Making Sure There Will be Plenty of Fish in the Sea

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The Tragedy of the Cod

For much of history, and indeed still today, global fisheries have been haunted by the proverbial “tragedy of the commons”—a term used to describe a situation in which individuals act solely out of self-interest, even when that means depleting shared resources that are vital to a broader group. Seafood resources have been consistently and severely depleted around the world; in part because of the inherently mysterious nature of the world’s oceans, and also because of ambiguity as to who owns the ocean’s contents.

One relatively recent example of this phenomenon is the Atlantic cod industry in the Gulf of Maine. Atlantic cod, which are typically between two and six kilograms in weight, have long been a popular food in the regions where they are abundant. Indeed, cod fishing was one of the earliest industries to take shape upon European settlement into the region, and was an economic backbone of the area from the 17th to the 20th centuries. From 1850 to 1900, the annual Atlantic cod catch typically ranged between 100,000 and 200,000 tonnes a year; but between 1900 and 1950, catches jumped to between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes a year. With new entrants coming due to financial success and continued demand growth, the Atlantic cod catch spiked through the 1960s.

By 1968, cod landings had peaked when they topped a staggering 800,000 tonnes, placing significant pressure on fish stocks. The following year, annual catches began their years-long tumble.

It is important to note here the fishing methods used to catch cod. As a species that prefers cooler temperatures, cod can dwell in deeper waters, a reality which helped encourage aggressive fishing practices like trawling. Bottom trawling is an industrial method of fishing in which a net scrapes the sea floor. The method causes serious damage to aquatic ecosystems by destroying virtually any organism in its path. As its environmental impact has become more apparent, trawling has grown more controversial. The practice continues because international efforts against it spearheaded by Pacific island countries have failed to win United Nations (UN) approval.

In 1976, less than 10 years after the cod peak, and a few years into the downward spiral in production, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act which extended US jurisdiction of its waters from 12 miles to 200 miles off the coastline. The move was designed to ward off international fishing ships which were playing a role in stock depletion, while aiming to conserve American offshore resources for American fishermen. The Act also regulated the catch and sale of certain species of fish, while placing restrictions on the types and movements of fishing vessels.

And while the legislation was necessary and vital, much of the damage to Atlantic cod stocks had already been done. And still today, the United States (US) enforces extensive bans on cod fishing throughout much of the northeastern region. In 2014, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that only three or four percent of stock needed to maintain the cod population in the Gulf of Maine was present, and suspended the fishing season for six months. Cod catch limits are now in the low-hundred tonnes, down from 6,000 tonnes in 2012, and 20,000 tonnes at the turn of the millennium. Clearly, overfishing has the potential to destroy century-old industries and livelihoods very quickly, and recovery is unfortunately a much slower process.

But thanks to consistently strong demand for seafood—global per capita fish consumption grew by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of two percent between the 1960s and 2012—overfishing is rife. Fortunately, seafood no longer always means wild-caught seafood, as fish farming offers a viable means of ensuring sufficient supply of in-demand products. Between 1980 and 2010, global aquaculture production increased by an average of 8.8 percent each year.

Sustainable Fish?

As the world’s most traded food commodity in terms of value—approximately $136 billion in exports globally in 2013—seafood is the primary source of protein for approximately three billion people, or over 40 percent of the world. Despite its global importance, there are still misconceptions regarding the structure of the broader fishery industry.

A common misunderstanding stems from terminology. To clarify, aquaculture refers to the farming of an aquatic organism in any water environment; mariculture or marine aquaculture is a subset of aquaculture, and refers to the farming of an aquatic organism in an open oceanic environment. Freshwater aquaculture refers to the farming of aquatic organisms in a freshwater environment; and wild catch refers to non-farmed aquatic organisms.

Another point of confusion is what makes aquaculture “sustainable.” This is much more complex to define, as sustainability is a spectrum rather than a binary classification. However, there are some common practices that are important in determining whether an operation is sustainable or not. Greenpeace International notes that examples of unsustainable aquaculture include: the harvesting of wild juvenile organisms critical for future stock development, using wild-caught fish or other unsustainable sources as feed for farmed fish, the improper disposal of organic waste that feeds harmful algae and ultimately harms many other species, and the destruction or displacement of coastal ecosystems. Therefore, an aquaculture operation needs to use plant-based feeds, avoid wild-caught juvenile organisms, and preserve local wildlife and resources in order to be truly sustainable.

Other organizations define sustainable aquaculture in slightly different ways, but broadly have many of the same requirements in order for an operation to be classified as such. The World Bank, for example, usefully buckets these sustainability requirements into broader categories: environmental practices, community practices, and sustainable business and farm management practices. In order for an operation to be sustainable, it must fulfill a set of requirements within each category.

China’s Importance to Aquaculture

Like many other commodity markets, aquacultural production is highly concentrated. Most production occurs in the Asia-Pacific region, with China at the epicenter.

In China, large-scale aquacultural production began simultaneously with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, and in its early days, the industry was set up strictly to satiate domestic demand—made apparent by its extensive trade barriers. Chinese policymakers identified aquaculture as a powerful tool that the country could use in order to attain food security, and prioritized the sub-sector accordingly. And while aquaculture did expand in scope in those early years, it was not until the late 1970s, when China began to pivot towards a more market-based economy, that aquaculture truly began to boom. At the same time, legislation aimed at limiting wild-catch fish was introduced, as was new, advanced aquacultural production technology. This included specific-pathogen free (SPF) broodstocks and hatcheries, which reduced mortality, creating the perfect setting for the expansion of an industry and the birth of a major export market.

Chinese aquaculture grew steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, and leapt impressively in the 2000s from $22 billion in value at the turn of the century to over $73 billion in 2013. There are roughly 140 unique seafood species cultivated in China, of which 90 are fish, 10 shrimp and crab, 10 other species of shellfish, and 10 algae. And while the list of cultivated species is indeed long, production is heavily concentrated in terms of volume, with shellfish comprising almost 80 percent of China’s marine aquacultural output.

The major seafood species cultivated in China have changed over time, and these shifts have not always been driven by economics. The scallop species Chlamys farreri, also known as farrer’s or Chinese scallop, as well as Penaeus chinensis, widely referred to as Chinese white shrimp, were popular species throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, these species were devastated due to variety degeneration and disease —issues that can be exacerbated by the dense living conditions of farmed fish. In their place, newly introduced species, such as Pacific white shrimp and bay scallop, have become popular despite the fact that neither had much significance to Chinese producers prior to their introduction. At the same time, other species have deliberately been grown in response to shifting consumer demand. As incomes have risen, the demand growth for high value aquacultural products has outpaced lower value products, and producers have begun to focus on higher value commodities like sea cucumber and abalone.


As mentioned earlier, the Chinese government was an early, aggressive proponent of aquaculture—a commitment which enabled the sector’s expansion. The government spearheaded innovative efforts such as developing and providing seeds to producers through artificial spawning, introducing new species, and training inexperienced rural smallholder farmers in aquacultural techniques. The government has also reorganized to include multiple divisions and agencies that review different aspects of aquaculture. In 2002, there were eleven unique branches of administrative ministries, ranging from local provincial governments to dedicated departments of expertise, such as the National Fisheries Research Institutions, the Chinese Academy of Fishery Science, the National Fisheries Research Institutions, and the National Bureau of Fisheries. Government departments such as these will undoubtedly be vital for a sustainable fishing future as consumers look to purchase these goods.

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