Globally, about 3.2 billion people rely on fish for at least 20 percent of their animal protein intake, accounting for more than 40 percent of the world’s population. Average per capita consumption of seafood (fish and crustaceans such as shrimp and crab) was estimated to be 49 pounds per year in 2014, with the highest consumption levels in South Korea at 172 pounds per year and Norway at 146 pounds per year. Among developing countries, Asian countries such as Malaysia (130 pounds per capita), Myanmar (119 pounds per capita) lead the pack, while Gabon (at 78 pounds per capita) leads in Africa and Guyana (at 65 pounds per capita) leads in South America.
Unfortunately, much of this consumption is only possible because a substantial share of global fish stocks are being overharvested on a regular basis, estimated at about 33 percent as of 2015, up from only 10 percent four decades ago. A 2018 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that overfishing is particularly acute in parts of the developing world where many people already struggle to get enough nutritious food to eat, especially animal-sourced protein.
One important way to alleviate this problem is to provide incentives for further expansion of aquaculture production in these countries. Aquaculture is the practice of raising commercial fish and shellfish species under controlled conditions, either in-land in ponds and rivers or in open-net or submersible cages in deeper ocean waters.
Aquaculture has been practiced for centuries in China, which became a profitable commercial enterprise for many Chinese farmers beginning in the 1950’s with the emergence of artificial breeding techniques for various carp species. China’s aquaculture production grew from 75,000 tons in 1950 to 59 million tons by 2015. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), aquaculture production accounted for about 53 percent of global fish production (including non-food uses) in 1953, and has been responsible for most of the growth in seafood supply since the late 1980’s.
With help from organizations like WorldFish, an international research organization that harnesses fisheries & aquaculture to reduce hunger & poverty, most of the recent growth in aquaculture production has occurred in developing countries. WorldFish, headquartered in Malaysia, is a member of the CGIAR system of international agricultural research centers, and was established in 1975.
The U.S. government, through both the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Peace Corps, has been providing various forms of assistance to small-scale aquaculture operations in developing countries since the 1960’s, with the joint objectives of enhancing those producers’ incomes and increasing the availability of low-cost protein in the diets of people in those countries. These efforts have been particularly successful in several Asian countries, which are now significant participants in global seafood markets.
In 1982, USAID established a Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) focused on aquaculture, formally called Pond Dynamics/Aquaculture (PD/A. This program was managed by faculty members at Oregon State University, with involvement in various projects by faculty from nine other U.S. universities.
One country that has benefited from U.S. and other donor country efforts in expanding aquaculture has been Bangladesh, where USAID has been working since the mid-1950s, when Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan. The U.S. activities have included extension efforts, helping to develop and disseminate improved practices such as polyculture. This practice involves cultivating various species of fish (or crustaceans) together by fully using of all water level food available in the pond and increasing fish production in the highest stage. Other projects have involved addressing the degradation of wetlands in Bangladesh and improving the quality of ‘fish seeds’, which are fertilized shrimp and fish eggs, available to smallholder producers.
In 2016, Bangladesh was the world’s third largest producer of fish from inland aquaculture operations, trailing only China and India. This sector accounts for more than one-fifth of the nation’s agricultural GDP. Total inland aquaculture production nearly tripled between 2000 and 2016, growing from 712,000 tons to 2.06 million tons.
The U.S. government has also helped the aquaculture sector in both Asia and Africa by encouraging adoption of soybean meal as a major component of the feed used in such operations. The International Soybean Program (INTSOY) was established at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1972 as part of USDA’s National Soybean Research Laboratory, with a mission is to improve human nutrition around the world through the expanded use of soybeans.
In 2000, several of the state soybean associations created a non-profit called the World Initiative on Soy in Human Health (WISHH) as a program within the American Soybean Association to develop agricultural value chains in emerging markets to promote the use of U.S.-produced soybeans in both human and animal feed consumption. Since its founding, WISHH has conducted projects in 24 different developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, using a combination of funding from USDA programs such as the Food for Progress and Emerging Markets programs, checkoff funds from state soybean associations, and in-kind contributions from other partners such as agribusinesses and U.S. and foreign universities. One of their recent projects has been the FEEDing project in Pakistan, aimed at improving the country’s aquaculture sector by introducing producers to the benefits of using so-called ‘floating fish feed’ made with soybean meal as the main ingredient.