The fishing industry (aquaculture industry) will play a critical role in addressing the food and nutritional demands of a global population. Population is expecting to increase by a third by 2050. But the current state of the fish stocks in the world’s oceans are a source of concern. An FAO assessment determined that 31.4 percent of the world’s commercial fish stocks  are full of fish, or full  at biologically unsustainable levels. An additional 58.1 percent of stocks are  fully-fished. That leaves around 10 percent of stock that is available to be sustainably harvested as a protein source for 17 percent of the world population.

Over the past five decades, the global supply of fish has increased at an annual average of just over three percent. Increasing efficiencies in production, utilization and waste reduction have helped the sector keep pace with the rising per capita consumption of fish. But current trends of biologically unsustainable fishing pose have some serious long-term implications for the entire industry. At risk here are the livelihoods of over 56 million people a majority of whom are  with small-scale operations in developing countries. Then there is the long-term impact on fishing because of the destabilization of fragile marine ecosystems caused by unsustainable fishing practices. Finally, there is the overall economic viability of an industry. This  is a critical component of food security and employment in many developing nations. Over and above all this, there is the effect of climate change. It  will lead to result in a $10 billion drop in annual revenue by 2050.

According to a World Bank analysis, giving oceans a break would allow fish stocks to recover and increase annual sector profitability by up to $86 billion over the long term. Fortunately, the growing aquaculture industry may have the solution for sustainable fish production while the oceans “get a break”.

The aquaculture industry hit a significant milestone in 2014 when the supply of farmed fish, only for human consumption, overtook that of wild-caught fish. Including non-food uses. In 2014 aquaculture accounted for just over 44 percent of total fish production. But the sector, which is growing at a steady four to five percent every year, is going  to surpass wild-caught fish volumes that have been around the 90 million tonnes per annum mark since the ‘90s.

Aquaculture is  one of the fastest growing food-producing sectors in the world today. And quite unsurprisingly, the sector has attracted some big investments and witnessed some big bang entries. In 2015, agricultural conglomerate Cargill made the second-biggest acquisition in its 150-year history. They achieved  a $1.5 purchase of Norwegian salmon feed producer EWOS. Only a month earlier the company had announced a joint venture with one of Ecuador’s largest shrimp producers to build a $30 million shrimp feed facility in the country. In 2014, Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan acquired Norwegian state-controlled salmon producer Cermaq in a deal worth $1.39 billion.

But aquaculture is not without its detractors. And it is a real possibility that fish farming without the right diligence, standards or controls can have a huge impact on the entire ecosystem. There are serious concerns of antibiotics and chemicals used to stabilize crowded open-pen setups contaminating local ecosystems. Diseases and parasites can easily wild fish populations. There have also been several questions raised about the ingredients and the quantities of feed at some farms. Use of alternative feeds like soy can result in more waste  that can pollute entire water systems. And so on and so forth.

Even as these concerns get addressed, and the right standards and controls implemented. Aquaculture is quickly increasing its share of total fish production across every continent. China and India top the league tables, in that order, both in total fish production and in fish farming. The total fish production in India for 2015-16 is 10.79 million tonnes. with almost two-thirds of that coming from aquaculture. The country has defined an ambitious Blue Revolution mission to raise fish production and reach 15 million tonnes by 2020.

India is also one of the top ten exporters of fish products in the world. After a brief dip in 2015, exports have increased by 20 percent to 1.13 million tonnes in 2016-17.  A highly competitive market, especially from other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam and increasingly tougher import standards for marine products can pose a potential threat to India’s aquaculture exports. Therefore, responsible aquaculture that focuses on social, economic and environmental sustainability will have to become a core component of the country’s vision for its fishing and aquaculture sector.

But sustainability standards are evolving as the industry expands. The FAO identifies nearly 30 different certification schemes relevant to aquaculture. Then there is the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an independent, international non-profit organization that promotes, recognizes and rewards responsible and sustainable aquaculture. There is even the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS), a coalition of nine of the biggest seafood companies in the world with “the ambition to lead a global transformation towards sustainable seafood production and a healthy ocean.”

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