Aquaculture production scales
Over the past few decades, supplies of all seafood available for people to eat – often simply called ‘food fish’ – has increased. This is because the aquatic organisms we now farm add massively to the supplies of wild fish and shellfish fishermen catch in our oceans, seas, rivers and lakes. Almost all the aquatic animals we now harvest from aquaculture – the finfish, crustaceans and molluscs – will be eaten by us.
Aquaculture production across the world
The latest State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report tells us that Asia is by far the largest aquaculture region. Nearly 73 million tonnes of food fish was farmed across Asia in 2018. This was almost 89% of the world’s total. The farming of food fish in China is much greater than in any other country - in 2018, China alone produced 47.5 million tonnes.
As for other regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe and Oceania – they accounted for the remaining 11% of global food fish aquaculture. Europe produced just over 3 million tonnes, which was just 3.9% of the global total in 2018.
The diagram below shows a map with a breakdown of regional production of farmed fish across the world in millions of tonnes, alongside the percentage of the global total it represents. It is based on 2020 figures on tonnes of live weight food fish from the FAO. Food fish mainly includes finfish, crustaceans, and molluscs. Other aquatic animals such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers, frogs and aquatic turtles are also included; farmed crocodiles and alligators are not.
Many people today work in seafood production. In 2018, almost 60 million people across the world were producing seafood – 20.5 million or these were aquaculture farmers, the rest were fishermen.
European Union production
The European Union (EU) is one the world’s major seafood markets. In 2017, the supply of seafood products for people to eat in the 28 nations that make up the EU was 14.6 million tonnes. This came from wild caught species and aquaculture. The EU relies on bringing in seafood from other parts of the world, and in 2017 over 9 million tonnes were imported.
Of the 2017 seafood supply the EU actually produced itself, almost 1.4 million tonnes was from its own aquaculture industry which was mainly located in five countries: Spain, UK, France, Italy and Greece. This was a 10 year high, and worth just over 5 billion euros according to a 2019 market report by European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products.
The performance of EU aquaculture has been improving in recent years across the farming of marine fish, freshwater fish and shellfish. However, to help the EU aquaculture industry develop further, key challenges need to be tackled. These include:
- Simplifying the rules and regulations that govern EU aquaculture.
- Being better at coordinating where aquaculture takes place – this is known as spatial planning.
- Making the various parts of the industry better at competing against its rivals across the world.
While EU aquaculture only was representing nearly 4% of world food fish aquaculture production by volume in 2018, its products, research and environmental standards are high quality.
United Kingdom production
In 2018, the total UK aquaculture production was 189,921 tonnes (live weight). This had a first sale value of just over £962 million.
Aquaculture is a very varied industry with nearly 1,700 production sites across the four individual nations that make up the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The industry employed almost 3,300 people in 2017. There are many official and independent players active within - administrators, regulators, supporters and other interested parties.
Aquaculture in Scotland
Atlantic salmon farmed in floating cages up and down Scotland’s west coast dominates UK aquaculture. This efficient, industrialised industry accounted for 82% of all UK aquaculture production in 2018. Scotland also produces significant amounts of farmed shellfish, particularly from Shetland. In a Marine Scotland report, Scottish aquaculture was estimated to contribute as much as £1.8 billion turnover and 8,800 jobs to the whole UK in 2013.
Aquaculture elsewhere in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Aquaculture elsewhere in the UK differs significantly from Scotland. Collectively the industries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland place emphasis on shellfish, particularly mussels and oysters, and rainbow trout production (for us to eat and to restock lakes and rivers for sport fishing). England also has significant aquaculture sectors supplying freshwater fish such as tench, and carps such as Koi, to fisheries and to those of us that keep ornamental fish in ponds and tanks.
Most aquaculture businesses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland aren’t large. They are generally described as ‘small to medium-sized enterprises’ or SMEs. If we combine figures for English, Welsh and Northern Irish mussel, oyster and trout enterprises in 2017, over 80% employed less than 5 people.
Potential for growth
Potential exists to increase UK aquaculture. This could be achieved not only by producing more of the species we farm now, but by developing others such as seaweed culture, or species such as warm water shrimp in on land recirculation systems. This will help secure future UK seafood supplies as well as encourage investment and sustainable economic growth across the countryside and along the coastline.
All four nations across the UK recognise the importance and potential of aquaculture, and support its future growth. In England for instance, the Seafood 2040 Strategy, highlights aquaculture as an opportunity to generate sustainable food for us to eat and export, whilst creating opportunities and jobs in the process.
If you’d like to find out more about this you can have a look at the following resources, which were used to inform this article:
- The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020 report by the FAO
- The EU Fish Market 2019 report by European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA)
- UK aquaculture production and value statistics 2018, and employment figures 2017 – Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), pers. comm., 2020
- An Assessment of the Benefits to Scotland of Aquaculture report, 2013 – Marine Scotland
- Seafood 2040 Strategy: A strategic framework for England
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