Aquaculture could help feed rising world demand for protein

Fish farming needs fewer resources than raising livestock and can be more environmentally sound than open-water fishing.

Vladimir Konstantinov/Reuters/File
Workers transfer artificially reared sturgeons to a pond at Donskoi sturgeon farm, some 68 miles from Rostov-on-Don, Russia. The sturgeon are moved from the pond, where they spend the summer, to different one where they will brave Russia's winter.

According to a recent report by the World Fish Center, while natural fish stocks are being rapidly depleted aquaculture, or the farming of fish and other aquatic species, could play an important role in meeting rising global demand for marine and freshwater products.

Aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food production systems in the world – it grew more than 21-fold since 1970. Currently, half of the seafood we eat comes from aquaculture, and as the human population continues to rise, demand for marine and freshwater products is likely to continue to grow.

There are many positive aspects to aquaculture. When compared to global livestock production, aquaculture requires less land, water, and natural resources. Farming fish is a comparatively more efficient way of supplying protein primarily because fish are coldblooded and have low metabolic rates. This results in more units of energy of protein produced for each unit of energy it took to raise the fish. 

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Aquaculture may also be the only means to markedly increase future seafood production, causing less detrimental impacts to marine ecosystems than fishing.

Furthermore, not only can aquaculture provide nutritious food, fishing and fish farming generate income and employment to millions of communities around the world. Trade in marine and freshwater products can help alleviate poverty and contribute to national economic growth in many developing countries.

The World Fish Center states that while aquaculture has many positive characteristics, particularly in light of the current state of global fisheries and livestock, the degree of environmental impact depends greatly on a variety of factors, including the particular species being farmed and the production system being used. The wide range of impacts between different production methods indicates the need for improved regional learning networks, where new technologies and sustainable methodologies can be disseminated to other producers, particularly those in the developing world.

Aquaculture has a great potential to meet rising demand with limited impact to the environment, while also providing employment and economic opportunity to impoverished communities.  These efforts, however, are stymied by poor oversight and inconsistent regulation. If aquaculture is to achieve its production potential with limited impact on the environment, the public and private sectors will need to develop a coordinated and consistent policy, and a robust regulatory and management framework.

• Emily Gilbert is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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