Fishing; aquaculture; the tropics – how relevant are they for us?

The transition from fishing to aquaculture


An article by Achim Schlüter, Centre for Tropical Marine Research

The world’s appetite for animal protein is growing. Nutritious and delicious, fish plays an important food security role in many societies. Many wild fish stocks have been overfished and, unlike a factory, we cannot simply step up production when demand increases. After all, we are not producing fish, we are hunting and gathering them. This makes the idea of switching from “wild” fishing to aquaculture seem a natural choice.

The transition from hunting and gathering to farming is progressing at breathtaking speed in the fishing industry. The same shift on land took several thousand years. Within half a century, aquaculture has evolved from a negligibly small sector to become the dominant form of production. Since 2013, global aquaculture production has exceeded total capture in fishing.

From the perspective of institutional economics – the field of economics that studies the emergence and transformation of rules and contracts – this is a fundamental social and economic shift that involves fishermen becoming farmers. Investment on a very much grander scale is necessary, e.g. in aquacultural facilities, young fish and feed. Small-scale fishermen go out to sea at night and know by lunchtime how much they have caught. Much like farmers on land, aquaculture farmers have to wait many months for their work to “bear fish”. Some fishermen become employees, while others have to negotiate with banks and open up completely new sales channels, as they have to find customers willing to buy all the fish they have produced. They may not have good and bad days like fishermen do, but they certainly have to face epidemics that can wipe out an entire production cycle in a matter of days. Farming such huge numbers of fish at one site requires a great deal of space and creates pollution. This poses considerable regulatory challenges for societies (e.g. municipalities, regions, countries) and entails significant potential for conflict.

Aquaculture in the tropics and us

This is all very interesting, but what makes it so fascinating and relevant for Germany’s Science Year, which is focusing on the bioeconomy? A number of NGOs in Germany celebrate “Fish Dependence Day”, some years in April and sometimes in May. This marks the day on which we in Germany have used up our domestic and sustainable fish production and become reliant on imports.

A lot of such imports come from tropical aquaculture, like the prawns we find in the supermarket’s chiller cabinet. They are fed large amounts of fish meal from factories that have been built in recent decades along the coasts of the major ocean upwelling areas (e.g. off the coast of Peru or West Africa) and are supplied by wild fish. There are clear signs that this practice is not sustainable, and there is considerable competition for use of the fish with the local populations that need the protein.

This short article can only hint at the major issues of sustainability that our society will face as we switch to a bioeconomy. Aquaculture in particular offers good opportunities for food security and for the more efficient and possibly more sustainable production of natural resources than on land, for example. However, it also entails sustainability risks of an ecological, economic and social nature. This requires societal dialogue, which in turn needs to be supported by new knowledge in the sciences, social studies and engineering.

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