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Are we running out of fish?

The accelerating increase in global population is no surprise, and addressing the associated environmental and social issues is at the forefront of government agendas. At the same time, however, the field of aquaculture has the potential to increase food supplies and impact food security.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, allows us to rear aquatic organisms, such as fish, shellfish or plants, from land-based and open-ocean production. A new paper from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) states aquaculture is now the fastest growing food production sector in the world. This blog serves as a brief summary and response to the SAMS paper.

Seafood is a crucial source of protein and nutrients such as omega 3 oils, zinc or selenium. Seafood has historically been sourced from the wild, relying on the natural processes of our oceans and seas to meet growing demand. However, global fishery is becoming unsustainable and this is precisely why we need aquaculture. This field has the ability to bridge the gap between supply and demand whilst simultaneously reducing pressure on wild fishing.

Why aquaculture?

  • 70% of the planet is open water, whilst the terrestrial environment covers 30% of the planet. Only 0.25% of water is used for aquaculture while 38% of arable land is already being used for farming. This clearly suggests there is little room for land farming expansion.

  • More fish feed is converted to edible products. With beef, 60% of the animal is converted to human feed; with fish, it’s 90%.

  • Seafood contains crucial amino acids, healthy fat, protein and vitamins. This nutrient-rich food source therefore also contributes to global food security.

Aquaculture as a growing sector

People have been practicing aquaculture for thousands years, with the very first treatises on fish farming written by a Chinese politician in 475 BC. Since then, aquaculture has become a popular practice around the globe. The last century saw the beginning of rapid development in fish farming due to advances in transport and communications. Now, due to technological innovation, over half of all seafood we consume is produced through aquaculture.

In the last forty years we have gone from being almost exclusively hunters and gatherers of the world’s seas and oceans, to being predominantly farmers of the seas.

The UK is the third most important seafood producer in Europe. The most popular species are Pacific oysters, scallops, mussels, Atlantic salmon and trout. The majority of aquaculture activity is in Scotland, although it’s slowly spreading to other parts of the UK.

Aquaculture provides meaningful health and economic benefits. It allows for the production of great tasting, high quality seafood in large volumes and creates jobs in rural areas. However, the development of aquaculture has not come without complications.

Challenge 1     Feeding the world

To properly grow and develop, fish require feed that is rich in protein and lipids. This currently comes from fish meal and oil from wild-capture fisheries. However, these practices are ineffective and dangerous as global fishery has already reached its maximum sustainable level. Additionally, these processes involve converting food from the human food chain to feed fish, and this represents a significant loss of nutritional products that could have otherwise been used for human consumption.

Challenge 2     Environmental containment

Aquaculture leads to increased density of fish, resulting in prevalence of disease. Furthermore, domesticated animals (including fish) are genetically distinct from wild species. It is crucial to appropriately manage the flow of material between fish farming areas and the natural environment.

Challenge 3     Urban aquaculture

The final significant challenge is the distance between production sites and market. Aquaculture takes place in rural settings, while key markets are based in urban hubs. This separation increases the length of the supply chain, causing spoilage and waste. Bringing fish farming closer to urban locations will reduce these issues.

As part of our Challenges of our Era series, Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes is exploring the aquaculture topic to see if a challenge prize would be a useful stimulus in encouraging breakthroughs to address these problems. We are starting by convening leading experts and stakeholders to discuss possible solutions to the challenges above.

If you are interested in aquaculture innovation, tweet us at @Challenge_prize.


Tris Dyson

Tris Dyson

Tris Dyson

Executive Director, Challenge Works


Tris has led Challenge Works from its origins as a Nesta experiment to being a global hub for expertise and insight on challenge prizes.

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