Aquaculture production scales

Aquaculture is a global industry, and farming now provides half of all our seafood.

Over the past few decades, supplies of all seafood available for people to eat has increased. This is because the aquatic animals we now farm add massively to the supplies of wild fish and shellfish we take from 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, and is often referred to as ‘food fish’. Latest FAO figures show the world produced 87.5 million tonnes of food fish in 2020.

Aquaculture production across the world

Over 77 million tonnes of food fish were farmed across Asia in 2020. This was 88.4% of the world’s total. Unsurprisingly, Asia by far the biggest aquaculture region on the planet. Animal aquaculture in China is much greater than in any other country – in 2020, China alone produced 49.6 million tonnes of food fish.

As for the other global regions, they accounted for the remaining 11.6% of food fish aquaculture:

  • Africa produced almost 2.6 million tonnes. This equates to 2.25% of the global food fish total.
  • The Americas almost 4.4 million tonnes; some 5% of the global total.
  • Europe almost 3.3 million tonnes; some 3.7% of the global total in 2020.
  • Oceania (a region that contains Australia, New Zealand, and many of the Pacific Island Countries) produced 0.26 million tonnes; around 0.2% of 2020’s global total.

Many people today work in seafood production. In 2020, almost 58.5 million people across the world were directly involved in catching or farming seafood; some 35% (20.5 million people), were aquaculture producers, the rest were fishermen.

European production

Europe is one the world’s major seafood markets. In 2019, the supply of seafood products for people to eat in the EU was 14.5 million tonnes. Whilst some came from its own wild caught and aquaculture supplies, the EU relies on bringing in seafood from other parts of the world.

In 2020, aquaculture in the 27 countries of the EU produced almost 1.1 million tonnes of food fish. If we add farmed seafood production from non-EU members (including Norway and the UK), then European aquaculture production rises to 3.27 million tonnes. Norway’s industry (i.e. salmon) is dominant, producing almost 46% of European farmed seafood in 2020.

While European aquaculture only represents 3.7% of world food fish aquaculture production by volume in 2018, its products, research and environmental standards are high quality. Still, across Europe farming seafood in marine and freshwater has the potential to improve and grow, but to help it develop further, key challenges need to be tackled. These include:

  • Simplifying the rules and regulations that govern 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

United Kingdom production

In 2019, the UK farmed food fish production was almost 234,000 tonnes. This had a first sale value of just over £1.15 billion. The efficient, industrialised Scottish salmon industry accounted for 87% of all UK aquaculture production in 2019.

UK aquaculture however is a very varied industry with 453 enterprises across the four individual nations that make up the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The industry directly employed almost 3,400 people in 2019. 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, but Scotland also produces significant amounts of farmed shellfish, particularly from Shetland. A 2020 Scottish Government Report revealed aquaculture contributed a £1.5 billion turnover to Scotland’s economy in 2018 whilst supporting almost 12,000 Scottish jobs.

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, carps and 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 2019, over 80% employed less than 5 people.

Potential for growth

Whilst there is no denying significant challenges exist that hinder UK aquaculture growth, including a complex regulatory system, and water quality issues. Still, there remains the potential to increase UK aquaculture. This could be achieved not only by tackling existing problems to assist in producing more of the species we already farm, but by developing new, such as seaweed culture, or by farming warm water shrimp in on-land recirculating aquaculture systems, known as RAS. A diverse aquaculture sector 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 English Aquaculture Strategy, highlights aquaculture as an opportunity to generate sustainable food for us to eat and export, whilst creating opportunities and jobs in the process.

Further reading

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: