Oceans’ contribution to food security for the poor: confronting ominous trends

We can look at oceans in many different ways: as a vibrant ecosystem, a medium for trade and travel, a sink for carbon, a vast space of uncertainty and danger, or – as we will do here – a provider of food and livelihood. After all, oceans play a vital role in providing human society with income and nutritious food. However, as we argue in this paper, the contributions of fisheries to food security are increasingly undermined by a set of powerful trends.

Estimates suggest that, worldwide, about 120 million people are engaged in fishing, while more than 3 billion people obtain 20% or more of their animal protein intake from fish. Due to the relatively easy accessibility of fish resources, and to the fact that small cheap fish tend to have impressive nutritional properties, fisheries are particularly important for the livelihood and food security of the poor. Countries with vast rural unemployment, like India, employ millions of people in the fisheries sector, and the populations of many African and Pacific countries that have high levels of malnutrition rely heavily on fish for their vital nutrients. We argue that this provisioning role of the oceans is increasingly under threat by a set of powerful global trends. These trends manifest in our societies in various ways, but to really understand them, we need to study the underlying ‘discourses’. Discourses represent shared ways of interpreting the world around us, and therefore shape our imaginations of what is feasible and desirable.

The first narrative is that of ‘blue growth’, which frames oceans as a frontier of economic growth. The second narrative is that of the so-called global crisis in fisheries resulting largely from overfishing. Third, informed by the prospect of 9 or 10 billion human inhabitants on the globe by 2050, there is a powerful narrative that pleads for the expansion of aquaculture. We will provide an account of these three trends and explore why each of them may undermine the interests of those most reliant on the seas for their food and livelihoods.

Fish and food security for the poor

Food security is commonly understood as a situation in which all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. How important fish is to a household’s food security depends on many factors. It is not only about whether fish is available in the marketplace: it is also a question of accessibility, affordability, seasonal stability, and cultural preferences, and of how fish is prepared, cooked, and shared among household members.

Fish can contribute to a household’s food security in various ways. First, there is the nutritional contribution of fish consumption because fish provides energy, is a superior source of protein to other animal source foods, and is rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin A, calcium, iron, and zinc. These are precisely the nutrients essential to prevent wasting and stunting of the human body. It is for that reason that scholars have recently made pleas to put fish higher on the agenda of global programs targeting malnutrition.

There is something counter-intuitive here: it is mostly poor countries in Africa and Asia with relatively low fish consumption per capita that are most dependent on fish as a source of nutrition. Almost 75% of the countries where fish is an important source of animal protein are income-poor and food deficient. This is because the importance of fish for the poor is not so much a matter of how many kilograms of fish one consumes, but rather about the relative position of fish in one’s overall diet. Hence, one ‘humble sardine’ a week in a monotonous diet is a much more significant contribution to global food security than the same sardine in a rich man’s diet.

Second, fish provides income for more than 660 million people (including fish workers, traders, and their families), a number that is still growing. The income generated through the selling and marketing of fish throughout the value chain is critical for being able to buy food items. Third, the fact that women control much of the income generated through processing and marketing tends to positively impact a household’s food security.

For any of these pathways that fisheries contribute to food security, small-scale fisheries are much more significant than large-scale fisheries. Small-scale fisheries not only provide the bulk of employment, but the fish landed by small-scale fishers is almost exclusively used for local consumption, and hardly destined for export or reduction to fish meal for aquaculture. Another interesting observation is that small fish, such as sardines, are more important than big fish. This is not only because small fish tend to be cheaper, but also because small fish tend to be eaten whole (with heads and bones), making them nutritionally superior.

Given the above, if we agree that food security is a concern, any intervention in the oceanic realm should be scrutinized from two perspectives: a) are small scale fishers being displaced to benefit competing users of coast and ocean?; and b) are cheap yet nutritious fish varieties redirected from domestic consumption to export and fish meal industries?

Blue Growth

With nations across the world striving to raise the status of the maritime realm in the economy, ‘Blue Growth’ has become a new buzzword. The European Commission defines ‘Blue Growth’ as ‘the long term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors as a whole’. Likewise, a recent Indian Oceans Dialogue conference emphasized Blue Economy as “based on the sustainable development of oceanic resources for the benefit of humankind”. Blue growth parlance builds upon what Hance Smith in his millennial essay called the ‘industrialization of the ocean’ – a trend that commenced as part of the industrial revolution and has resulted in more intense and diversified sea use. This includes new industries for energy and mineral exploitation, recreation, and coastal engineering, and nowadays pays significant attention to conservation too, such as through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of bringing at least 10% of global coastal and marine space under Marine Protected Areas.

Premised on the creation of more healthy oceans and the rational planning of economic activity, the language of blue growth promises to bring about benefits for all. The underlying neoliberal ideology is characterized by what Igoe and Brockington describe as “win-win-win- win-win-win-win solutions, that benefits corporate investors, national economies, biodiversity, local people, western consumers, development agencies and conservation organizations” all at once. One can doubt, however, whether blue growth will be as inclusive, and useful for protecting the food security needs of the poor, as its proponents suggest. We signal two disquieting trends. The first is that with the rise of competing uses of the sea, food production is accorded lesser priority. The recent outcry of Dutch fishers that their fishing grounds are being reduced to the size of a postage stamp is in fact a universal complaint: all over the world fishers are losing prime territory to other marine industries. Although such industries, for example, offshore wind farms, are sometimes argued to be beneficial to fisheries and mariculture, their main purpose is obviously of a different order.

Secondly, the industrialization of coastal regions, which is part of blue growth, is also affecting terrestrial living space, particularly of small-scale fishing populations. Naomi Klein has provocatively described the effects of ‘disaster capitalism’ following the tsunami in Sri Lanka, which resulted in the removal of fishing hamlets to the interior and their replacement by a more profitable tourist enterprise. It is clear that this trend of ‘coastal grabbing’ is actually occurring in many parts of the world. The loss of coastal land potentially affects the livelihood options, particularly of small-scale fishers and their dependents. With alternative livelihoods in Asia, Africa, and Latin America not being readily available, the pressure currently placed on small-scale fishing could well reduce the food security of their practitioners in the future.

The crisis of overfishing

In 2000, a group of scientists led by Boris Worm devised a grand doom scenario predicting empty oceans by 2048. Scores of scientific articles predicting fisheries collapse, in conjunction with popular documentaries like “The End of the Line” and powerful voices of ocean campaigners have made the general public – at least in the Western world – associate fisheries first and foremost with ecological catastrophe. In 2013, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 32% of the world’s fish stocks were being exploited beyond their sustainable limit, up from 10% in the 1970s. We do not wish to deny the gravity of the situation, yet pose questions alongside the dominant understanding of causes and perceived implications of this state of affairs. The discourse of overfishing and crisis tends to paint a Malthusian picture of an almost empty ocean with vast and expanding fleets of fishing boats engaged in a hopeless race to the bottom. If this is agreed to be the nature of the problem, the solution lies – depending on one’s particular ideologies and disciplinary engagement – in reducing the number of fishers, establishing property rights, reducing fisheries subsidies, creating marine protected areas, and tackling illegal fisheries. While none of these solutions are inherently problematic, each of them potentially endangers the viability of small-scale fisheries.

The alarmist focus on overfishing, within a frame of scarcity and overpopulation, blinds us to questions of who actually drives and benefits from overfishing. A group of Swedish scholars recently calculated that the world’s biggest 13 fisheries corporations control 11-16% of the global marine catch and 19-40% of the most valuable stocks. Data from the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission show that, in 2014, a mere 81 fishing vessels from the EU caught almost as much tuna in the Indian Ocean than the entire Sri Lankan and Indian fleet (consisting of thousands of boats) combined. This concentration of catches and revenue in the hands of a limited number of firms does not so much downplay the issue of overfishing, but challenges the current mode of production and puts distributional questions centre stage. In short, fisheries specialists have concentrated predominantly on questions of biological sustainability and economic efficiency, hopelessly neglecting issues of fairness and the importance of fisheries for reducing malnutrition and supporting livelihoods.

From fish hunting to fish farming

Predicted trends of population growth have always prompted doom scenarios that question whether every human being can in the future be fed. The current fear of moving towards a world population of 9 or 10 billion, is therefore translated seamlessly into the question of how to enlarge aggregate food production. The argument, then, is that, if fish is important to food security, more fish will need to be produced to feed the growing world population. And since wild fish production has stagnated since the 1990s, while global aquaculture production has recently grown steeply, there is no doubt in this line of thinking that if food security is the concern, aquaculture is the answer. Aquaculture indeed accounts for an increasing proportion of global food-fish supplies and has increased global per capita food-fish supplies.

However, ever since Amartya Sen in 1981 wrote about the atrocious famine in West Bengal, India, that occurred in the late 1930s and early 1940s, we are aware that food insecurity is not only a function of the availability of food, but of distribution too. How do we make sure that seafood actually benefits the people who need it the most? Who actually benefits from the meteoric rise of aquaculture production? It is impossible to answer this important question in generic terms. For example, small-scale ponds around the world and the massive production of carp in China have contributed to the availability of fish for lower-income people. Yet, many fish farming practices have, apart from environmental concerns, a range of disturbing distributional attributes.

Farmed fish obviously need to eat. High-value carnivorous fish and shrimp, in particular, need to eat up to 6kg of marine fish to be converted into 1 kg of farmed fish. Although efficiencies in fish farming are steadily improving, the fact is that in 2015 about 15 billion (!) kilogram of low-priced fish like anchovies were reduced to fish meal and oil to feed higher value farmed fish. The poor are unlikely to benefit from this value addition. While exceptions are there, most farmed fish is geared to serving the middle and upper classes rather than the poor. Given the increasing prices of fish meal, it is unlikely that this may easily change in the near future. Aquaculture’s demand for wild fish also has the potential to increase price levels and volatility. People who are dependent on low-priced fish for their nutritional needs are particularly vulnerable to such fluctuations. The final perversity is that farmed fish while being a fine source of animal protein, is inferior to small wild fish species as a source of essential fatty acids and micronutrients. In short, aquaculture may add more fish to the market, but it is doubtful whether it will be of much help to the poor.


Malnutrition is currently resulting in the death of 5 children every minute, which is more than the number caused by HIV/AIDS, warfare, genocide, and terrorism combined. Fisheries do and can continue to play a significant role in preventing these appalling conditions.

Yet both the blue growth narrative, as well as the crisis and conservation discourse and even the food-security-as-food-production ideology – at least in the way it is currently shaped in the fisheries domain – are potentially at odds with improving human nutrition for those who need it most. These discourses, therefore, need to be continuously scrutinized by questioning how they come about, what actors are pursuing them, and whose interests they represent.

Distribution and access are important concerns that cannot be left behind if we are interested in a genuine improvement of human food security. For seafood to matter for the poor, we must develop new narratives that allow for the safeguarding of small-scale fisheries and enhancing the flow of low-price seafood to the poor.
Further reading

Béné C, R Arthur, H Norbury, MJ Williams. 2016. Contribution of fisheries and aquaculture to food security and poverty reduction: assessing the current evidence. World Development 79: 177–196.

High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE). 2014. Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture for food security and nutrition. Rome:FAO.

Tacon AGJ and M Metian. 2011. Fishing for Feed or Fishing for Food: Increasing Global Competition for Small Pelagic Forage Fish. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. 38(6):294-302.

This article is from issue


2017 Jun