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Concerns as farmed fish production exceeds wild catch for first time

World fisheries and aquaculture production has hit a new high, with aquaculture production of aquatic animals surpassing wild fisheries for the first time, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The FAO has welcomed the news given aquaculture’s role in “meeting the rising demand for aquatic foods”. But a group of 160 NGOs have called the organisation out, criticising its definition of ‘sustainable aquaculture’ and calling for carnivorous fish, like salmon and sea bass, to be excluded.

Global fisheries and aquaculture production reached 223.2 million tonnes in 2022, with aquaculture and wild fisheries accounting for 130.9 and 92.3 million tonnes respectively. The production of algae – which has potential as an alternative protein – reached 37.8 million tonnes.

Global capture from wild fisheries has remained stable since the late 1980s. In 2022, the sector produced 92.3 million tonnes. The proportion of marine stocks fished within biologically sustainable levels, decreased to 62.3% in 2021. When weighted by production level, an estimated 76.9% of the 2021 landings from stocks monitored by FAO were from biologically sustainable stocks. 

The ‘sustainable’ aquaculture facilities are also causing concern. At present, a small number of countries dominate aquaculture. Ten of them – China, Indonesia, India, Viet Nam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Norway, Egypt, and Chile – produced over 89.8% of the total.

“Aquaculture growth indicates its capacity to further contribute to meeting the rising global demand for aquatic foods, but future expansion and intensification must prioritise sustainability and benefit regions and communities most in need,” the FAO said in its 2024 edition of The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA)

But NGOs have written to FAO assistant director general Manuel Barange highlighting the environmental damage they say that farms producing salmon, sea bass and sea bream are causing.

“Aquaculture includes multiple types of production, some of which are sustainable, such as the farming of kelp and other aquatic plants, as well as the cultivation of a wide range of bivalve creatures such as mussels, clams and oysters in small scale operations,” they said. “However, it also includes the farming of carnivorous fin fish which, when cultivated in marine-based net pens, is not sustainably farmed anywhere in the world.”

The NGOs said the FAO’s “aggressive” goal of reaching a 75% growth in aquaculture by 2040 (versus 2020) would be “catastrophic” if it includes fish like salmon. “We need concrete, enforceable international standards for the remediation of damaged environments and the expansion of genuinely sustainable aquaculture options,” they said. 

Scotland is a major producer of farmed salmon – which is currently the UK’s largest food export, generating more than £750m for the Scottish economy and sustaining around 12,500 jobs.

Salmon Scotland, which represents producers, wants to double the market’s value by 2030. Aquaculture is viewed as a lower carbon protein option to some livestock products, but has been criticised for its impact on the local environment. There have also been concerns regarding fish welfare.

Last month, Scotland’s Rural Affairs & Islands (RAI) Committee launched a follow-up inquiry into the country’s salmon farming sector. The committee wants to understand if the recommendations it made to the Scottish Government in 2018, to address economic, social and environmental issues related to the salmon farming industry in Scotland, have been implemented.

The Committee set out 65 recommendations about how challenges, such as the control of sea lice, rising fish mortalities and the need to reduce the sector’s impact on the environment, should be addressed.