World’s Impoverished Compete for Protein Source
Worldwide, anchovies, herring, mackerel and other small pelagic (open ocean) forage fish are caught more than any
other species. Most of these prey fish are not directly consumed by people, but are reduced into nonfood commodi-
ties, such as fishmeal and fish oil to feed farmed fish and other animals. Authors Albert Tacon and Marc Metian
conducted a global analysis of the competition for small pelagic forage fish for direct human consumption and
nonfood uses. Their results show that small pelagic fish are an important source of protein in many developing
countries, yet increasingly, these fish are diverted into nonfood commodities. Competition for this resource can drive
up the price of fish, pushing this important food source out of reach for many of the world’s impoverished
Nonfood Fish Commodities
Most pelagic forage fish are turned
into fish meal or fish oil rather than being directly consumed by people. Non food uses typically include ingredients in
feeds for farmed fish and other animals,
but can also be used in other applications such as soap manufacturing and leather tanning.
Fishing for Feed or Fishing for Food?
The authors reported that per capita supply of wild fish for
direct human consumption has been unable to keep pace with
the protein needs of a growing human population. Yet, the
proportion of total fish catch destined for other uses such as
fish farming has increased. Although using small pelagic fish
in animal feeds produces food for people, this indirect use is a
far less efficient use of these small fish than consuming them
directly as human food.
Most of the catch of small pelagic fish is reduced, or dehydrated, to make fish meal and oil which are used in
manufactured animal feeds. While the proportion of the reduced catch has remained relatively static for the last 25
years, there has been a considerable rise in the use of unreduced forms of wild fish or “wet” forms (e.g., frozen or
minced) for use in aquaculture, canned pet foods, and fishing bait.
In both forms, small pelagic fish are now heavily used as fish feed. These fish are generally the only commercially
viable source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids essential to diets for carnivorous farmed fish, such as salmon and
tuna, which have high market value and are typically sold in wealthy, developed countries. For example, in 2006,
aquaculture consumed 57 percent of fish meal and 87 percent of fish oil, globally, due both to rapid growth in fish
farming and the willingness of aquaculture producers to pay high market prices for these commodities.
Contribution of Small Pelagic Forage Fish to Global Food Supply
Contrary to popular belief that most small pelagic forage fish are not suitable for direct human consumption, the
authors found that these fish contribute more than 50 percent of the total food fish supply in more than 36 countries
in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Interestingly, although more than one third of small pelagic fish are landed in South America, Europe is the largest
producer, exporter and importer of processed small pelagic fish products for human consumption. Asia and Africa
are also active in this trade: at the country level, Nigeria was the single largest importer of food-grade forage fish
products in 2006. Such products are especially important to nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half of
the population receives 25 percent or more of its protein from fish.
Direct consumption of small pelagic fish has been limited by their rapid deterioration in storage. However, recent
advances in technology, including improvements in fish freezing and chilling, now facilitate production of a variety
of food products from small pelagic species.
Obstacles to Human Consumption of Small Pelagic Forage Fish
Market competition determines whether small pelagic fish are destined for feed or destined for food. In some
locations, the result is greater use of small fish as human food. However, when prices are high, the poor cannot
compete with aquaculture producers for these resources. In Mexico, for example, The California Pilchard traditionally
has been both reduced into fishmeal and processed for direct human consumption. Increased demand from tuna
aquaculture operations has substantially raised the price of California Pilchard, raising the prospect that fewer of
these fish will be processed for human food.
Recommendations to Reconcile uses for Small Pelagic Forage Fish
The authors urge that the use of fish to meet human nutritional demands of impoverished communities needs to be a
priority, consistent with the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Their recommendations include placing
government limits on the use of fish as animal feed, initiating promotional campaigns concerning the value of small
pelagic fish as food and reducing the use of food-grade fish as aquaculture feeds and fishing baits by finding
alternative feed sources.
Tacon, Albert G. J.& Marc Metian. 2009. “Fishing for Feed or Fishing for Food: Increasing Global
Competition for Small Pelagic Forage Fish.” 38
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