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U.N.: Record-high global demand for fish threatens oceans

Fish more important than ever in people’s diets, but growing demand threatens sustainability of aquaculture and fishing

People are eating more fish. This might seem a relatively neutral phenomenon in terms of global consequences, but a new report released Monday by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) argues that while fish has become an increasingly important part of human nutrition and a booming industry, increased consumption has negative implications for the Earth’s oceans.

The U.N. report focuses on the growth of aquaculture — fish farming — as well as the capture of wild fish. It suggests that growing demand threatens to destabilize the fishing industry, potentially leading to serious environmental consequences.

The report contends that aquaculture — if it is done correctly — can help meet the growing demand for protein worldwide and can help relieve pressure on wild fish populations. But the FAO also warns that bad management practices could lead to unnecessary food waste and strain already parched ecosystems.

While the report does not address the interaction between wild and farmed fish, it comes at a time of growing concern over the environmental implications of aquaculture in the United States and elsewhere. Some environmental groups warn that farmed fish — especially genetically modified salmon — have the potential to overwhelm wild populations and weaken their genetic pools, contributing to a decline in wild populations around the world.

The U.N. report says that fisheries and aquaculture produced 174 million tons of fish in 2012, 11 million tons more than in 2010. Most of that growth came from farmed fish. The increase in production matches a growing demand: Fish consumption has risen from an annual average of 22 pounds per person in the 1960s to nearly double that in 2012.

Fish has become an increasingly important source of protein, especially in the developing world. In 2012 it accounted for about 17 percent of global protein intake, and in some coastal populations it can account for more than 70 percent.

But fish isn’t only an important source of food. The U.N. report says 60 million people work in the fishery and aquaculture sector, with a whopping 84 percent of those jobs in Asia and 10 percent in Africa.

The report says that aquaculture is playing an important role in keeping pressure off wild fish as consumer demand increases — but not enough to stem overfishing. It says that in 2012 about 30 percent of fishing was being done in an unsustainable way from the world’s oceans and waterways. That was the highest percentage of unsustainability in fishing the U.N. has found since 1974.

While the U.N. says that the overall increase in aquaculture was positive — providing much-needed protein for an expanding population — it warns that increasingly prevalent practices need to be reformed to ensure sustainable growth.  

One of the biggest problems, the U.N. says, is the world’s preference for larger species of fish. Instead of introducing a diversity of species into aquaculture, producers seem to be using smaller wild fish to feed their stocks of larger farmed fish — a practice that depletes wild stocks. The U.N. says it also leads to food waste: Larger fish require more energy to produce, and people often throw out fish bones and heads before eating the meat.

The U.N. report comes as some environmentalists in North America warn of the potential dangers of poorly managed fish farms.

Environmental organizations have pointed out that such farms can lead to chemical contamination of water and other forms of pollution and can promote bacteria and diseases that can make their way into wild ecosystems.

Farmed salmon has the biggest potential for environmental damage, according to the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental advocacy group.

Several studies have found that escaped farmed salmon eventually end up mingling with wild populations, potentially disturbing the balance of ecosystems. In New Brunswick’s Magaguadavic River, for example, researchers say there are now more farmed salmon than wild ones.

While aquaculture might be causing some of those problems, the U.N. report says it must also be part of the solution.

"We need to ensure that environmental well-being is compatible with human well-being in order to make long-term sustainable prosperity a reality for all," FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in a news release. “The health of our planet as well as our own health and future food security all hinge on how we treat the blue world."

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