Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Genetic technologies to improve fish production

Traditional and modern breeding techniques needed to increase food production in aquaculture

Bangkok, Thailand, 28 Jan 2013 -- Fisheries experts from more than 13 countries opened the first of two consultations today that could herald new ways of reducing hunger and poverty by cataloguing and improving aquatic genetic resources for food and agriculture. Most farmed fish have not been domesticated the way that farmed crops and livestock have been, so farmed fish remain very similar to their wild relatives. The meeting will consider the benefits of genetic improvement by using traditional breeding techniques as well as modern genetic technologies to increase growth rates, reduce inputs and improve the cost-effectiveness of aquaculture.

The consultation will also examine how to maintain the diversity of  aquatic breeds so the world’s population can benefit from selective breeding. In the wild it is about maintaining  biodiversity so wild  breeds will be able to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Wild fish and invertebrates, such as mollusks and crustaceans, and seaweed, an aquatic plant, have provided people around the world with important sources of nutrition since ancient times.  More recently, aquaculture has become the fastest growing food producing sector globally.

Genetic technologies are now being applied to increase food production in aquaculture through traditional and modern breeding programmes. Genetic markers can help manage capture fisheries and distinguish farmed from wild stocks in mixed fisheries. Genetic technologies are also now finding application in post-harvest and trade to assist in product identification and traceability.

Opening the consultation, FAO Deputy Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific Man Ho So, on behalf of Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative, said: “Applying genetic principles to aquatic species used in aquaculture is a recent phenomenon and the sector has not yet used available technologies to increase production to the extent that has been done by the crop, poultry and livestock sectors. Genetic technologies are also finding application in post-harvest and trade of fish and fish products.”

So also said, “Traceability is a key aspect of certification and eco-labeling schemes. Genetic markers provide an extremely sensitive means to identify samples of fish, such as frozen material, fillets and early life history stages, for example, eggs and larvae, which are hard or impossible to identify by other means. Molecular genetic diagnoses of fish and fish products have already identified cases of mislabeling and consumer fraud, and have helped convict offending parties.”

In capture fisheries, genetic stock identification is becoming a powerful tool to identify species, to understand fishery dynamics, to differentiate farmed from wild stocks and to help identify fishery management units. 

Today capture fisheries and aquaculture directly employ over 180 million people, supporting the livelihood of 8 percent of the world’s population, with each sector providing about 50 percent of the world’s aquatic food supply.

About two-thirds of the world’s total fish production is consumed in Asia. That is about 21 kilogrammes per person. The region is also home to more than 87 percent of the world’s fishers and fish farmers. About 90 percent of global aquaculture production by weight comes from Asian producers, while some 55 percent of global capture fisheries production comes from the region.

Asia reports to FAO that it has approximately 800 taxonomic groups of fished and farmed aquatic species. Yet even in Asia where fish is a staple food, we know very little about the genetics of the vast majority of these groups. 

Globally there are more than 31 000 species of finfish, 85 000 species of mollusks, 47 000 species of crustaceans and 13 000 species of seaweed. More than 5 000 species are captured in wild fisheries and about 400 species used in aquaculture.  This diversity of aquatic genetic resources underpins the productivity and sustainability of aquaculture and capture fisheries and the essential services provided by aquatic ecosystems in marine, brackish and freshwaters. It is also the  foundation of  our future  food supplies and the basis for evolution and adaptation of species in the wild to meet the challenges of climate change and disease. The same genetic resources also  provide the basis for improving species that are farmed. This wild and captive genetic diversity is what allows fishers and fish farmers to meet the changing demands of the consumer.

According to Devin Bartley, FAO Senior Fishery Resources Officer, “If we are to feed 9 billion people by 2050 we had better start figuring out ways to get improved production from our food sources. Genetic improvement is one excellent way to do this. The development of agriculture and the advancement of culture itself have been largely through genetic improvement.”

Bartley said, “Domestication is genetic improvement. We certainly do not eat wild corn, wheat, rice, pork, beef, or chicken. These all have become much more productive through genetic improvement. The most common method of genetically improving things is through traditional breeding that has been practiced for more than 10 000 years. With fish it has been much more recent. If all farmed fish were put into traditional breeding programmes, we would be able to provide all the world’s 9 billion people in 2050 with the same amount of  fish they enjoy today without using more land, water or feed.”

FAO projections tell us that another 40 million tonnes of  fish and aquatic products will be needed by 2030 to feed the world at present consumption levels. This will involve increasing production by at least 2 percent a year. We know that traditional animal breeding can result in gains of more than 5 percent a year – more than enough to meet the projected need. Aquaculture development and improved fishery management can provide the necessary gains sustainably if aquatic genetic resources are developed responsibly.

With the world’s waters containing tremendous resources for food and agriculture, the two meetings are fundamental to FAO’s twin strategic goals of promoting sustainable fisheries and aquaculture and reducing hunger and poverty.  The immediate purpose of the consultations were to complete and approve a draft questionnaire on aquatic genetic resources and to establish the terms of reference for an advisory group on aquatic genetic resources called for by the Committee on Fisheries (COFI), a subsidiary body of the FAO Council, which was established by the FAO Conference in 1965.

The questionnaire will be completed by FAO member countries and sent to FAO, which will use the answers to publish the first report of the State of World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Aquaculture under the auspices of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture expected in 2017.

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