IN a June article comparing global farmed fish production with the global beef industry, environmental group Earth Policy Institute (EPI) warned of the dangers of concentrated aquaculture operations, applying often-used criticisms of large-scale livestock production to the fish sector.
Notably, the group claimed that farmed fish production has surpassed global fish production in terms of tonnage produced.
In 2011, for the first time in history, EPI wrote, farmed fish production topped beef production — and the gap widened in 2012, with aquaculture production reaching 66 million tons, compared with 63 million tons of beef (Figure). This year might, in fact, be the year when consumers eat more farm-raised fish than wild-caught fish.
EPI cited U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics for production, and while its estimates of 2012 production may or may not be accurate (FAO's statistical database currently only includes data through 2011), the trend of moderating beef production and increasing farmed fish production likely holds.
While traditional environmental campaigns against captured fish production might lead the casual observer to believe that increasing farmed fish production is a positive development, EPI took a contrary position.
"While open waters and grasslands can be self-sustaining if managed carefully, raising fish and livestock in concentrated operations requires inputs," the group explained. "Grain and soybeans have been inserted into the protein production food chain."
The group cited a host of environmental concerns — from deforestation in Brazil to nitrogen runoff — as reasons to shun farmed meat of any kind.
EPI was not the only group to rail against "Big Fish" in recent weeks. The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University joined the fray, calling for "tougher regulations" to "counteract the negative ecological and public health implications of large-scale aquaculture operations."
In the center's blog, research assistant Arunima Shukla suggested that the rising cost of feed ingredients is actually driving aquaculture production, arguing that fish are more efficient feeders than cattle and, thus, more profitable to produce on a large scale.
Shukla acknowledged that commercial fish farming is perhaps less harmful to the environment than feeding cattle or hogs but said not all aquaculture species or practices are sustainable in the long run.
Specifically, she agreed with EPI that farming larger finfish such as salmon is more detrimental because feed rations typically contain fish meal or fish oil derived from smaller, wild-caught fish species that "are already dangerously overfished."
A growing industry
According to FAO, fish production employs roughly 45 million people globally, with the number of fishers and fish farmers growing at a faster rate than both the world population and employment in traditional fields within agriculture.
Fish and fish product output reached a record $102 billion in 2008, with fishery net exports in the developing world outpacing staple exports such as coffee, rice and bananas.
Since 1970, aquaculture production has increased at an average annual rate of 6.6%, with production reaching a milestone of 52.9 million metric tons in 2008. FAO's biennial outlook for world fisheries and aquaculture, last published in 2012, suggested that farmed fish production would soon surpass captured fish production, which topped 90 mmt some years ago.
The agency also projected that fish production will continue to grow as the global population increases and becomes increasingly affluent.
"Global population is increasing, and in order to maintain at least the current level of per capita consumption of aquatic foods, the world will require an additional 23 million tons by 2020," the FAO report states. "This additional supply will have to come from aquaculture."
Meeting that demand, the report continues, will largely depend on the availability of quality feeds in sufficient quantities. While fish feed discussions often center on fish meal and fish oil, FAO said the sustainability of the sector will be closely linked with the sustained supply of terrestrial animal and plant proteins, oils and carbohydrates.
In 2008, FAO estimated that aquaculture feeds accounted for 29.2 mmt, or 4.1%, of all animal feeds, with production increasing at an average rate of 11% per year. Production is expected to grow to 51 mmt by 2015 and to 71 mmt by 2020.