UN: The world is producing and consuming more seafood, but overfishing remains rife

Global seafood production reached a level of 179 million metric tons (MT) in 2018, with all but 23 million MT going to human consumption. Consequently, average consumption has crept up to 20.5 kilograms per capita, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated in the 2020 edition of its biennial publication, “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture,” released on 8 June.

In the SOFIA report, the U.N. body states that with a yearly growth rate of 3.1 percent, fish consumption has been outpacing both the world population expansion rate of 1.6 percent since 1961 and the 1.1 percent meat consumption rise.

The rise in consumption has been driven by multiple factors, it said. In addition to increased production, there have been technical developments in terms of processing and logistics, reduced raw material waste, and better utilization, and also an increased demand for seafood, which is, in turn, linked to greater consumer awareness of the health benefits of fish as food. It is also recognized that urbanization continues to shape consumption trends in many markets, with urban inhabitants typically having more disposable income to spend on animal proteins like fish.

With regards to actual production, global capture fisheries production reached its highest-ever level of 96.4 million MT in 2018, with the top seven fishing nations of China, Indonesia, Peru, India, the Russian Federation, the United States, and Vietnam accounting for almost 50 percent of the total. World aquaculture production also set a new record with 114.5 million MT, including 82.1 million MT of aquatic animals and 32.4 million MT of algae. Asia has been the dominant force in the aquaculture sector, with an 89 percent share in the last two decades.

In consumption terms, aquaculture accounted for 52 percent of the fish consumed by the world population, with capture fisheries contributing 48 percent.

Aquaculture growth slows

Looking ahead, the SOFIA report projects that total fish production will increase by a further 26 million MT or 15 percent by 2030 to reach 204 million MT and that aquaculture will “continue to be the driving force” behind this growth. The total volume produced by the farming sector is expected to increase by 32 percent to reach 109 million MT by the turn of the next decade, although the report suggests that its average annual rate of growth will reduce from the 2007-2018 level of 4.6 percent to 2.3 percent.

A number of factors should contribute to this slowdown, it said. These include: broader adoption and enforcement of environmental regulations; reduced availability of water and suitable production locations; increasing outbreaks of aquatic animal diseases related to intensive production practices; and decreasing aquaculture productivity gains. Meanwhile, the projected deceleration of China’s aquaculture production is expected to be partially compensated by an increase in production in other countries.

Capture fisheries production is projected to stay at high levels, with some fluctuations over the next decade linked to the El Niño phenomenon. However, it’s not expected that the volume produced in 2030 will exceed current levels.

The share of fish production destined for human consumption is expected to continue to grow, reaching 89 percent by 2030. As such, FAO projects that the per capita consumption will rise to reach 21.5 kilograms in the next decade. Moreover, the per capita fish consumption will increase in all regions except Africa (with a decline of 3 percent). The highest growth rates are projected for Asia (9 percent), Europe (7 percent), and Latin America and Oceania (6 percent each).

Tuna turns a corner

Introducing the new SOFIA report on World Oceans Day, FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said that “fish and fisheries products are recognized not only as some of the healthiest foods on the planet, but also as some of the less impactful on the natural environment,” and should therefore play a more central role in food security and nutrition strategies. 

With SOFIA’s benchmark analysis finding that some 32 percent of stocks are now being fished at biologically unsustainable levels and that the situation is not improving globally, he pointed to “growing evidence” that effective fisheries management results in robust or rebuilding fish stocks, while failure to implement such measures threatens their contribution to food security and livelihoods.

The report confirms that tuna catches reached their highest level of around 7.9 million MT in 2018, and that two-thirds of these stocks are now fished at biologically sustainable levels, representing an increase of 10 percent in two years.

“The improvement, the fruit of contributions from many stakeholders, attest to the importance of active management to reach and maintain biological sustainability, and serves to underscore how urgently we must replicate such approaches in fisheries and regions where management systems are in poor shape," FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Director Manuel Barange said. “Not surprisingly, we notice that sustainability is particularly difficult in places where hunger, poverty, and conflict exist, but there is no alternative to sustainable solutions.”

In regard to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SOFIA states that it is “unlikely” that SDG Target 14.4 – to end overfishing of marine fisheries by 2020 – will be achieved.

Coronavirus impacts

While the latest edition of the SOFIA report provides analysis through to 2018, it acknowledges that at the time of writing – March 2020  the COVID-19 pandemic had affected most countries in the world, with “severe impacts” on the global economy and the food production and distribution sector, including fisheries and aquaculture.

According to an addendum, the global fishing activity may have declined by about 6.5 percent as a result of restrictions and labor shortages due to the health emergency. Regionally, though, in parts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, more than 90 percent of small-scale fishers have been forced to stop their operations due to an inability to sell their catches, widely exacerbated by falling prices.

At the same time, the FAO said the disruption of international transport has particularly affected aquaculture production for export, while greatly reduced tourism and restaurant closures have dramatically impacted distribution channels for many fish types, although retail sales have remained stable or increased for frozen, canned, marinated, and smoked fish with a longer shelf-life.

Additionally, input markets, migrant labor issues, and risks linked to crowded fresh markets have all hindered fisheries output and consumption, with informal supply chains under great stress due to the absence of contractual relationships and established cold chains, it said.

Photo courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


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