Aquaculture accounts for an increasing proportion of global fish supplies but a new study shows that fish farming is largely absent from those parts of the world where it is most needed. Photo: N. Kautsky/Azote


The poor man's fish?

Opportunities and challenges emerging from increased aquaculture production

Story highlights

  • Study looked at global contribution of farmed fish to food security and nutritional needs of poor consumers
  • Findings suggest that farmed fish are largely absent from where it is needed most, but other factors, like the fish species being farmed, must be also considered
  • Future analyses should determine which type of fish should be farmed to most benefit low income groups

Farmed fish is big business but not yet a savior for the hungry poor. Today, more than 40 percent of all fish consumed derives from farming, but the distribution of it is skewed and the nutrition levels could be improved. In other words, the contribution of aquaculture to global food security is both an issue of where the production occurs and what is being produced. 

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Fish Biology, former Post-doctoral centre researcher Marc Metian has together with centre colleage Max Troell and partners from the organization WorldFish looked at the contribution of farmed fish to food security and nutrition needs of poor consumers.

What they found was that fish farming is largely absent from those parts of the world where it is most needed. Even Sub-Saharan Africa, where soil and climate is favourable, falls short when it comes to required production.

Growing in size but still limited in access
The authors argue that aquaculture radically has changed the availability of certain food-fish types, species and nutrients consumed via fish. But for aquaculture to fulfill its potential as a potent provider of food and nutrition, factors like availability and costs must be considered.

The aquaculture industry may grow on a global scale but that will not automatically benefit the poorest areas of Sub-Saharan Africa if these factors are not taken into account.

Although global food supplies increased, growing competition for farm land for biofuels, lack of key inputs in some places and natural disasters have, since 2006, resulted in high and volatile food prices, a situation that is likely to continue for some time according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Poor, food import-dependent countries with inadequate resources to deal with changes will continue to be disproportionally affected. 

"In Sub-Saharan Africa the undeveloped aquaculture sector remains dominated by smallholder, subsistence-type operations where physical access to the small amounts of fish produced is largely limited to producer households and their neighbors," Max Troell explains. 

Quality, not quantity
Where aquaculture production dominates the market, farmed fish tends to be cheaper and increasing economic access. In Egypt, for example, farmed fish now account for two-thirds of all fish consumed. It is also considerably cheaper than most wild-caught fish. The same goes for Bangladesh. 

But access to small fish low on nutrition solves no problem.

"While production of smaller, less expensive fish undoubtedly increases access of poor consumers, from a food and nutrition perspective the point is not how much fish is eaten but that fish consumption should fulfill its potential to help meet nutritional needs," Troell says.

From this perspective, oily fish and small fish that are eaten whole are superior in nutrition, the problem is that they are generally not farmed (more commonly used as animal and aquaculture feed). The absence of obvious candidate small fish species for aquaculture and the likely high costs for seeds may today challenge profitability.

However, there are several good economic and environmental reasons to produce smaller-sized herbivorous and omnivorous fish or fish products for poor consumers. In addition to increased economic access, production is higher, more energy efficient and cheaper compared to bigger sized fishes. 

But because nutrition in farmed fish is often inferior to that of wild fish, more research is needed in order to identify what small species might be suitable for farming. 

"No doubt aquaculture contributes to food security and will increasingly do so considering growing demand and stagnated catches from capture fisheries. However, its role out from a food security and nutritional perspective needs further analysis, especially concerning risks from allocation of nutritious wild fish for aquaculture feeds and lack of focus on aquaculture species and systems generating fish for lower income groups," Marc Metian concludes.

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"Aquaculture accounts for an increasing proportion of global fish supplies, but access and availability is for many species focused on high-income markets despite the fact that there are many environmental and also good economic reasons to focus more on low-income markets"

Marc Metian, co-author



Beveridge, M.C.M. ; Thilsted, S.H. ; Phillips, M.J. ; Metian, M. ; Troell, M. ; Hall, S.J. 2013. Meeting the food and nutrition needs of the poor: the role of fish and the opportunities and challenges emerging from the rise of aquaculture. Journal of Fish Biology, VOL. 83, Issue 4. DOI: 10.1111/jfb.12187

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Max Troell is a system ecologist mainly working with environmental problems associated with aquaculture. This work focuses on inter-linkages between aquaculture and fisheries, on different spatial scales.