improving the finances of developing countries. That amount is higher than the net trade revenues of meat, tobacco, rice and sugar combined. The role that fish and fisheries play in economies and labour markets, particularly in the developing world, is very often understated. But it is in fact extremely important.
Barange states, “It is in this context that we want to improve the sustainability of these resources because so many of the poorest people on Earth depend on those resources.”
We have some good advice for Mr. Barange on how to bring back the wild fish.
Not mentioned in the FAO report is the fact that the collapse of wild fisheries is primarily due to collapse of ocean primary productivity. Think of that the way you would think about a pasture on land, you would not expect to see large herds of animal life being sustained on pastures that were allowed to become deserts.
The same is true of our ocean pastures that are becoming lifeless blue deserts, losing primary productivity, their plankton blooms, at a rate of 1% per year for the past 50 years.
A famous poet once said, “All beef is grass.” Indeed it is also true that “All fish is plankton.”
While the usual suspects, the overfishing and pirate fishing enterprises, are adding to the collapse they are not the primary cause. The ocean science community has been working on research and development of solutions to global ocean collapse for more than 30 years. Researchers from more than 50 nations have participated spending perhaps as much as a billion dollars on that research.
They have succeeded! We now know that we can (and must) restore and regenerate our ocean pastures taking a lesson from those learned by humanity 10,000 years ago when we first started tending to pastures on land. What is simply required is to give back to the ocean pastures that which our technological age has taken away. It’s vital mineral dust.
Given the value of ocean fish at some $75 billion dollars per year all that is required to restore ocean fish to historic levels of abundance, providing more fish than could possibly be over-exploited, is less than 1% of the wild fish revenue. Mere millions will regenerate and send tens of billions of dollars worth of fish into the nets and onto the plates of people around the world.
IT JUST WORKS!
By restoring a vital ocean salmon pasture in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012 my ocean pasture restoration project brought back the fish in historic numbers. Where a catch of 50 million Pink Salmon was expected instead 226 million were actually caught. The largest catch in all of history.