Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Aquatic diversity



Aquaculture and capture fisheries make vital contributions to global food security and provide important livelihood opportunities and income for many subsistence fishing and farming families. The world’s wealth of fish genetic resources provides the aquaculture and fisheries sector with great potential to further enhance its contributions to food security and to meeting the challenge of feeding a growing human population. Yet, despite estimates that by 2030 an additional 40 million tonnes of fish per year will be required in order to meet global demand, the opportunities offered by fish genetic diversity remain largely unrealized and unexplored.

  • Capture fisheries: Maintaining aquatic biodiversity, including the genetic diversity of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants, in capture fisheries is fundamental to guaranteeing the productivity of stocks, their resilience and their adaptability to environmental change.
  • Production in marine capture fisheries has increased to such an extent that there is little room for further expansion. More than 50 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, 17 percent are overexploited and 8 percent are depleted or recovering from overuse.

Production in inland water fisheries is often affected by heavy fishing. It is also, more importantly, affected by environmental degradation and the modification of river basins, which affect fish production potential and biodiversity. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that during the last few decades some 20 percent of the world’s freshwater fish species have been listed as threatened, endangered or extinct.

A blue revolution in the twenty-first century

Although humans began to domesticate plants and animals for use in agriculture about 12 000 years ago, more than 90 percent of the aquatic species presently in culture have been bred in captivity (the first step in domestication) only since the beginning of the twentieth century. FAO estimates that 560 species of fish, aquatic invertebrates and aquatic plants are farmed around the world. Most are very similar to their wild relatives, with very few considered to be truly “domesticated”.

Domestication and genetic improvement will assist efforts to increase production and productivity, and will improve the nutritional value of fish and increase their resistance to disease and their ability to adapt to adverse conditions and changing consumer demands. However, capitalizing fully on the enormous potential of aquatic genetic resources also requires recognizing and overcoming:

  • the current lack of information regarding the genetic characteristics, performance, location and accessibility of fish genetic resources and regarding threats to their survival;
  • inadequate national programmes and information systems for aquatic genetic resources; and
  • the lack of a global policy and management approach to aquatic genetic resources.

The challenge is to maintain a broad genetic base for the future, not just to focus on improving a limited number of commercially viable fish strains.

Aquaculture: The contribution of aquaculture to world food fish production soared from 3.9 percent in 1970 to about 48 percent in 2006, with growth expected to continue. Aquatic genetic resources are of pivotal importance for the further genetic improvement of fish strains, to achieve sustainable development of aquaculture.

Aquatic ecosystems: Rising temperatures associated with climate change are threatening low-lying coastal areas of both island and mainland nations, affecting species distribution and creating conditions that are conducive to the introduction and spread of invasive alien species and the resulting loss of aquatic biodiversity, which will have potentially negative impacts on the type and size of catches.

Aquatic genetic diversity
The need for conservation and responsible use

Collection of aquatic genetic resources has taken on a sense of urgency that reflects the pressures on the Earth’s aquatic ecosystems and habitats. Conserving aquatic genetic resources is challenging, complicated and often expensive. Efforts are increasing: ex situ gene banking of fish genetic resources is one strategy, but conservation in situ is still needed.

There are many potential strategies for the sustainable management of aquatic genetic resources. The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries promotes the conservation of aquatic genetic diversity, the maintenance of the integrity of aquatic communities and ecosystems and the responsible use of living aquatic resources at all levels, including the genetic level. Ecosystem approaches to the development of responsible aquaculture and capture fisheries also emphasize the management of aquatic genetic resources. FAO has a long tradition of using an ecosystem approach in fisheries, and, in 2007, published technical guidelines on genetic resource management in aquaculture to support the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

Benefits and risks of improved tilapia
Nile tilapia, often called the “aquatic chicken” because it grows so easily, is a freshwater fish indigenous to Africa. In the early 1990s, strains were exported from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal to Asia, beginning a highly successful breeding programme that resulted in improved fish stock and increased production, improved diets and enhanced income generation and employment in several countries. Understandably, African countries want access to the improved tilapia strains. However, there is a risk. If the new strains of tilapia escape from African fish farms into the wild, they could displace or cross-breed with the native tilapia. Such cross-breeding might negatively affect native species and reduce the potential for further genetic improvement. Comprehensive risk assessments will be required for each potential re-introduction. They will need to take into account both the risk of genetic erosion in the centres of origin of tilapia and the potential opportunities to enhance income, employment and food security among low-income African fish farmers.

The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Taking steps to identify and sustain aquatic genetic resources

In 2007, the Commission called upon its Members to initiate steps to determine the current state of the world’s aquatic genetic resources. Work supported by FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department and by the Commission found that valuable information that has the potential to contribute to improving the management of fish genetic resources is scattered, kept in a range of incompatible formats, and often difficult to access and poorly archived.

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, and as a first step toward compiling the first report on The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture for completion in 2017, the Commission has launched a review of existing information systems, and will work to develop a more informative reporting system for national and international organizations. With the number of farmed aquatic species, strains, hybrids and other genetic resources increasing, information systems are needed in order to identify and determine their relative contributions to farmed fish production. Similarly, better information on the genetics of wild fish populations should contribute to better understanding of how they can be conserved and used sustainably.

The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture will be the first global assessment based on national reporting on aquatic genetic resources for food and agriculture. At its Fourteenth Regular Session, the Commission decided that the focus of the report would be farmed aquatic species and their wild relatives within national jurisdiction.

In addition, the Commission will identify and develop cooperative action and partnerships, which together with an enabling policy environment, will support the maintenance and conservation of a broad genetic base in species used in aquaculture and in their wild relatives. This will include working in cooperation with FAO’s Committee on Fisheries to expand upon the elements of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries that target the conservation and sustainable use of aquatic genetic resources.