On World Ocean Day over 160 groups and experts wrote to FAO, criticizing the support to “destructive” aquaculture industries.

On World Oceans Day, a group of more than 160 non-governmental organizations, communities and individual researchers submitted an open letter at the top of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), to ask that the farming of carnivorous fish such as salmon, sea bass, sea bream, trout, shrimp, tuna, are no longer indicated as a sustainable model, on which to invest public funds.

“Aquaculture is always presented as a solution to the problems we have with our oceans, so the collapse of marine species, overfishing, pollution,” Nusa Urbancic, director of the Changing Market Foundation, among the NGOs that signed the letter, told us. “Actually when we started studying aquaculture more in detail, we realized that it is actually also a driver of all these problems.”

The letter was signed by 160 groups, including the Global Salmon Farming Resistance network, Slow Food, Eurogroup for Animals and Mission Blue, the NGO founded by the famous marine biologist Sylvia Earle. The document is addressed to Manuel Barange, director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Division of the FAO, and other leading representatives of the United Nations, as well as the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans Virginijus Sinkevičius, e Janet Coit, from the US agency NOAA Fisheries.

The request to exclude the farming of carnivorous species among the production systems considered as “sustainable” is linked to a series of investigations which in recent years have denounced pollution, animal welfare and human rights violations linked to salmon, sea bass, sea bream and other species, in countries such as Norway, Chile, Australia, Canada, Greece, Turkey.

“Industrial fish farms are highly polluting due to the vast quantities of feces and waste generated, which create dead zones around the nets,” Catalina Cendoya, director of the Global Salmon Farming Resistance, a network bringing together hundreds of communities in various parts of the world opposing the proliferation of salmon and other species farming, said. “The FAO must stop labeling this destructive activity as ‘sustainable’,” Cendoya said.

In the same years, several reports have shown how the production of carnivorous species requires huge amounts of wild fish used for the production of feed. The most recent study, published in 2024 by the UK based NGO Feedback, revealed that in 2020 Norwegian salmon farms “used almost 2 million tonnes of edible wild fish to produce fish oil for feed which produced almost 1.5 million tonnes of farmed salmon.”

According to the report, up to 7% of these wild fish (123,000-144,000 tonnes) were small pelagics caught along the coasts of West Africa, where they could have fed between 2.5 and 4 million people.

At the end of 2023, during the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP) on the climate crisis in Dubai, FAO published a roadmap to transform the global food system, responsible for at least a third of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet and unable to feed part of the world’s population, with 735 million malnourished people. The FAO strategy, among the various solutions, proposes a further surge in aquaculture production by 2040 (+75% compared to 2020).

“Aquaculture has overtaken capture fisheries as a main producer of aquatic foods and products,” Barange said in a press release. “This is a great result because it means that we can continue to increase the production of aquatic foods without increasing the impact on the marine environment, as less than 40 percent of aquaculture is produced in marine waters.”

The term “aquaculture” includes different productions: algae, mussel, freshwater carp, and also salmon or tuna. Each of these productions has a different social and environmental impact.

“There is a dire need to differentiate what is sustainable aquaculture, like seaweed or small scale bivalve farming , versus what is destructive,” says Eva Douzinas, president of the US-based Rauch Foundation, which in April he co-organized a conference in Greece from which the idea for the letter was born. “Fish farming of carnivorous species such as salmon, sea bream and sea bass is proven to be wholly unsustainable. It is an industry that depletes the world’s wild fish stocks and destroys marine ecosystems, not sustains them,” she said.

According to Carlos Fuentevilla, from the FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Division, “the question is not necessarily ‘is aquaculture sustainable?’, or ‘what is the impact of aquaculture?’, but rather ‘what is the impact compared to what?’” According to Fuentevilla, speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Malta at the end of 2023, “of course the impact of becoming vegan, for example, is less, for the most part, than any animal protein. But if we have to eat animal proteins, and people are going to eat them, which they need for nutrition, then when comparing of course you will prefer something that come from aquaculture, no matter if it’s carnivorous fish.”

In recent years the fish farming industry has grown exponentially, also as a result of the deployment of huge public funds, linked to the alleged sustainability of this production. From 2014 to 2018, for example, the European Union financed the aquaculture industry with at least 1.72 billion euros.

The increasing consumption

The FAO and the NGOs have different opinions on fish consumption, which has surged  in recent decades.

“In the 1960s, we were consuming each one of us on average about nine kilograms of aquatic animal foods per year,” Barange said. “In 2022 this figure is 20.7kg. So, it’s more than doubled in these few decades, even though the world’s population has been growing at the same time from 3 to almost 8 billion people.”

According to Barange, aquaculture offers a perfect tool to produce more food and satisfy the increasing consumption, without impacting the wild stocks – whereas today 90 percent of fish species are exploited to maximum limits (around 50%) or are overexploited (37.7 %).

FAO actively encourages a greater fish consumption: “We must ensure that, by effectively transforming [the food system], we can increase per capita consumption to 25.5 kg per year by 2050,” Fuentevilla said at the conference in Malta.

The NGOs signing the letter, on the other hand, argue that this unconditional support to aquaculture is generating a sharp increase of carnivorous species, which are those with the greatest market value but also with the greatest impact, and as a result is taking away fish wild where it is needed most.

“We are essentially taking fish from the most vulnerable people and the most fragile ecosystems,” Urbancic said, “and giving them to more valuable, intensively farmed fish in the Global North.”

Fuentevilla said that current trends show that “we are going to increase per capita consumption by 2030, according to current trends, but not in the areas that require it most. We actually suspect that there will be a fold in fish consumption in Africa, and an even greater one, if we are looking at Sub-Saharan Africa.”

In recent months the FAO roadmap has been criticized, since it omits a clear strategy to address the consumption of animal-proteins and a dietary shift that has been recommended by other scientific institutions, such as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The FAO roadmap, on the contrary, suggests a surge in the aquaculture production, and also promotes a constant increase in livestock production (+1.7% per year globally by 2040).


Read the original story

One Earth is an independent project, based also on the contribution of the readers. Please support it and help us to tell this story.