At 171 million tonnes, fish production reached an all-time high in 2016, according to a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Released on Monday, the State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture report found that per capita fish consumption also reached a record high in 2016, totalling 20.3 kilograms.
The European Union represented the largest single market for fish and fish products in 2016, according to the report. Together, the EU, the United States and Japan accounted for around 64% of the total value of global fish and fish products imports.
“Since 1961 the annual global growth in fish consumption has been twice as high as population growth, demonstrating that the fisheries sector is crucial in meeting the FAO’s goal of a world without hunger and malnutrition,” said FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva.
Da Silva acknowledged that although the growth has not come without environmental consequences, recent efforts to stop illegal fishing and limit the impacts of discarded fishing gear “will mark a turning point… in favour of long-term conservation and sustainable use of living marine resources.”
Capture fishery production has remained “relatively static since the late 1980s,” according to the report, with aquaculture largely responsible for growth of fish supplied for human consumption. Aquaculture accounts for nearly half of global fish production and 53% of fish produced solely for human consumption. In Europe, aquaculture accounts for around 18% of fish production.
According to FAO projections, fish production, consumption and trade are all expected to increase over the next decade. Aquaculture is also expected to increase, albeit at a slower rate than in the past.
Reducing waste remains an area for improvement: “Throughout the world, post-harvest fish losses are a major concern and occur in most fish distribution chains,” according to the report. “An estimated 27% of landed fish is lost or wasted between landing and consumption.”
The figures are even higher when discards prior to landing are considered – as much as 35% of global catches go unused due to loss or waste.
Up to a quarter of those losses stem from discarding fish at sea, which often occurs when trawlers catch fish that are too small or an undesired species, then throw the dead fish back into the water. A majority of the losses, however, occur post-harvest because of a lack of refrigeration, ice or other equipment required to keep fish from spoiling, as well as improper handling.
FAO warned that fish waste has negative impacts on global food security and nutrition. To help cut down on such waste, the organisation has been working with developing countries to improve methods and technologies used to preserve fish supplies, with good results achieved in many regions. The use of raised drying racks in areas around Lake Tanganyika in Africa, for example, reduced losses by 50%.
Conservationists welcomed the report’s findings. Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe, criticised waste in the fishing industry and emphasised the need for improved policies.
“Food waste on a hungry planet is outrageous,” Gustavsson told The Guardian. “The fact that one-third of all fish caught goes to waste is a huge cause for concern for global food security.”
Gustavsson also raised concerns about overfishing and said problems in the Mediterranean could be solved if not for lack of political will. “We know the situation, we have the solutions: setting fish catch limits to scientific advice and stopping illegal and destructive fishing,” he said. “All we’re missing is political action.”
According to The Guardian, two-thirds of species in the Mediterranean Sea are overexploited. The same is true for the Black Sea and the Southeast Pacific.
Gustavsson was sceptical of the rise in aquaculture, calling it unsustainable. “Using 20m tonnes of fish like mackerel, sardines and anchovies to feed farmed fish instead of people is a blatant waste of food,” he said.