Where have all our fish gone?

By Henrylito D. Tacio 

If wild fish stocks in the world are allowed to be fished to depletion, by 2020 the price of low value food fish will increase by 35 percent, according to an international center whose mission is to reduce poverty and hunger by improving fisheries and aquaculture. 

“Should that happens, then fish will be removed from the food bowls of the poor,” disclosed the Penang-based WorldFish Center in a recent press statement. 

If the current annual aquaculture growth of 10 percent is maintained, fish prices will increase in real terms by about six percent.  But if this growth rate were to face any setbacks – like disease outbreaks – the price of low value fish will go up by 25 percent. 

Aquaculture, or fish farming, “must grow faster than the current rate in order to supply up to 48 percent of the total food fish production,” urges Dr. Mahfuzuddin Ahmed, co-author of the report, Outlook for Fish to 2020: Meeting Global Demand. 

The report projects that fish consumption in developing countries will increase by 57 percent, from 62.7 million tons in 1997 to 98.6 million tons in 2020.  By comparison, fish consumption in developed countries will increase by only about four percent, from 1997’s 28.1 million tons to 2020’s 29.2 million tons. 

“We can expect major shifts in supply and demand for animal protein from livestock and fish as a result of rapid population growth, increasing affluence and urbanization in developing countries on one hand, and stagnant population combined with a saturated market for fish in the developed countries on the other,” the WorldFish Center said. 

Fish, considered the “last wild meal” in the human diet, are a rich source of essential fatty acids, protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamins A and C.  “Fish contributes over 20 percent of the animal protein intake for more than 2.6 billion people around the world,” said Dr. Modadugu V. Gupta, recipient of World Food Prize 2005. 

In most parts of Asia and the Pacific region, rural household depend on fish for as much as 60-80 percent of their animal protein intake.  “The sector also provides employment to over 25 million people in Asia directly and many more when the support sector is included,” Dr. Gupta said. 

Unfortunately, global fish stocks are heading for collapse.  In the Philippines, for instance, Moro Gulf fishermen used to catch 100,000 tons yearly. Now, they haul in only 2,000 tons, mostly cheap “trash fish.”  Panay Gulf and Bohol Sea yield four to five metric tons per square kilometer yearly – compared with its original potential of 15 metric tons.  And tuna catch, in General Santos, still hasn’t recovered from its 2004 record catch plunge. 

Available information indicates that out of the 600 identified major marine fisheries around the world, 50 percent are “fully exploited.”  This indicates that they have reached their maximum sustainable yields and there is no room for further increase in production. 

Statistics available from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that 24 percent of the fish stocks are “over exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion” and only three percent are “under-exploited.” 

To fill the increasing demand for fish, aquaculture farming came into the picture.  “Many people regard increased aquaculture production as an important option for dealing with the conflicting problems of overfishing and increasing demand for fish,” noted an article which appeared in Naga, the newsletter of WorldFish Center.  

“Global aquaculture production grew at an annual average of 8.9 percent since 1970, as compared to 1.2 percent for production from capture fisheries and 2.8 percent for terrestrial farmed animal meat production,” Dr. Gupta reported. 

Most of these increased productions came from Asia.  “Asia accounts for over 91 percent of global aquaculture production by weight and 82 percent by weight,” said Dr. Gupta, who used to be the assistant director-general of the WorldFish Center. 

It is projected that by 2020, aquaculture will account for 48 percent of the total production of fish as compared to 31 percent in 1997.  “More than 40 percent of fish consumed in 2020 will come from fish farms,” the WorldFish Center noted.   

Fish farming is more advantageous than raising livestock.  “For every kilogram of dry feed, we get one kilogram of fish meat,” said Dr. Uwe Lohmeyer of the Deutsche Gesselschaft fur Technische Zusammernarbeit (GTZ), a German Technical Cooperation.  “This is far more favorable rate than in the case of say, pigs: to produce the same quantity of pork, a farmer – given the same quality of inputs – has to provide three kilograms of feed.” 

But like most technologies, aquaculture has its shares of liabilities.  “The inevitable expansion of fish farming in the developing countries could cause increased pollution, greater damage to already vulnerable wild fisheries, and competition for water and land use,” the WorldFish Center cautioned. 

“This poses a potential threat to the environment as well as the livelihoods and food security of poor people in developing countries,” it added. B

ut there is a possible solution.  As Dr. Mark W. Rosegrant, of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute pointed out: “It is possible to avoid trade-offs to the environment and the poor, while meeting growing global demand for fish.  Environmental impacts of aquaculture can be minimized through environmentally friendly technologies and by increasing the efficiency with which fish meal and fish oil are used to feed farmed fish.” 

Meanwhile, in the open seas, fish stocks will soon be gone if surging human populations keep devouring fish and polluting oceans at current rates.  “Species have been disappearing” faster and faster, wrote Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada in an article which appeared in Science. “If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime.” 

“Collapse” is defined as the catch of a species dropping by 90 percent, said Worm, lead author and one of a group of ecologists and economists studying how marine biodiversity helps sustain humanity. 

Twenty-nine percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed already, Worm said. “It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating.” In a press release, Worm was quoted as saying, “Whether we looked at tide pools or studies over the entire world’s ocean, we saw the same picture emerging.  In losing species we lose the productivity and stability of entire ecosystems. I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are — beyond anything we suspected.” 

During the World Summit on Sustainable Development, participants from all over the world recommended that fish stocks be restored to their original status by the year 2015.  “Nature has a God-given capacity to regenerate once the hand of man is no longer raised against it,” the late Filipino national scientist Dioscoro Umali wrote. — ###

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