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Teaching the value of fish as food can encourage consumption
Teaching the value of fish as food can encourage consumption


During the 1990s annual world fish supplies were maintained at between 13and 16 kilos per capita with a slight upward trend due to the rapidly increasing contribution of aquaculture to the stable, but oscillating, supplies from capture fisheries. This, however, hides variability in levels of production and consumption within countries, amongst countries and between continents. The most relevant change in this context is the decline in per capita supplies in Africa south of the Sahara as a consequence of stagnating supplies from capture fisheries and aquaculture.

According to the FAO Committee on World Food Security, food security - a fundamental human right - prevails when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food they need. Both fisheries and aquaculture contribute: by increasing available food supply and consumption (fish as food); by doing so at times when other foods are in scarce supply (continuity of supply); and by generating income for the purchase of food (fish as a source of income). While fishing preceded farming, fish culture has not everywhere followed development of agriculture. Nevertheless in many regions, also in Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries (LIFDCs), fish culture - including enhancement - integrates naturally with agriculture and its promotion constitutes a realistic strategy to increase food security at small cost.

Fish can be crucial as a source of animal protein but seldom as a source of calories. As can be expected, the contribution of fish as a protein source is particularly important in small island states where, in fact, frequently more than 50 % of the animal protein consumed comes from fish. A similar situation prevails in several coastal States in West Africa and in such large countries as Indonesia and Japan. In some LIFDCS - especially in Asia, but also in some parts of Africa - fish proteins are absolutely essential to food security as they comprise a large share of an already relatively low level of animal protein consumption.

Capture fishers since time immemorial have cured surplus catches, thereby storing food for periods of relative scarcity. In inland fisheries, in addition to using ponds and reservoirs to raise fish, they can also be used to store fish live. Indeed, if the fish is herbivore and water is not in short supply, this can be a very low cost form of storage. Thus aquaculture, and some capture fisheries, provide a potential means for fishers and farmers to bridge the food gap with which they and their families may be confronted with between planting and harvesting.

In many LIFDCs fish is a well-known and frequently consumed and traded food product even in the poorest communities and is therefore a source of income. For some households, selling fish is a means to obtain products or services which household members are not able to produce. Through trading, fishers and aquaculturists thus contribute to better food security not only for their own households but also for households where members neither capture fish in the wild nor raise it in captivity.

Possible solutions

It can be argued that most well conceived support to the fisheries sector eventually produces more fish and net income for those involved, leading to improved food security. Therefore, promoting sustainable fisheries and improving fisheries management contribute to food security. However, additional actions are needed to directly and positively effect on chronically undernourished households. National strategies to improve food security in LIFDCs must therefore place the members of chronically undernourished households in a position to produce more or cheaper food, or, by other means to increase their real income and subsequent access to food. In the context of fisheries this translates into providing more or cheaper fish, but this may be constrained by the limited production than can come from wild capture fisheries. More and cheaper fish may lead to increased incomes for producers (and savings for consumers) and promote regularity of supplies. This can be achieved by:

  1. increasing the individual's capacity to culture fish;
  2. modifying the economic and social environment within which the individual operates in order to facilitate an increased efficiency in producing a given quantity of fish; and,
  3. combining the above actions.

Increasing an individual's capability to assure improved food security for him/her and the household means providing access to more capital (in terms of equipment, land, etc) to better knowledge of the conditions affecting the activities carried out as producer and trader, or to both. Modifying the social and economic environment requires action to: facilitate transport of goods; enable long-distance exchange of information amongst producers, traders and consumers; and improve predictability and stability in economic relationships.

The role of civil society (and of fisheries administrations) is two-fold. First, it can - and is - contributing to the development of a rural development strategy. Fishers organizations, concerned NGOs, and the relevant part of the public administration are increasingly aware of how the fisheries and aquaculture sector can contribute to improved food security and economic growth once the conditions (in terms of an amenable environment and individual capacities and basic rights) for such growth are given. Second, once rural development is increasingly undertaking to upgrade the know-how and capacity of individual fishers and fish farmers.

Fisheries often offers additional employment opportunities, such as manufacturing cages and nets
Fisheries often offers additional employment opportunities, such as manufacturing cages and nets

Action taken

The FAO-Japan Conference on the Sustainable Contribution of Fisheries to Food Security (Kyoto, December 1995) and the World Food Summit (Rome, November 1996) recommended a series of actions which countries should take in order to achieve a growing contribution towards food security from fisheries and aquaculture. The resulting Kyoto Declaration and Plan of Action aims to ensure continued sustainable production from capture fisheries and to promote environmentally sustainable aquaculture in the long term but it does not provide any detailed guidance in respect of fishers and fish farmers in LIFDCs.

At the World Food Summit, governments, in order to combat environmental threats to food security, undertook to promote early ratification and implementation of the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (the UN Fish Stocks Agreement) and of the FAO Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas; to implement sustainable fisheries management and practices, in particular the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries; and to address a responsible and sustainable utilization and conservation of fisheries resources in order to optimize the long-term sustainable contribution of fisheries to food security.

This will be achieved, inter alia, by strengthening and establishing appropriate regional and sub-regional fisheries management organizations or arrangements, by minimizing waste in fisheries, reducing excess fishing capacity and applying the precautionary approach in accordance with the UN Fish Stocks Agreement and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries; by establishing and strengthening integrated marine and coastal area management; by conserving and sustainably using marine and freshwater biodiversity; and by studying the effectiveness of multispecies management in the context of relevant provisions of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and Agenda 21. Moreover, in working to achieve the above, full recognition should be given to the special circumstances and requirements of developing countries, particularly the least developed among them and the small island developing States (SIDS).

FAO assists LIFDCs to develop fish culture and artisanal fisheries as a part of its Special Programme for Food Security. The activities undertaken under the programme are location specific and specific rural communities are helped to improve their food production. In a subsequent phase the projects will be extended to cover more locations and also to be expanded, through the use of investment funds, in terms of the scale of production. Several of the activities undertaken by the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department will have the effect of improving food security in LIFDCs. Among the Departmental activities in support of food security those aiming to get more food out of available fish have been prominent for many years. These activities aim on the one hand to reduce wastage and, on the other, to increase the supply of small pelagics for direct human consumption. Increasingly, the Departmentis also working to address the problems of overfishing caused by overcapacity and to thereby decrease the economic and productive waste that accompanies it. 


Will global supplies of fish continue to keep pace with population growth? If it does, how will the food-insecure and chronically undernourished be affected?

Globally, the outlook seems good. Supplies from capture fisheries seem to hold and aquaculture production is expanding rapidly. A review of the data show that supplies were stable in the mid-1980s and first few years of the 1990s, and increased thereafter, except in Africa. It seems plausible that at least for the rest of the decade the disparity in fish supplies between Asia and Africa - South of the Sahara - will continue to grow. The main reason is that aquaculture production, in absolute terms, is growing rapidly in Asia, but only slowly in non-Asian LIFDCs, particularly in Africa. Thus, while per capita fish production in Asia may well expand - and supplies per capita expand even faster as imports grow faster than exports (in absolute terms) - in sub-Saharan Africa fish production is unlikely to keep pace with a higher population growth, and availability may further decline on account of growing exports and stagnating imports.

This despite the fact that several African countries are giving increasing importance to their fishery sectors. Eventually fish production will grow - possibly faster than population growth - through development of aquaculture and increased use of small water bodies. However, given the low level of production at present, even high growth rates will produce, in the coming decade, only relatively small amounts of fish.

In this near term scenario, the contribution of fisheries to food security will decline in Africa. The households of small-scale fishers and farmers who practice fish farming will suffer less than will the households of the urban poor and landless rural households. On the whole these latter categories are the ones likely to absorb the decline in per capita availability of fish, and, the decline for them can become quite drastic.

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