SINGAPORE — Even as global food prices hit record levels, rising in January for the seventh month in a row amid concerns about future shortages, fish farming is a bright spot in the generally challenging outlook for food production. This is why Japan and many other Asian countries are so interested in aquaculture.

In the past, most fish have been caught in the wild. However, in recent decades, a rapidly growing volume and range of fish have been raised in tanks and ponds on land, or in cages and nets in oceans, lakes and rivers, helping to meet growing demand for protein. Aquaculture is now a $100 billion industry.

Asia has led the way in production and exports of both wild capture and farmed fish, making an increasingly important contribution to the region’s food security, while providing expanded employment opportunities and alleviating poverty.

Southeast Asia accounts for one-quarter of all fish for human consumption produced in Asia. Worldwide, fisheries support the livelihoods of about 540 million people, or 8 percent of the population.

But the most striking development has been in fish farming. The latest estimate from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is that aquaculture will meet more than half of all food fish consumption by next year.

Most traditional wild fisheries are being over exploited or harvested at the maximum yield at which stocks can be sustained. So fish farming is seen as a key way to increase supply in a world hungry for protein. The growing supply of affordable fish in Asia has contributed to rapid urbanization and industrialization, and thus to economic growth.

Global production of food fish from aquaculture, including fin fishes, crustaceans, mollusks and other aquatic animals, reached nearly 53 million tons in 2008, according to the FAO’s annual report on the state of world fisheries published Jan. 31. In 1950, production was less than 1 million tons a year.

As demand grew and technology improved, aquaculture output rose at an average annual rate of 8.3 percent between 1970 and 2008, while the world population increased much more slowly at just 1.6 percent a year.

As a result, the average annual supply of farmed fish has risen 10-fold, from less than 1 kg in 1970 to nearly 8 kg in 2008. Aquaculture production has been growing at three times the rate of world meat production since 1950.

In China, the world’s largest fish farmer, just over 80 percent of fish consumed by humans in 2008 was from aquaculture, up from 24 percent in 1970. Asia as a whole accounts for nearly 90 percent of global production from fish farming and over three-quarters of its value.

Of the 15 leading producers, 11 are Asian economies. The top six are all in Asia. While China is by far the biggest, it is followed by India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh.

The expansion of fish farming in Asia has been impressive. But will it continue? The Global Aquaculture Alliance, a trade association, says that output must double in the next 10 years to keep pace with demand, particularly from a growing middle class in Asia and other parts of the developing world.

Ideally, as fish farming expands, it should provide a breathing space for wild fisheries to recover. “In a world likely to face a future of increasing food prices and decreasing food security, it is becoming more and more apparent that running down one fishery after another is a disaster in the making,” says Alfred Schumm, a fisheries specialist with the WWF conservation group.

The FAO report found that the proportion of marine fish stocks estimated to be under exploited or moderately exploited declined from 40 percent in the mid-1970s to 15 percent in 2008, whereas the ratio of over exploited, depleted or recovering stocks increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 32 percent in 2008. The proportion of fully exploited stocks has remained relatively stable at about 50 percent of the total since the 1970s.

“That there has been no improvement in the status of stocks is matter of great concern,” said senior FAO fisheries expert Richard Grainger, one of the report’s editors. “The percentage of over exploitation needs to go down, although at least we seem to be reaching a plateau.”

Aquaculture is not as separate from wild fishing as it may seem. This is because wild fish are widely used to make the fishmeal and fish-oil components for feeding farmed fish. Availability and high cost of feed is one of the constraints to future aquaculture expansion. Pollution and environmental degradation are problems. So, too, are shortage of land, fresh water and suitable baby wild fish to build stocks of farmed fish.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia the trend in fish farming is to go offshore because most countries in the region have extensive coastlines. As a result, mariculture has become the fastest growing part of the business.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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