UN report reveals aquaculture is now the largest source of aquatic food production – can the sector continue to scale sustainably?

Aquaculture produced an unprecedented 130.9 million tonnes of aquatic animal products, surpassing capture fisheries for the first time

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The latest edition of the biennial State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reveals global fisheries and aquaculture production hit a new record high of 223.2 million tonnes in 2022, with aquaculture surpassing capture fisheries for the first time.

Aquaculture produced an unprecedented 130.9 million tonnes of aquatic animal products. The FAO projects a 10% increase in aquatic animal production and a 12% rise in consumption by 2032, driven by aquaculture expansion and fisheries recovery. However, challenges remain, including uneven regional growth, gender inequality, and concerns over meeting future demand. (FAO)

Why does this matter? More than 3 billion people rely on seafood as a vital source of protein. With the world population projected to pass 9.7 billion by 2050, the number of humans reliant on seafood is only set to rise, making the aquatic food system a crucial source of global nutrition and food security.

According to FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu, “transformation is essential” to ensure aquatic life continues to feed a growing population sustainably.

Crucial to the aquatic food sector’s sustainable ambitions is the FAO’s Blue Transformation roadmap, which “outlines a vision to expand aquatic food systems and increase their contribution to nutritious and affordable healthy diets.”

The roadmap is designed to accelerate progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, Life Below Water, which aims to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

However, the UN’s latest annual Sustainable Development Report found that none of the 17 SDGs are on course to be met by 2030. Although this stagnation is concerning, it provides the aquatic food sector with the opportunity to accelerate meaningful progress towards achieving SDG 14.

Given its rapid expansion in recent years, sustainable aquaculture development will be pivotal to ensuring the wider seafood industry achieves its sustainable ambitions.

The FAO report urges aquaculture operators to pursue an “ecosystem approach” as the future of aquaculture intensification and expansion, which will minimise environmental impacts and secure animal health and food safety.

A crucial vehicle for ensuring aquaculture scales to meet demand while avoiding disruption to adjacent ecosystems will involve encouraging innovation and investing in technological developments in the sector.

Indeed, aquaculture operators already have various technological tools that will aid the sector’s sustainable development. For example, as aquaculture volumes continue to rise, traditional open ocean methods alone will become insufficient to meet increasing demand, meaning aquatic products reared in closed Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) will be required to fill the demand gap.

RAS technology is expanding rapidly in scale and technological sophistication, enabling aquaculture operators to breed fish intensively in a controlled environment without risking stock escaping and mixing with wild populations.

The Kingfish Company is one such example of an aquaculture operator employing RAS technology. The Netherlands-based firm is the largest land-based producer of yellowtail – a highly sought-after sushi ingredient – in the European market.

Already equipped with 3,500 tonnes of installed capacity in 2023, the firm also has space to nearly double in size. Operationally, The Kingfish Company does not administer antibiotics or vaccines, the business is 100% powered by renewable electricity, and it uses seawater rather than limited freshwater resources.

Expanding aquaculture to fit this model will ensure the industry scales in the sustainable fashion the FAO report desires, with minimal disruption to local environments.

In terms of traditional cage-based aquaculture practices, tilapia farm operator Tilabras offers a compelling model of how the industry can operate in harmony with surrounding ecosystems and raise stock in a healthy, uncrowded environment.