Across the world, we’re eating more fish, and more farmed fish at that—but that doesn’t mean wild seafood can catch a break.
That’s the gist of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s new biennial State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, published this week. Global per capita consumption is now more than 44 pounds of fish per year—the highest ever—providing close to 7 percent of protein intake around the world, according to the report.
Much of that new demand is being met by aquaculture, which for the first time is providing the majority of the fish consumed around the world. But even as the seafood supply is moving toward controlled tanks and ponds and away from boats plying the oceans with nets and lines, wild fish stocks continue to be overexploited.
According to an FAO statement, the report found that “almost a third of commercial fish stocks are now fished at biologically unsustainable levels, triple the level of 1974.” In some waters, including the Mediterranean and the Black seas, overfishing has reached what the report called “alarming” levels. In the Black Sea, 59 percent of stocks are fished at unsustainable levels.
That’s a wildlife and environmental problem that could upend ocean ecosystems, but it’s a human concern too. As Manuel Barange, director of FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources, told the BBC, “There are about 57 million people that are engaged primarily in fishing; 80 percent of them are in Asia.” That’s 12 percent of the global population, and many of those people live in developing nations.
Aquaculture can help to provide work for those who have traditionally held fishing jobs, but only a third of the people who rely on fish for their livelihood work in aquaculture. (Investigations by The Associated Press, The New York Times, and other organizations revealed that a disturbing number of the jobs in countries like Thailand constitute slave labor.) But it seems unlikely that aquaculture, as it continues to grow, can provide jobs that may eventually be lost due to declines in fish stocks.
The bright spot in reporting on aquaculture, which fish conservation groups criticize for the heavy use of wild fish–based feed in operations that raise fish such as salmon, is that nearly half of production came from “non-fed species” such as mussels and oysters.
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