The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over 70% of the world's fish species are already either fully exploited or depleted. And while the impact of global overfishing is typically measured in environmental and economic terms, depleted fish stocks also threaten the food security of millions of people who are dependent on fish for food.
While global consumption of fish and seafood will continue to rise, the UN stresses that limited stocks and overfishing mean rising demand cannot be met by catching wild fish alone.
Aquaculture is seen as one way to help satisfy growing demand for seafood and contribute to food security. Many agree that such techniques can pave the way for sustainable fish stocks.
EU fisheries policy under review
Although Europeans have been plundering their seas for decades, the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) continues to subsidise the fisheries industry, and therefore contributes further to the problem of over-fishing. Indeed, EU support for fleet modernisation has led to overcapacity in the bloc's fishing fleet in relation to the resources available. A recent NGO report showed that Spain tops the Union's overcapacity ranking (EurActiv 25/06/09).
While CFP reform has been long recognised as essential, it is equally clear that changing the policy will require genuine political leadership. EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg says the CFP in its current form "does not encourage responsible behaviour by either fishermen or politicians".
The European Commission is now seeking stakeholders' views on reforms outlined in an April 2009 Green Paper, and will present legislative proposals on resource conservation and fleet policy to member states and MEPs by 2012, with a view to the new CFP's entry into force in 2013.
Spectacular growth in aquaculture
Modern aquaculture - fish and aquatic food farming - is currently the world's fastest-growing food production sector, with an average worldwide growth rate of 6-8% per year. Global aquaculture has increased by a third since 2000, and currently provides around half of the world's seafood for human consumption. According to the Commission, the significant further growth potential of aquafarming makes it "a key part of the solution to meet future demand for fish".
While aquafarming is already a major economic activity in the EU, production by the EU-27 has stagnated since 2000 and the global boom in the sector is mainly driven by spectacular growth in Asia and South America. Amid growing consumer demand in Europe, imports of fish and shellfish now represent more than 60% of EU seafood consumption.
Meanwhile, the Commission believes that aquaculture represents a "golden opportunity" for Europe. "The global developments and the strategic importance of aquaculture in terms of food security contribute to give this sector a promising future," states an April 2009 communication from the EU executive on devloping a sustainable European aquaculture strategy.
However, the EU executive underlines that EU aquaculture development should not be allowed to undermine "the necessity to reduce and eventually eliminate the overfishing of wild stocks" and achieve sustainable exploitation of the ocean.
As for the world's poor, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) suggests that the outlook for fish and food security among the poor "is not especially good," because aquafarming is not likely to provide new employment on a significant scale and "competition for crowded resources is likely to intensify".
Climate change is expected to affect food security, and fisheries and aquaculture are no exception. Those facing the most uncertainty are once again poor people who depend on fish for food.
While the impact of climate change on aquatic ecosystems, fisheries and aquaculture is still not fully understood, floods and droughts are expected to affect harvests from lakes and rivers. By impacting on aquatic ecosystems, climate change may also alter the distribution and production of fish, and change fish migration routes, spawning and feeding grounds and fishing seasons.
The Commission notes that climate change is already having an impact on Europe's seas by affecting the abundance and distribution of fish stocks. It stresses that "fisheries depend on healthy marine ecosystems" and says the new CFP can help to facilitate climate change adaptation efforts in the marine environment.
"Growing concerns about food security in the EU and worldwide make it ever more important to manage and exploit natural resources responsibly without jeopardising their future," according to the EU executive.