Can burgeoning seafood demand be quenched?

There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that two 140-gram portions of seafood a week is the bare minimum needed for a person to support good health and development. And with the world’s population forecasted to hit 9 billion by 2050, simple arithmetic shows that the annual seafood supply will need to grow to around 260 million metric tons in order to provide those two 140-gram portions.

Wild fisheries production has plateaued since the mid-1980s at around 85 million metric tons, and even the most optimistic forecasters say there is little chance of pushing that total significantly higher. Since then, aquaculture production has picked up the slack and grown dramatically, reaching 52 million metric tons by 2008. However, it still leaves a gap of 120 million metric tons of seafood by 2050, which can only be supplied by aquaculture.

Forecasters recognize this looming shortfall, and over the past 10 years aquaculture strategies have been produced at regional, national and global levels. In Asia, where the bulk of the world’s fish farms are located, these strategies have resulted in a combination of bulk-food production capability and the growing of high-value exportable species. We also see a range of intensive and extensive freshwater and marine systems, with finfish, crustaceans, mollusks and seaweeds being produced, often in integrated systems. In Europe, the focus has been on producing high-value marine finfish, while the production of mollusks has been allowed to stagnate to the point where production is now even lower than it was in 1985.

There is nothing wrong with this strategy if we can import the bulk of our seafood, but the era of widely available, cheap imports is likely to end abruptly for a number of reasons:

• The Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the world Food Price Index rose again in January for the eighth consecutive month and reached the highest level in nominal and real terms since the index began in 1990. This trend is expected to continue, and supplies of many key foods will get increasingly tight.

• The growth rate of aquaculture production in Asia is slowing, while its population continues to rise.

• Individual purchasing power is increasing in Asia, and with that power one of the first priorities becomes a better and higher status diet, and that often means seafood.

• Long-term storage of seafood is problematic, and there are no large buffer stocks available to cover short-term shortages caused by the collapse or closure of a fishery.

• The morality of expecting the developing world to produce more fish simply for the developed world to consume it will become more questionable.

England is the latest country to recognize this situation, and an aquaculture strategy is currently under development. Unlike its neighbors within the UK, England has only a small aquaculture industry. Its finfish production is dwarfed by that of Scotland, while its shellfish industry is much smaller than that of Wales or Northern Ireland. Despite the current situation, England can point back in history to the 19th Century when it had one of the world’s greatest oyster industries, and to earlier centuries when ecclesiastical fish ponds were commonplace.

The strategy is being formed with the aim of making the country less reliant on imports and more able to meet the demands of a population that requires healthy, affordable seafood from sustainable sources.

However, an unusual aspect of the strategy is that it is being formed by the aquaculture industry itself, rather than by a government agency. Yet it is hoped that the government will endorse the industry’s aims, particularly as they are designed to meet the demands of existing UK government policies on food security, sustainability and healthy diet. Publication is expected later this year.

Editor’s note: The Global Aquaculture Alliance is tackling the subject of satisfying burgeoning seafood demand at a seminar during the International Boston Seafood Show on 21 March from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Click here to register for a passport to attend the seminar.


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