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close this bookCERES No. 070 - July - August 1979 (FAO Ceres, 1979, 50 p.)
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Nutrition first fishery policies

It is time to stop cash-cropping ocean food resources

by Gunnar Saetersdal

"... and, to those who are disposed to be arbitrary, it is appropriate to remind them, First that that which on the outside appears bad may be good within, Second, that the contrary is often the case, Third, that to advance it is not enough just to move, Fourth, that to improve it is not enough only to change, and Fifth, that there is nothing which absolutely could not worsen." Don Antonio Machado, 1620.

These words from several centuries back could have been the leitmotiv for the many schools of the 1970s that have questioned the destination of the simple growth and development road along which we have moved during recent decades. The world's marine fisheries and the resources on which they are based have, however, not been the subject of much scrutiny of this kind, apart from attempts to assess the limits of the total global harvest and discussions of how to manage the fisheries so that the highest sustainable yield can be obtained from the stocks.

In a prospective study of world fisheries, it seems appropriate to consider fish first and foremost as a food item. There are, of course, other important aspects such as employment, trade and foreign exchange earnings. But the problems of inadequate feeding of the population in many developing areas have dimensions and a persistence that justify a clear priority. This article will examine the current role of fish in nutrition, and include an analysis of the developing countries participation in world fisheries. The emphasis will be on the potential for change, both in the amount of world catch and in product usage, and how this can be achieved.

Recent discussions of world nutritional problems have focused on the distributional aspects of food supplies, both among regions and nations and among social strata within countries. Assessments indicate that, on a global basis, per caput production of food expressed in calories exceeds the estimated nutritional requirements of the total present world population. In terms of protein, production provides roughly twice the amount needed to supply all the world's population adequately.

What we eat

It is, however, impractical and unrealistic to imagine a world where people would restrict eating qualitatively and quantitatively to that which would meet the nutritional requirements. What we eat and how much we eat is influenced by a range of psychological and social factors within economic and food availability limits. For these and other reasons, it seems unlikely that a redistribution of food would be feasible on a scale that would significantly improve the world food situation. Because overconsumption is an acknowledged health problem in parts of the world, food needs in some regions may be reduced, but that this will lead to increased availability where food is needed is unlikely.

There is a need to analyse carefully the nutritional effects of increased production of a particular food item, and especially its likely distribution, both globally and within societies.

The significance of fish in the human diet lies in its contribution of protein. On a global basis this contribution is not very high, since only 4-5 percent of all protein and 14-16 percent of all animal protein come from fish products. But, in some regions and countries, the contribution is very much higher, and nutritionally fish is considered a particularly valuable food. Fatty fish may also contribute significantly to the caloric requirements of the diet since they often contain between 10 and 20 percent fat.

Of the annual world catch of aquatic organisms of slightly more than 70 million tons over the 1974-77 period, only about one third was taken by developing countries But even this overestimates the proportion of fish available in the Third World since the exports of fish from these countries exceeded their imports. Estimates of per caput supply' demonstrate the uneven distribution very clearly, with figures of 7-8 kg for developing countries, about 26 kg for the United States, Western Europe and the USSR and a range from 9 to 75 kg for other developed countries. We may conclude that probably only about one fourth of the world's fish production is available for consumption in developing countries.

This biased distribution does not reflect the abundance of fish resources in the oceans but is primarily a result of the historical structure of world fisheries and of consumption patterns. Some of the seafoods, such as shrimp and lobster that are in short supply and high demand, can best be described as luxury protein, and the fact that they are principally consumed in the developed world is of little nutritional significance. Deep-frozen products of white fish and tuna belong almost in the same luxury class because of their high production costs, but their biased distribution is more significant because of the much larger amounts produced.

Another undesirable effect of the production of shrimp and high-priced white fish is that considerable waste is involved. It is estimated that 3-4 million tons of fish taken as by-catch in shrimp fisheries and about 1 million tons of undesirable fish caught in other demersal fishing are discarded at sea.

The large-scale reduction of fish into meal and marine oils is, however, of far greater importance when one considers distribution and nutrition. This usage has in some years comprised as much as 40 percent of the world production of marine fish. Fish meal is used for animal feed and there is thus an interstage loss since only about 30 percent of the protein contained in the raw fish reaches human consumption. Other usages of fish include some waste and usually only 70-80 percent of the total raw fish proteins remain in fish products for direct human consumption. One can thus conclude that the protein supply is reduced by some 60 percent through fish-meal production compared with direct human consumption.

In defence of the fish-meal industry, it is argued that for technological and market reasons in some of the large scale fisheries of this type there is at present no alternative use of the resource. The choice would then be a non-use of the resources, which is again a waste since they are renewable. In any case, as long as fish meal has a profitable market, there is little incentive to develop alternative products.

Only one fourth of global fish production is available to developing countries

Too high and wasteful

Fish meal has, however, a particular significance in a global nutritional context because it is used almost entirely in industrial production of poultry and meat in the developed world, and it seems unlikely that this industrial production will be copied to any extent by the Third World countries. The distribution of such food products within developing societies would also probably be poorly adjusted to the nutritional needs of the various social strata. In this sense, fish meal represents a parallel to the use of more than 30 percent of the world's cereal production for animal feed, although the resulting calorie losses must here be considerably higher than the 60 percent protein loss in fish meal. It is, however, not the protein or energy losses that are important, but the distributional effects. Expanded production of fish meal for animal feed should not be encouraged as a nutritional policy, because it merely supports the supply of protein in the developed world where consumption is already too high and wasteful.

The fish used for reduction are low valued species, such as anchovies, sardines, herring and mackerel. There thus exist potential user conflicts with production of low-priced fish commodities such as dried, salted or cured fish, which could result in a wider local use of the resources.

Today's structure of world fisheries can briefly be characterized as follows. Five to six nations account for about half of the global 70 million-ton catch; another ten nations exceed annual catches of 1 million tons; two thirds of the well over one hundred "fishing nations" belong in the developing group, and they account for about one third of the total catch. The development of great industrial fisheries is a recent phenomenon. It started in the 1950s from existing nuclei in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. When resources here and in the adjacent waters approached full utilization, the fisheries were extended in the 1960s to highly productive areas at lower latitudes, especially off the west coasts of South America and Africa. During this period, the global ranging oceanic tuna fisheries were also developed. An FAO analysis of world catches by non-local fleets based on 1972 data showed that about 16 million tons of the total marine catch of 56 million tons were taken off the coasts of other countries, and about 5 million tons of these came from the waters off developing countries.

Crucial questions

In 1976/77, most coastal countries established exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of 200 nautical miles and this terminated the "common heritage" nature of the major part of all fish stocks. Considerable amounts of new resources have thus recently been made available to Third World coastal states. Of even greater significance is the fact that the remaining potential for further expansion of fisheries is principally found in developing regions. As shown by FAO's Review of the State of World Fishery Resources, nearly all stocks in the traditional fishing grounds of the North Atlantic and North Pacific are fully exploited or even depleted. The remaining unused resources of conventional species, which are assessed at some 30-40 million tons, will for the major part be available to developing nations. There are thus reasons to expect changes in the distribution of world fishing nations in the future. To what extent and in which way these changes will take place are, however, crucial questions of great importance for the countries directly concerned and for the contribution that fisheries and fish products can make to solving nutritional problems.

It was expected that the establishment of EEZs would cause, at least temporarily, a reduction in the utilization of fishery resources because of forced changes in fishing patterns. This may have happened, but apparently only off the coasts of developed nations, e.g., Canada and the US. In such well-known distant-water fishing areas as the Eastern Central Atlantic (off West Africa) and the South-East Atlantic (off Angola, Namibia and South Africa), foreign fishing seems to have been maintained and even increased. Thus, in 1976, two thirds of the 3.5 million tons caught off West Africa were taken by vessels from non-African developed nations, the same quantity and proportion as in 1974. And in the South-East Atlantic the proportion of the 2.8 million-ton catch of the area taken by foreign fleets increased from one third in 1974 to one half in 1976.3 The adjustment to the new ocean regime has in these regions so far taken the form of licensed or joint venture fishing. This would in most cases be a form of cash cropping, but without or with only limited involvement of local labour. These arrangements will probably not be of a lasting nature as most developing countries with a significant resource base will aspire to a higher national participation.

There is a need recognized by FAO and by aid-giving developed nations to assist the emerging Third World fishing countries in the establishment of new fisheries. The nature of this assistance must, however, be carefully considered. Much of the assistance has been and still is of a paternalistic kind, with the conscious or unconscious objective of wholly or partly transferring such advanced fishery systems as have proved "efficient" or "economic" in the industrial world. These have in many instances turned out to be quite the opposite in their new environment. Examples are fish-meal plants, large capacity deep-freeze stores and advanced distant-water freezer trawlers or tuna purse seiners. The pressure on Western economies in recent years has resulted in an increased desire to provide development assistance in the form of high-cost capital goods produced by the donor. This often establishes new patterns of technological dependence, and results in "cashcropping" industries, such as frozen tuna exports and fish-meal production.

An additional danger involved in the transfer of advanced industrial fisheries systems lies in the difficulties of controlling the pressure of exploitation that these systems exert on the resources. In general, one can say that fishery management in advanced industrialized regions has failed to keep the stocks in a reasonably good state. A 1974 analysis of the North-East Atlantic showed that, of a total of 15 main stocks, 11 were overexploited while one was depleted. Since then fishing has been banned on three further herring stocks in that area. The potential annual yields from the depleted stocks is of the order of 2 million tons. The management failures can partly be seen as the result of unrestricted growth and competition for a common property resource. The new EEZ regime will not per se solve the problems. The fish stocks of many coastal areas are shared between zones, or between a zone and international waters, and the problems of allocating access to such resources have not been solved. The industrial and often highly capitalized fisheries' persistent demand for large amounts of raw material, often on a year-round basis, thus represents a danger in itself. And particularly it will often not accord either with the general level of resource abundance or with the often pronounced annual variations and year-to-year fluctuations in biomass found at lower latitudes.

New fisheries should only be planned and developed after careful consideration of the resource base and of the socioeconomic needs of the country in question, particularly the nutritional needs. The information basis for such planning is, however, often inadequate or may he misleading because the main efforts in fisheries research have been applied to problems in advanced fisheries and regions with different conditions.

A hopeful range

From the above, it follows that in a nutritional sense a considerable part of the present world catch is poorly used. A simple projection of the existing industrial fisheries and fish consumption patterns to the total global potential of about 100 million tons would not be a very desirable development. Increased production of fish meal and of high-cost products, such as frozen fillets and shrimp, will not contribute to solving nutritional problems, and as already mentioned these products also involve a considerable waste of valuable raw material. A recent assessment by FAO indicates, however, that the scope for continued expansion of high-priced products is limited as "it is now clear that the more valuable stocks in most parts of the world are heavily fished." It is thought that the decline in growth-trend of world production from about 7 percent per year between 1945 and about 1970 to 1-2 percent per year since then is related to the exhaustion of new stocks of valuable white fish and tuna. The remaining potential of still unused resources consists principally of less valuable types of fish, especially small pelagic species such as anchovies and sardines. The main commercial outlet for these resources has been fish meal until now? but it seems unlikely that, apart from the undesirability of such prospects from a nutritional point of view, this industrial use can be expanded very much further. To be profitable, the industry requires large amounts of raw material over considerable time periods. The fluctuating availability and often rapid migration of small pelagic fish in tropical and subtropical waters, combined with reduced fishing range because of the high rate of decomposition, will often severely limit the potential raw material supply at any given locality.


Used for food

Fish meal, etc.

Discards at sea

Post-harvest losses

Additional potential catch

Marine, demersal





Marine, small pelagic




Marine, other fish



Marine, cephalopods



Marine, mesopelagic species



Marine, euphasiidis


50 to 150+

Other crustaceans



Other molluscs


Very large

Freshwater species





20 to 40+





5 to 6+

230 to 445+

Total used at present


Total potential

240 to 445+

Source: FAO, COFI, 77/7

To use the remaining 30-40 million tons of potential annual catch effectively, a carefully guided development is needed. There is first a need for a comprehensive research and development programme on fish products and production processes. The requirements for a fish production that could be used widely and become part of the diet where it is nutritionally needed include low prices, uncomplicated and cheap storage and distribution networks, and high nutritional value. Several traditional products meet some of these requirements, e.g., chilled, dried, salted and cured fish, but there is a need to improve processes and systems of production, packaging, storage and distribution. A new product for which there may be some scope is fish protein concentrate type B (FPC-B), fish powder or flour with the taste and smell of fish. FPC-B is simply cooked, dried ground fish, very similar to ordinary fish meal, whose world production is now well over 4 million tons. Acceptability tests of fish flour have met with favourable response in some areas. It is clearly not the single or even main answer to the problems of using low-cost fish in nutrition, but it is an example of a hopeful range of new or improved products. Another important task in this research and development work is the adaptation of fish production equipment and production systems to conditions in developing areas. The use of solar energy for drying and other processing may thus be an important feature.

Expanding the utilization of marine fishery resources for human consumption was the subject of an FAO/NORAD special conference at Svanoy, Norway, in 1975. Since then, the Global Research Programme to Increase the Utilization of Fish for Human Consumption has been promoted by FAO, but support has only been obtained from a few bilateral donors. The Programme includes the elements mentioned above and also concentrates on the reduction of wastes in the various fisheries. These efforts should receive much greater attention since they may provide essential guidelines to Third World fisheries development. In this connection, FAO has presented an account of world fishery resources (see table).

Reserves for the future

In addition to the remaining unused potential of 30-40 million tons of conventional resources, the accompanying table lists estimates of possible yields from unconventional resources, i.e., organisms that are not harvested with present-day technology and economy. These are indicated with quite considerable amounts, in fact several times that of conventional stocks. This, of course, broadens the role that food from the sea may play in global nutrition in the more distant future. At present, however, with considerable unused resources of cheap fish along the shores of developing countries, there is no need in a world nutritional context to start tapping the Antarctic krill resource, for instance. The development of a grandiose fish-meal production based on the estimated 50 million tons of Antarctic krill, as has been suggested, would not be in the interests of a rational food usage since one would then establish a user-system that would later be difficult to change or break down. For economic reasons, exploitation of the krill would have to be highly industrialized and capital intensive, and could only be developed by advanced fishing' nations. In some of these nations, there is pressure on governments to promote and assist in the search for new resources for their surplus fishing fleets which have become idle because of the new ocean regime. In the context of world food needs, the Antarctic krill resources should be considered as reserves for the future. The value of such food resources may increase greatly in the more distant future, and one should as far as possible preserve their international state to the extent that they exist in international waters.