The United Nations held a summit in Rome earlier this month to find solutions to the global food crisis. The focus was on grain shortages and high prices that have recently roiled countries around the world, causing mass protests and political instability in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Improvements in food production on land, particularly in poor countries, are urgently needed. Research and development in agriculture have long been neglected. But there is another looming food crisis — this one at sea, as too many fishing boats chase too few fish. It has not yet attracted much attention from Asian policymakers, but it will in the future, as the shortage of fish intensifies and prices rise.

Asia has the world’s largest fishing fleet, with 42 percent of registered tonnage.

Major Asian fishing powers include Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Their boats roam far from home, sometimes causing resentment in other countries that complain they are losing fish to foreigners.

The Asian Development Bank says that Asian fishing vessels, which are often subsidized by governments, have twice the capacity needed to extract what the oceans can sustainably produce. The result, according to the ADB, is “a vicious circle: as catches per vessel fall, profits plummet, and fishers overfish to maintain supplies, causing serious depletion of stocks and endangering long-term availability.”

Overfishing is a global problem, but its implications for Asia are particularly serious. Fish is a staple food in the region and a major source of protein. The ADB predicts that demand for fish in Asia will continue to rise, reaching about 69 million tons by 2010 and accounting for 60 percent of world food fish demand, compared to some 53 percent in 1990.

Although Japan will remain the biggest fish consumer on a per capita basis, China — with a projected population of 1.4 billion — will take by far the largest amount of fish by 2010, an estimated 28 million tons. Can wild fisheries and aquaculture meet the demand from Asia and the rest of the planet?

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which convened the food summit, has issued a grim snapshot of the state of world fisheries. It warned of growing pressures on stocks as fish consumption increases, adding that this was unsustainable.

The FAO said that 52 percent of world fish stocks were fully exploited, compared with 47 percent in 2002, while nearly 25 percent were over-exploited.

It said that seven of the top 10 marine fish species were already stretched to their limits or in decline, including Chilean jack mackerel, Alaska pollock, Japanese anchovy and blue whiting.

“Stock depletion has implications for food security and economic development,” said Ichiro Nomura, the FAO’s assistant director general for fisheries. “It reduces social welfare in countries around the world and undermines the well being of underwater ecosystems.”

The U.N. agency forecast that total world consumption of fish may rise by more than 25 percent to 179 million tons by 2015, underscoring the urgent need to rebuild depleted wild fish stocks while raising coastal farm fish production. Yet the latter, now widely practiced in Asia, is problematic because it often causes environmental damage.

Over the past few decades, coastal aquaculture development in Asia, especially shrimp farming, has led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of hectares of mangrove forests, which are vital for filtering nutrients, cleansing water and protecting coastlines from floods and storms.

In the Philippines, for example, it has been estimated that as much as 65 percent of the original 450,000 hectares of mangroves have been converted to other uses, chiefly brackish water fish ponds.

Effluent from aquaculture ponds and pens is frequently released, polluting surrounding waterways. The effluent includes fertilizer, undigested feed and biological waste from the fish that are bred this way.

Farmed fish that escape into the wild can threaten native species by acting as predators, competing for food and habitat, or inter-breeding and changing the genetic pools of wild organisms.

Rapidly increasing demand in Asia for animal feed with high fish-protein content is also contributing to pressure on the wild stocks from which these products are derived. Meanwhile, imposing quotas so that overfished areas can recover is unpopular and difficult to enforce.

Can Asia meet future demand fish? The ADB says that the answer will be positive only if strong action is taken to improve wild fisheries resource management, develop aquaculture in a responsible way and better protect the environment. Otherwise, it warns, the region could face a serious fish shortage.

One promising avenue would be to reduce waste.

Wild-fishing operations capture, kill and discard a massive quantity of by-catch — fish that are the wrong size, a commercially unattractive species or otherwise undesirable.

The boats concentrate on filling their freezers with only the most profitable fish.

The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C. has calculated that more than 20 million tons a year of fish and other marine organisms are discarded at sea. This is the equivalent of nearly 20 percent of annual amount of fish eaten in the world. Asia can no longer afford waste on this scale.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a security specialist at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.