Can the Ocean Feed a Growing World?

Healthy fisheries may be the key to feeding ten billion people-if they're managed correctly.

Published 15 Aug 2018, 10:50 BST
Catch from a pink salmon fishery.
Catch from a pink salmon fishery.
Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

If current population trends continue, experts estimate the world will need to double food production by 2050, and those same experts say fish are the answer.

“We're running out of options on land,” says Vera Agostini from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. “There's only so much we can take from the planet, so fisheries and aquaculture will be critical.”

In 2016, fisheries yielded 171 million tons of fish for consumption. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 201 million tons.

To reach that goal, fisheries face a host of environmental issues and economic concerns, and advocates are saying not all fishing might be worth the effort.

What Does the Fishing Industry Look Like?

Earlier this summer, the FAO published a comprehensive overview of the fishing industry called The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. It outlined the history of an industry they expect to play a critical role in meeting food consumption targets.

As a food source, fish can be a key source of protein. Just 150 grams of fish can provide the average adult with over half of their daily protein requirement. In developing countries with growing economies and individual wealth, like China, fish consumption is booming. In 2016, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. were consuming just under half the world's caught fish. By 2015, Asia was consuming two thirds of the world's caught fish.

Both a growing population and an increasingly wealthy one demand foods rich in protein and nutrition. A 2015 study published in the journal Food Security found that fish accounted for 10 percent of the world's food security.

The paper's authors, some former FAO analysts, wrote that they were making the case for fish to be increasingly added to the “overall debate and future policy about food security and nutrition.”

Catching Fish at Sea

Other researchers have been more sceptical about how fish can become a more bountiful food supply, particularly fish that comes from the high seas.

A paper published last week in the journal Science Advances found that fishing done on the high seas (any region 200 miles offshore any land) plays a negligible role in ensuring global food security.

“Most of the fish are sold as an upscale food items,” says ecologist Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer who authored the study. “Small local operations don't fish in the high seas. The fishing on the high seas is conducted by larger industrial fleets.”

That's because, between fuel and labour costs, high seas fishing is expensive. In another paper published by Sala in Science Advances last June, a team of researchers found that as much as 54 percent of high seas fishing would be unprofitable were it not for government subsidies.

To reach the most expansive parts of the globe, fishing vessels generally come from wealthier nations. Eighty-five percent of high seas fishing is done by China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

It's not just the high seas that are dominated by wealthy nations. On 1st August, another Science Advances study confirmed that, even beyond the high seas, those five countries dominate industrial fishing as a whole.

Critics of industrial fishing, like Sala, argue that the FAO should focus on small-scale fisheries, not industrial ones, when strategizing how to feed the world.

A Rising Interest in Aquaculture

Unlike wild fish, farm-raised fish are grown in fresh water or salt water pens.

In 2014, the World Bank published a report stating that, by 2030, 62 percent of the world's seafood will be farm-raised.

In their 2016 report, the FAO found that aquaculture already accounted for 47 percent of the seafood we consume.

A Nature study published in August of last year ambitiously outlined how aquaculture could potentially be scaled up to meet the world's demand for seafood without depleting ocean stocks.

In certain parts of the ocean, the study identified regions as deep as 650 feet that could be used to grow certain kinds of fish. By leveraging the available space they estimated, the study's authors concluded that 15 billion metric tones of fish could be farmed every year.

Will It Take a Toll on the Environment?

A greater emphasis on fishing worries some environmental activists.

At sea, increasing the number of wild-caught fish has led to overfishing, or entirely depleted fisheries. Strict regulations on where fishers can fish and what they can catch has been effective, says NOAA. In 2017, the organisation published a report finding that overfished stocks in U.S. waters remained low. It's a significant improvement, they say, from nearly 20 years ago when several commonly eaten species were almost fished to extinction.

Fishing nets can also harm the environment. Some accidentally ensnare animals like marine mammals. Trawls can tear up habitats like coral. And old fishing nets are one of the top sources of ocean pollution.

The U.N. also intends to increase the amount of protected areas in the ocean. While some MPAs allow fishing, others are completely restricted and have previously left industry and activists competing for the same space. Both Sala and Agostini say they hope MPAs can be used as a tool to improve the health of adjacent stocks, making them more lucrative.

Farming fish, instead of catching them wild, isn’t always the silver bullet it sometimes seems.

Some fish species cope with small, contained spaces better than others, and those that don't are prone to developing and spreading diseases.

In offshore aquaculture farms, faulty cages or storms could allow diseased fish to escape, infecting wild populations nearby. Sites that are inland are also at risk from disease spread.

At the FAO, Agostini says the organisation is optimistically planning to create more sustainable ocean practices while drastically increasing fish as a food source over the next 18 years.

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