More than one billion people worldwide rely on fish as a major source of animal proteins. Increasingly, a significant share of that fish is being grown by human-managed aquaculture fisheries -- the majority of them located in those areas of the world most vulnerable to food insecurity.

Between 1970 and 2000, FAO figures show, aquaculture's contribution to global fisheries (in terms of shellfish and finfish production, not plants) increased nearly seven-fold, from 3.9 to 27 percent of the total. In 2000, the sector provided over 36 percent of the world's food-fish supplies.

The lion's share of global aquaculture production occurs in developing countries (90 percent of the total) and Low-Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDCs, 81 percent). Indeed, annual growth of the sector in LIFDCs over the last three decades has been more than double that in developed countries.

And most of that production happens on small, family-managed fish farms.

"Just about 13 percent of production comes from what is sometimes called 'industrial aquaculture' and involves carnivorous species at the top of the food chain," notes Rohana Subasinghe, a Senior Fisheries Officer at FAO and Secretary of the Committee on Fisheries's Sub-Committee on Aquaculture. "The bulk of production involves fish low on the food chain and occurs in developing countries, particularly in Asia, where aquaculture provides livelihoods and meets pressing food and nutrition needs."

Healthy and affordable

For millions of people around the world, fish is a dietary mainstay. FAO figures for 2000 show that fish provided around 19 percent of total animal protein supplies in Africa, 21 percent in China and 23 percent in Asia. At the country level, the profile of fish in meeting nutritional needs can be even higher. In the Philippines, for example, the population gets 53 percent of essential animal proteins by eating fish.

"One of the main factors behind the high demand in developing countries for staple food fish -- in particular inexpensive farmed freshwater fish species feeding low on the aquatic food chain -- is their greater affordability to the poorer segments of the community," says Subasinghe.

But the benefits of eating fish add up to more than household economics. Even in small quantities, fish can tip the balance in terms of providing a healthy diet. It is a rich source of high-quality protein and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and D, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium and iodine. Similarly, the oils supplied by many fish species have a number of demonstrated dietary and health benefits.

Aquaculture and poverty alleviation

Beyond its direct role in the fight against hunger, aquaculture can also indirectly improve food security by reducing poverty, providing jobs and boosting foreign exchange earnings in the developing world.

Today, fish is one of the most traded international food products -- the value of world fisheries production in 2001 was US$56 billion -- and developing countries produce more than 50 percent of the fish and fishery products being sold internationally.

This means jobs. Aquaculture provides employment to millions of people worldwide, either directly or through affiliated industries that provide feed, equipment or services to fish farmers.

Total employment in the sector is highest in China, where it employs almost 4 million people full-time. In Viet Nam, where aquaculture employment is estimated at over 700 000 people, jobs in the catfish and shrimp sectors have in recent years provided an average annual household income of over US$1 000 -- significantly more than that generated by comparable agriculture practices. The average annual household income nationwide in Viet Nam is about US$408.

Tackling questions of health and safety

However, along with the benefits of aquaculture come challenges.

The globalization of the world food trade has put food safety front and centre in international debates. Fish products in general -- and aquaculture products in particular -- have been subject to close scrutiny for their safeness and environmental impacts.

Specific issues of concern include loss of natural habitats to shrimp farms, the spread of diseases and the use of antibiotics, the reliance on fishmeal from capture fisheries in some operations and the introduction of non-native species to local ecosystems.

"These are real problems. But we know that most of them stem from weak regulatory frameworks and too rapid development associated with the great commercial potential of some high-value species," says Serge Garcia, director of FAO's Fishery Resources Division. "Our focus needs to be on improving our understanding of the real impacts and causes, identifying the remedies and forging agreement on collective actions and responsible measures."

"Challenges to sustainable development in aquaculture are only half the story," adds Subasinghe. "Important lessons have been learned. We have seen places where tremendous improvements in sustainable production have taken place."

To help tackle environmental and safety issues and chart out a course for the sustainable development of the aquaculture sector, FAO's Committee on Fisheries established an international Sub-Committee on Aquaculture in 2001. This body -- over 50 different countries actively participate -- meets regularly to take up issues of shared concern, shape the work of FAO's fisheries department, and make recommendations regarding national and international policy related to aquaculture.

"The Sub-Committee has the responsibility to identify and debate key issues and develop practical, action-oriented recommendations," explains Garcia. "The ultimate objective is to ensure that this important sector is developed in a sustainable, responsible and equitable manner."

FAO's Sub-Committee on Aquaculture is meeting this week in Norway. Read more.

August 2003

George Kourous
Information Officer, FAO
[email protected]
(+39) 06 570 53168