Aquaculture Demand Spurs Need for Better Management of the Wild Fish Used as Feed

New UN report shows need for ecosystem-based management of forage fish, which are prey for array of marine life

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Aquaculture Demand Spurs Need for Better Management of the Wild Fish Used as Feed
A fish farmer in a yellow jacket and red hat tends to an orange and blue net in a blue, calm ocean.
A fish farm in Corsica, France, specializes in the breeding of sea bass and sea bream.
Andia Getty Images

As global consumption of seafood escalates, fish farming—also known as aquaculture—is quickly developing to meet consumer demand. In fact, since the early 1990s, catches of species taken directly from the ocean (such as tuna, cod and pollock) have plateaued at around 80 million metric tons while farming of fish has accelerated, according to the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) 2024 report recently published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

That growing demand for aquaculture products has put more pressure than ever on the small wild fish that are caught to feed certain farmed species. These small wild species, which include Peruvian anchoveta, Atlantic herring and West African sardinella, are collectively known as forage fish because they are food for a wide range of ocean predators, such as seabirds, whales and seals, and are vital to a healthy, diverse marine environment.

Feed production puts pressure on wild-caught
prey fish

As the SOFIA report notes, the fishing industry serves as a raw material provider to aquaculture operations by supplying around a fifth of its catch for the production of ingredients such as fish meal and fish oil for these fish farms. For example, of the 10 highest catch volume species in 2022, five are forage species that are also, at least partly, used in aquaculture.

This is largely because production of “fed” species, such as salmon, sea bream and shrimp, has a much larger (and growing) share of the aquaculture market than species such as mussels, which don’t require fish feed. And while alternative feed products are being developed and farmers say they have become more efficient in using wild fish, demand for wild fish is still likely to increase as fed species production increases. It’s similar to someone buying a new car with 20% better mileage than their old one but then driving twice as many miles a year as they used to: Their overall fuel consumption is rising, despite the increased efficiency.

As the aquaculture industry’s demand for forage fish has ramped up, so too have the calls to exercise caution in the management of these fisheries. These small fish can be hugely abundant, but their populations can also vary greatly in response to changes in the environment. The health of sensitive predators can be closely linked to the amount of forage fish they have available to eat. Seabirds, for example, can experience major declines in breeding success when populations of forage fish drop dramatically, even for brief periods.

One proven approach to better managing forage fish is ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM), which helps ensure that catches of targeted prey do not threaten the functioning of an ecosystem.

EBFM requires decision-makers to leave enough fish in the water for predators, to measure success by ecosystem health rather than by the numbers of one species, and to reform fisheries policies to meet these new objectives. And there already are concrete steps that managers can take to adopt and implement EBFM.

Beyond the parameters of EBFM, managers should set fishery policy goals based in part on how the catch is ultimately used. For example, they should give more consideration to how fish meal production and trade affects the availability of food for direct human consumption.

Governments have improved forage fish management but must do more

In recent years, political momentum has started to shift towards EBFM. Following the adoption of state-level protections for the Atlantic menhaden, a forage fish, in 2020, the United States introduced the federal Forage Fish Conservation Act in 2021. Similarly, in 2023, Canada introduced a revised catch limit for capelin, another forage fish, that aims to keep enough of this species in the water to maintain the population of cod, its main predator.

This year, the United Kingdom also took a significant step by restricting all fishing for sandeel, a crucial forage fish in the Northeast Atlantic, and, in collaboration with the European Union, requested scientific advice on the ecological role of several forage fish species of the North Sea. And in West Africa, management plans for small pelagic species—including sardinella, a forage fish central to local food security—are emerging: Mauritania introduced one in 2022, and neighbouring Senegal and The Gambia have committed to follow suit soon.

Internationally, regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) are stepping up their forage fish protections. The North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, which manages the forage species blue whiting and herring, has agreed to develop ecological objectives that could influence management of these stocks this year. And the North Pacific Fisheries Commission has laid a foundation for adopting science-based, precautionary management for Pacific saury that is expected to be in place by 2027. Other RFMOs and States should follow these examples and put in place ambitious new measures for the forage species they manage.

With many of the world’s largest fisheries providing feed for the aquaculture market, fisheries managers and others in the aquaculture supply chain must ensure that forage fish use does not affect ecosystem protection. For aquaculture to help meet growing seafood demand without negatively impacting wild fish populations and all the species that depend on them around the world, fish feed must come from forage fish managed under EBFM regimes.

Jean-Christophe Vandevelde is a manager and Daniel Steadman is an officer working on Pew’s international fisheries project.

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