On the Waterfront

Fishing for the Future

A fish seller in Yemen proudly displays his wares. Fish create jobs for over half a billion people, 95 percent of whom are from
A fish seller in Yemen proudly displays his wares. Fish create jobs for over half a billion people, 95 percent of whom are from developing countries.
Hamed Sanabani

2012 could be called the year of combating global hunger. Following on the heels of Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s flagship initiative to promote food security which launched in 2010, a number of events this year, including World Water Day, the G-20 Summit, the Rio+20 conference, and World Water Week, have zeroed in on finding solutions to this global problem affecting close to one billion people. Governments and donors alike are beginning to pay attention to the important role that aquaculture and capture fisheries can play in increasing food security and reducing poverty.

Over half a billion people, 95 percent of them from developing countries, derive income from fish, both from capture fisheries (harvesting of fish from freshwater and marine environments) and aquaculture (farming of species such as shellfish, fish, and plants). Approximately 2.6 billion people in developing countries alone rely on fish to meet their basic protein and nutritional requirements. Fish protein is especially critical in poor communities where fish products are often the most inexpensive and easily accessible source of protein. In many countries across Africa, such as Sierra Leone, The Gambia, and Ghana, more than 60 percent of dietary protein comes from fish—more than double the world average per capita consumption.

Moreover, fish supplies essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that are critical to human health, and especially for proper early childhood development. The pressing food security issue is not that there is a lack of fishers, but that fishing must become more sustainable if these billions and their children and grand-children are to thrive.

A Sustainable Alternative?

At present, despite the ubiquity of fish-centered livelihoods, international food security programs tend to focus first on traditional crops from farms on land to help meet the needs of the hungry. This is starting to change with the rapid expansion of the aquaculture industry, which is currently the fastest growing animal food-producing sector in the world, and USAID is now working to ensure that both aquaculture and capture fisheries are better managed. If mismanaged, both capture fisheries and aquaculture can have negative environmental impacts.

With respect to aquaculture, fish are sometimes overfed, leading to excess nutrients that cause algae to bloom. When the algae die and decompose, the ecosystem’s oxygen is depleted which can result in large fish kills. If the fish feed contains chemicals like antibiotics, it can further harm the environment. In addition, raising fish in close quarters can sometimes increase the spread of disease.

At their current rate, many capture fisheries are unsustainable. Over 75 percent of global fish stocks are fully fished, over-fished, or already collapsed, making them of serious concern for global food security. Poorly managed fisheries mean that fishers must spend more time and money to bring home smaller and smaller catches. For many of the world’s poor, fishing today results in a net economic drain on household income.

However, programs that work to improve capture fisheries and aquaculture management can reform and boost the sustainability of these sectors while increasing the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions of people employed in them. Food security experts are now taking heed of lessons learned and are working to identify new methods to boost fish supplies without compromising overall ecosystem health. They have pioneered ecosystem-based management approaches which, by taking a holistic approach, work to meet the diverse needs of local populations while maintaining ecosystems and conserving natural resources.

Protecting the Environment, Nutrition, and Communities

USAID is a big proponent of the ecosystem approach to fisheries management and is currently working in several countries and regions to build the capacity of decision makers and technical staff to implement it. The Indonesia Marine and Climate Support project, for example, recently trained personnel from local fisheries agencies and the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries on best practices for ecosystem-based fisheries governance.

“The trainings were developed to help plan, develop, and manage fisheries by addressing the multiple needs and desires of societies without jeopardizing the options for future generations to benefit from the full range of goods and services provided by marine ecosystems,” stated Celly Catharina, Marine Program Specialist for USAID/Indonesia.

Aquaculture can also benefit from a holistic ecosystem-oriented approach. USAID’s Aquaculture & Fisheries Collaborative Research Support Program (AquaFish CRSP) and its predecessor CRSPs, have, since 1982, trained fish farmers—including many women—to manage water resources, improve the environment, craft responsible business plans, and generate income in countries across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. CRSPs are research, training, and capacity building programs that are implemented by U.S. universities and their developing country partners. An AquaFish CRSP project in Ghana is exploring new feed and water recycling approaches in order to increase the profit margins of tilapia farming in an environmentally friendly way. Floating fish feeds cut costs by reducing wasted feed while also safeguarding fish populations from the damage caused by overfeeding. Reusing pond water reduces labor and input costs while conserving water.

Aquaculture programs can make a remarkable impact on the lives of women and children. In Nicaragua and Mexico, poor women and children devote hours each day to collecting cockles, shellfish that are a great source of protein and vitamins, but are susceptible to disease when farmed. The dwindling supplies and quality of the cockles led to long hours spent collecting them, fighting among the cockle collectors, and a growing number of hungry children. “We would go out to collect cockles and only get very few, and those were very small. We weren't used to working in a team; everyone was just out to get what they could,” explained Dionisia Páramo, a cockle collector from Aserradores, Nicaragua.

AquaFish CRSP took steps to boost the quality and safety of the cockles by establishing a center to clean them, ensuring that they are free of diseases. This not only makes them safe for local consumption, but also allows the farmers to certify the fish and get a higher price for them. The program additionally supports coastal resource governance and the establishment of no-take zones, which boost overall cockle supplies. This has made a big difference to women like Dionisia in the cockle industry. “We are now organized and us women, we have been empowered. We now lead the conservation efforts for the forest, mangrove, and black cockle. We now respect the no-take zones because we know the areas where the cockles will be breeding,” Ms. Páramo said.

Capture fisheries and aquaculture programs do not just foster food security, but also boost health, incomes, and quality of life for millions when carried out in an environmentally friendly way. If well managed, they can be capable of feeding the future. Perhaps 2013 will be the year of the fish.

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Last updated: August 20, 2013

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