For nearly all of human history, people have been hunter-gatherers. Agriculture has been a very recent development. On land, domestication dominates our food system—cows, chickens, pigs, and vegetables that we have greatly changed from their wild progenitors. Yet when it comes to food from the sea, hunter-gatherers have continued to dominate, right through to the industrialized present. But that’s about to change. For a wild-fish lover like me—and likely you, too—this passing of an ancient era may be a little disappointing.
Over the last three decades, we have seen a tremendous rise in fish farming or aquaculture—with production increasing nearly twelve times. The rapid rise in the aquaculture industry has stemmed from the need to produce more fish to meet growing demand. This is because as the global population has continued to increase, demand for fish has risen. Yet, at the same time, wild fish has become scarcer, as a result of decades of overfishing and poor fisheries management.
And now, it is projected that humans will soon consume more farmed fish than wild-caught fish. When this occurs it will certainly be a milestone. But is this good or bad? And what does it mean for the future of wild-capture fisheries?
I admit that aquaculture does offer much promise in meeting global fish demands. However, it can also come with many problems and risks. Many of the risks are similar to those of any agricultural practice. They include pollution, destruction of habitats to produce fish farms, disease outbreaks, escaped farmed fish out-competing or breeding with wild fish, and the use of antibiotics and pesticides. And for carnivorous fish, the food to feed them must come from somewhere—often from wild fish in the ocean. This is not to say that all aquaculture is bad— there are good, environmentally friendly aquaculture practices out there. But it depends on how the species is raised and what it is fed.
What concerns me is that while the aquaculture industry has been growing, we seem to have made little progress in improving our wild fish populations. And, despite promises that aquaculture will reduce pressure on wild fish, this has not occurred.
A recent report on the state of our fisheries by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicates that 57% of wild fish populations remain fully-exploited, which means there is no potential for any increase in catches. And 30% of fish populations are overexploited – meaning fishing levels are too high, and we need to rebuild their populations. Even more troubling, is the increasing gap between the amount of fishers/fishing effort and the amount of fish out there. In other words, we are exerting more effort to catch less fish, which is highly inefficient. In fact, the economic losses due to this poorly managed system are estimated to be around 50 billion dollars!
Given all that healthy wild fish populations have to offer—from providing food and jobs, to supporting recreational and leisure activities, and helping maintain healthy ocean ecosystems— I find the current state of our fisheries quite saddening. We cannot let the growing aquaculture industry cause us to forget about our wild fish. Wild fish still need a lot of attention and big fixes. And simply shifting the focus to farming fish is not going to solve the problems wild fish face.
We must work harder to achieve sustainable wild-caught fisheries, because we cannot let the remaining hunter-gathers go by the wayside. For many around the globe, fishing remains critically important, especially for people in developing nations, where fishing is often their only means to support themselves and obtain needed protein.
I believe that both aquaculture and wild fisheries have a role to play in global food security. And it is vitally important we work to improve both. We must also remember that we will not solve our problems just by focusing on producing more fish—rather we must focus on more sustainable fish production.
To learn more about both wild and farmed fish, please visit our “Fish as Food ” page.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.