Aquaculture

Data Highlights

Global production

110 million tons (2016)

FAO, 2018

Annual growth rate

5.8% (2001–2016)

FAO, 2018

Percent certified volume

>5% (2017)

CEA, 2017

Global Production Trends

As wild capture landings have plateaued since the mid-1990s, aquaculture has driven continued growth in global seafood production. In 2016, aquaculture accounted for 47 percent of total landings, an increase from 26 percent in 2000.1

The aquaculture sector reached a milestone in 2014 when, for the first time, it provided more fish for human consumption than capture fisheries contributed.2 By 2030, aquaculture is projected to provide 60 percent of fish for human consumption.

Total aquaculture production in 2016 was 110 million tons, which included 80 million tons of food fish and shellfish, and 30 million tons of aquatic plants.3 While aquaculture has continued to grow rapidly, the annual growth rate has tapered from the high rates of the 1980s and 1990s (10.8 and 9.5 percent, respectively) as the industry has reached a greater scale.4 During the period 2001 to 2016, global aquaculture’s annual growth rate was 5.8 percent. Still, aquaculture remains the fastest-growing food sector in the world.5

By species group, freshwater fishes (particularly carp) accounted for 48 percent of aquaculture production in 2016. Seaweed represented 27 percent of production, and molluscs another 15 percent. Saltwater fishes accounted for just 9 percent of global production.

Steady growth in Asia has continued to spur the continued expansion of the sector. The bulk of growth in aquaculture production has come from China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Since 1991, China has produced more farmed food fish annually than the rest of the world combined.6

Not all aquaculture production has the same environmental footprint. A handful of farmed species pose a greater threat to the environment in terms of dependency on feed inputs, freshwater use, disease introduction, biodiversity impacts, and other concerns. These concerns are most concentrated in the production of marine finfish, diadromous fish (e.g., salmon, eel), and crustaceans such as shrimp. These species of concern made up approximately 13 percent of global aquaculture production in 2016.7 This ratio has followed a slight upward trajectory in recent years, up from 11 percent of total production in 2000.

Species of concern
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Aquaculture Species of Concern

  • Amberjacks*
  • Atlantic salmon
  • Ayu sweetfish
  • Banana prawn
  • Barramundi (Giant seaperch)
  • Bastard halibut
  • Chinese mitten crab
  • Chinook salmon (Spring salmon, King salmon)
  • Clearhead icefish
  • Cobia
  • Coho salmon (Silver salmon)
  • Fleshy prawn
  • Freshwater prawns, shrimps*
  • Giant river prawn
  • Giant tiger prawn
  • Groupers*
  • Indo-Pacific swamp crab
  • Jacks, crevalles*
  • Japanese amberjack
  • Japanese eel
  • Japanese jack mackerel
  • Japanese seabass
  • Kuruma prawn
  • Large yellow croaker
  • Lefteye flounders*
  • Longfin yellowtail
  • Marine crabs*
  • Marine Fishes*
  • Metapenaeus shrimps*
  • Milkfish
  • Mullets*
  • Obscure pufferfish
  • Oriental river prawn
  • Pacific bluefin tuna
  • Penaeus shrimps*
  • Pond smelt
  • Porgies, seabreams*
  • Portunus swimcrabs*
  • Rainbow trout
  • Red drum
  • Righteye flounders*
  • River eels*
  • River prawns*
  • Salmonoids*
  • Silver seabream
  • Snubnose pompano
  • Sturgeons*
  • Tiger pufferfish
  • Tropical spiny lobsters*
  • Trouts*
  • Turbot
  • White trevally
  • Whiteleg shrimp
  • Yellowfin tuna

Aquaculture Species Groups Not of Concern

  • Brown seaweeds
  • Red seaweeds
  • Green seaweeds
  • Mussels
  • Pearls, mother-of-pearl, shells
  • Sea-squirts and other tunicates
  • Scallops, pectens
  • Oysters

* not elsewhere identified

From a trade perspective, shrimp, tilapia, salmon, and pangasius are the most internationally traded aquaculture species. The share of aquaculture exported to Western markets is relatively small, as many countries (particularly China) retain a large share of aquaculture products for internal consumption. The portion of aquaculture which is traded to international markets tends to consist of high-value species.

Highly traded commodities exported primarily to Western markets: shrimp, tilapia, pangasius, and salmon.

Highest Compound Annual Growth Rate 2009 to 2013: tilapia, salmon, shrimp, catfish, bivalves.

Environmental Challenges

While the rapid growth of aquaculture has contributed to income generation and food security, it has also led to several discrete environmental impacts. The overarching challenge for the sector is to sustain growth while reducing environmental impacts—which range from habitat conversion and water pollution to disease outbreaks and dependency on wild fisheries as feed. Authoritative data on the trendline of impacts from global aquaculture production are generally lacking, particularly for water quality. Even so, aquaculture has been identified as a driving factor in appropriating coastal habitat, particularly in Southeast Asia which has more than one-third of the world’s mangrove forest extent.8

During the rapid expansion period of tropical coastal aquaculture between 1980 to 1990, aquaculture accounted for roughly 54 percent of all mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia.9 A recent analysis found that the conversion of mangrove habitat to fish or shrimp ponds has followed a decreasing trendline: between 2000 and 2012, aquaculture accounted for about 30 percent of mangrove conversion in Southeast Asia. Beyond aquaculture, the rapid expansion of rice agriculture (particularly in Myanmar) and the conversion of mangroves to palm oil plantations (especially in Malaysia and Indonesia) have also driven mangrove deforestation in the region.

Fig. 3.8. Temporal trends in the conversion of mangrove habitats to aquaculture in Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2012

Fig. 3.9. Temporal trends in the conversion of mangrove habitats to aquaculture in Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2012 chart

Temporal trends in the conversion of mangrove habitats to aquaculture (A), rice agriculture (B), and oil palm plantation (C), between 2000 and 2012. Dark green lines indicate error-corrected estimates of the proportional coverage of each land use. Light green shading indicates the standard error of the areal estimates.

Adapted from: Richards, Daniel R., and Daniel A. Friess. “Rates and Drivers of Mangrove Deforestation in Southeast Asia, 2000–2012.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 2 (January 12, 2016): 344–49. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510272113.

Another environmental concern unique to aquaculture is the sector’s heavy dependence on wild fisheries for fishmeal and fish oil. There is not definitive evidence indicating whether aquaculture is driving pressure on wild fisheries. However, inclusion rates of fishmeal and fish oil in aquafeeds have been declining steadily over the last few decades, partly due to the limited supply of raw materials.10 Global fishmeal production peaked in 1994 at 30 million tons (live weight equivalent).11 Since then, it has followed a fluctuating but overall declining trend.12 In 2016, wild capture landings directed to fishmeal production had decreased to less than 15 million tons. Currently, by-products from fish processing account for approximately 25 to 35 percent of the total volume of fishmeal and fish oil produced; this proportion is expected to increase in future years.

Market Initiatives

Although considerable work remains, stakeholders have made notable progress in addressing sustainability concerns in the aquaculture sector in recent years. Just as certifications and ratings have grown steadily in the wild capture sector, the aquaculture sector has experienced even more rapid growth in product under responsible sourcing. Certifications and ratings programs have a shared goal of encouraging aquaculture to pursue continuous improvement toward environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and economic vitality. Additional information on the complementary role of certifications and ratings programs can be found here.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch ratings and eco-certifications have now been applied to about 45% of total aquaculture production. Among aquaculture production in 2016, Seafood Watch rated 33% of production as “Best Choice,” 1% as “Good Alternative,” and 8% as “Avoid.”

Just as FIPs and MSC certifications have grown steadily in the wild capture sector, the aquaculture sector has experienced even more rapid growth in certifications by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA). Between 2014 and 2017, ASC certifications quadrupled while GAA certifications doubled. The three countries that account for the highest certified ASC volume are Norway (primarily salmon), Vietnam (primarily pangasius), and Chile (a combination of salmon and molluscs).

The three countries with the highest representation of certified volume by GAA are Chile (primarily salmon), Canada (mainly salmon), and China (principally tilapia).

Aquaculture Notes

  1. FAO, ed., The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018., Rome, 2018.
  2. FAO, ed., The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016., Rome, 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Halley Froehlich and Rebecca Gentry. “Aquaculture, the Fastest-growing Food Sector in the World, Still Has a Long Way To Go.” Project Earth. https://projectearth.us/aquaculture-the-fastest-growing-food-sector-in-the-wor-1800675704. October 19, 2017.
  6. Ibid.
  7. FAO, ed., The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018., Rome, 2018.
  8. Richards, Daniel R., and Daniel A. Friess. “Rates and Drivers of Mangrove Deforestation in Southeast Asia, 2000–2012.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no. 2 (January 12, 2016): 344–49. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510272113.
  9. Ibid.
  10. World Bank, Fish to 2030: Prospects for Fisheries and Aquaculture, World Bank Report Number 83177-GLB, Dec. 2013.
  11. FAO, ed., The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018.
  12. Ibid.