New aquaculture record offers way for ending hunger without harming marine environment: FAO Fisheries Chief

The 2024 edition of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report, a comprehensive analysis issued every two years, reveals a significant turning point. For the first time ever, aquaculture production has surpassed capture fisheries as the main source of aquatic animal products. This achievement offers a promising path towards tackling global hunger while safeguarding our oceans.

In an interview with Manuel Barange, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Fisheries and Aquaculture Division, we delve into the latest insights from this landmark report.

Barange sheds light on the implications of this milestone and outlines how they connect with FAO’s “Blue Transformation” vision. He explores strategies to boost resource sustainability and production in developing regions, directly addressing the critical issue of food security. Barange also delves into changing consumer habits, emphasizing the importance of sustainable practices for a long-term, secure food supply.

The expert also underscores SOFIA’s role as a catalyst for international action, solidifying FAO’s commitment to driving transformative change in the aquatic food sector.

What is the major takeaway of this edition of The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) and why is it important?

The main finding of the report is that the production of aquatic animal products has reached a global record of 185 million tons in 2022. This is over four percent more than 2020, which was reported in the previous SOFIA report.

The biggest message, however, is that aquaculture now accounts for 51% of that production. For the first time ever, aquaculture has overtaken capture fisheries as a main producer of aquatic foods and products.

This is a great result because it means that we can continue to increase the production of aquatic foods without increasing the impact on the marine environment, as less than 40 percent of aquaculture is produced in marine waters.

With 735 million people suffering from hunger, reducing this number quickly is critical. We need to produce more food, and improve access to food, and aquaculture offers a way to do this effectively. Importantly, the growth of aquaculture is not because capture fisheries are decreasing; Capture fisheries production has remained globally stable for 30 years. Instead, aquaculture is growing at 5% per year since the turn of the century. This makes aquaculture a great tool for fighting hunger and poverty, all while using natural resources sustainably

Which countries right now lead in global aquaculture production and what can be done to improve sustainable aquaculture in low-income countries or regions?

While aquaculture is experiencing rapid global growth, a significant geographical imbalance exists. Approximately 90% of animal production is concentrated in Asia. In fact, six out of the ten leading producers hail from this continent, including China, Indonesia, India, Viet Nam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, Africa accounts for only 1.9 percent of global animal aquaculture production. This is a key area of focus in the future, as increasing production is essential to maintain aquatic food consumption rates in regions with growing populations.

How is this achieved? We follow a clear strategy. When engaging with countries, we assess the legal framework and policy environment to support industry development. Collaborating with the private sector, we seek to attract investment. Capacity-building initiatives ensure the transfer of technical knowledge to the country, while infrastructure development is coordinated with countries and funding agencies, including safety nets for disease control and environmental considerations.

This comprehensive approach is a gradual process rather than an immediate solution, but it yields remarkable successes over time. For instance, Zambia has increased its fish production from about 12,000 tons to 80,000 tons in just a decade -a testament to the effectiveness of this approach.

How has global consumption of aquatic animal foods changed over the past few decades, and what does this mean for the fight against hunger?

This is crucial because, on the one hand, we know that aquatic foods are very important for nutrition, not just in terms of protein provision, but particularly in bioavailable micronutrients. There has been a growing recognition of this over time. But in the 1960s, we were consuming each one of us on average about nine kilograms of aquatic animal foods per year. In 2022 this figure is 20.7kg. So, it’s more than doubled in these few decades, even though the world’s population has been growing at the same time from 3 to almost 8 billion people.

This is very important because, without those aquatic foods, we do not get the nutrition that we need. Aquatic foods are the best nature-based solution. For most of them, we don’t even need to provide water or feed. And without those aquatic animal foods, we would need to put more pressure on land-based food systems that are already under significant stress. But we look at this from a systems approach. It is not just about aquatic foods or land-based foods. It is about using our resources to ensure that through their use and proper production we eliminate hunger and malnutrition over time

Another important topic that SOFIA addresses is the sustainability of marine stocks. What insights does it provide on this issue?

This is one of the most challenging areas of work. SOFIA shows that 62.3% of the stocks we harvest are sustainably exploited, which means that almost 40% are not. Unsustainable exploitation means that we are extracting more than the population can replenish, gradually depleting these populations.

We have a significant problem because not only many stocks are not sustainably exploited, but also because the trend is gradually worsening over time. However, we know that the largest and most abundant stocks, which reach markets in higher volumes, tend to be from more sustainable sources. For example, 75% of all the main tuna species are now sustainably exploited, compared to only 40% a decade ago. We also have successes in several regions. In the northeast Atlantic, only 25% of the stocks were sustainable in the year 2000; now it’s 74%. Additionally, 93% of US federal stocks are sustainably exploited. These are examples that demonstrate that effective management works, and is yielding positive results. We need to ensure that we scale up these successes, ensuring these practices are adopted globally so that currently unsustainable stocks become sustainable over time.

Sustainability failures usually stem from governance failures, and the causes are complex and multifaceted. In some cases, it is due to a lack of political will. In many cases, it is because of inadequate infrastructure. Managing stocks is expensive; it requires ships, institutions, scientific capacity, which some countries lack.

The work that FAO does supports countries in developing proper management and data collection systems. This includes sharing software to collect relevant data, how to use that data to analyze and assess the state of the stocks, and then implement measures to manage them effectively.

What are the projected trends for aquatic animal production and consumption?

The report provides scenarios of what we expect to happen up to the year 2032. The projection is that by then, the sector will grow by about 10% in production. This growth will allow the consumption rate to increase to 21.3 kg per person per year, compared to 20.7 kg in 2022. This would be a significant achievement given that it would be achieved as population continues to grow globally.

We do not have projections up to 2050, but the report includes an analysis showing that even if we wished to maintain the current per capita consumption rates, by 2050 the sector will need to grow by 25% globally to keep up with population growth. This is the global figure, but in Africa alone, production would need to grow by 75% because it is the region with the most significant expected population growth.

This underscores the need for target action and focus. While there are some promising successes to scale, there are also considerable challenges to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050. We need to collaborate, ensuring we have both the technical elements and the political will. We know what is needed, and we are confident that we have the technical knowledge to achieve it, if supported by political will and concerted action.

What does the report tell us about the livelihoods of those dependent on the sector?

The report shows that approximately 62 million people are directly involved in the fisheries and aquaculture sector. These are the ones that go fishing directly, but if we include the processing subsector, the subsistence subsector, and those that are dependent on them, we estimate that today about 600 million people depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods.

Another noteworthy aspect is the gender dynamic within the fisheries sector. While only about a quarter of those directly engaged in fishing are women, more than 60% of individuals involved in post-harvest activities within the value chain are women. Understanding these gender imbalances is crucial for understanding the sector’s dynamics and devising targeted solutions.

On the economic front, the report highlights that the trade in aquatic foods has reached an all-time high of $195 billion, a 19% increase compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. This indicates not only recovery from the pandemic but also substantial growth, particularly benefiting middle and low-income countries. In fact, the net economic benefits derived from aquatic foods for low and middle-income countries surpass those from all other agricultural commodities combined. This underscores the significant economic importance of aquatic foods and emphasizes the necessity of ensuring their sustainability both now and in the future.

This report’s edition has the subtitle Blue Transformation in Action. What is FAO’s Blue Transformation and what has it achieved so far?

FAO’s Blue Transformation is a vision born from the ongoing transformations within the aquatic food sector, exemplified by aquaculture’s rapid development. It aims to make these transformations more effective and impactful in tackling hunger and poverty.

There are three main objectives in FAO’s Blue Transformation. The first is to continue growing aquaculture sustainably, with a target of growing it by 35% by the end of this decade. The second objective is to improve fisheries management because, although capture fisheries continue to produce well, sustainability concerns remain. We have a target of ensuring that 100% of fisheries in the marine environment and inland waters are subject to proper management measures. The third objective is to develop the value chains of aquatic foods. It is not just about what you capture or what you grow, it is what you do with it: reducing losses, adding value to the product, and facilitating access to markets and consumers. All those are part of a package of what we think needs to be done to make sure that the sector contributes more to ending hunger and poverty.

In terms of the successes of Blue Transformation, in aquaculture, for example, we currently provide support to more than 40 countries on how to develop aquaculture properly; supporting their policy development; transferring intelligence and innovation; doing capacity building; and helping them as well to attract investment into the sector.

One of our recent achievements is agreeing with all FAO Members on new guidelines for sustainable aquaculture. These guidelines define the practices necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector, and form the basis of our future support to countries.

A cornerstone of FAO’s work in sustainable fisheries is the Nansen Program. One of the longest-running initiatives in this field, it currently operates in 32 countries across Africa and the Bay of Bengal. Through this program, a dedicated research vessel surveys the waters of these countries, providing crucial scientific data to the countries to support resource management decisions. This long-standing FAO program has been in operation for almost 50 years, thanks to the generous funding of Norway.

We also collaborate with other UN organizations, particularly the World Trade Organization, to implement agreements on fisheries subsidies. This ensures that fish reaching markets are legal and fairly priced based on universally agreed-upon rules. Similarly, we work with the World Health Organization to promote consumer awareness of the value of aquatic foods beyond just food security. We emphasize their role in nutrition security, as aquatic foods are a crucial source of micronutrients.

In light of the report’s findings, what are the next steps?

Every two years, SOFIA serves as a benchmark for assessing our progress. Given the report’s long history of publication, we can observe how various interventions have impacted these trends.

SOFIA is subtitled Blue Transformation in Action. Over time, our data analysis, supported by consensus with FAO Members, regional conferences, and partners, is that we have an urgent and essential need for Blue Transformation. Furthermore, there is a shared understanding of the technical principles behind this transformation.

SOFIA elucidates these principles and tracks our progress in adhering to them. In the coming years, we will use this as a foundation for shaping our global, regional and national programs of work. As the primary UN agency in the sector, we serve as the principal source of information on the status, dynamics, and trends within the sector, upon which countries and partners rely.

We also facilitate negotiations between countries and regions on matters pertinent to fisheries and aquaculture. Our extensive capacity-building program assists countries in translating interventions into policy actions, on-the-ground work, private sector engagement, and ensuring consumer benefits.

This comprehensive approach is now widely accepted and understood, and SOFIA enables us to move forward with these interventions effectively.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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