We’re eating more fish than ever these days. At around 20 kilograms (44 pounds), per capita, global fish consumption is now more than twice what it was in the 1960s, according to the latest world fisheries report (pdf) from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. What’s really remarkable, though, is where that fish is coming from.
“For the first time in human history, most of our aquatic food now comes from farming rather than fishing,” says Malcolm Beveridge, of the FAO’s aquaculture division.
People ate around 73 million tonnes (81 million tons) of farmed fish—just more than half of the volume of fish that humans consumed—in 2014, the last year for which there was data. That’s out of total fish supply of 167 million tonnes; the remaining 20 million or so tonnes go into things like animal feed and medical products.
To keep gobbling down fish at the current rate, we’re definitely going to need fish-farming (a.k.a. aquaculture) to keep growing. That’s because the volume of fish caught in the wild has stagnated since the 1990s.
Back in 1974, only 10% of marine fishing stocks had been overfished. Now, more than three-tenths are, says the FAO. Another 58% are being fished at the brink of sustainability. Only a tenth of our oceans’ fish stocks could sustain heavier fishing than current levels.
But while landings at sea have suffered, fish-farming has been growing at a brisk clip. A lot of that’s coming from China—the Middle Kingdom churns out 60% of the world’s farmed fish—aquaculture has been booming all over the globe. In fact, some 35 countries—including China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Greece—now produce more farmed than wild-caught fish, a total area that includes 3.3 billion people.
This shift toward aquaculture isn’t just good for ensuring salmon on your plate; it’s also crucial to ensuring food security and sustainability. By 2050, the world will need to feed an estimated 9.7 billion people. They’ll have to get their protein somewhere. However, raising cattle, pigs, and other land-based animals requires vast sums of grain and water. For example, pound for pound, beef requires 15 times more feed to raise than carp, a freshwater fish farmed all over Asia. That grain—and the water needed to grow it—could be consumed by people instead.
However, as we’ve written before, aquaculture is no silver bullet. In Thailand and other southeast Asian countries, shrimp farming wreaks havoc on marine ecosystems. Despite these problems, however, shrimp continues to be among the most popular seafoods worldwide, accounting for more than 15% of world seafood trade, by value, in 2015.
Top image is by Flickr user Eugene Kim (licensed under CC-BY-2.0); image has been cropped.