Really? All Wild Fish Gone by 2050?

Is aquaculture the solution?

Fishermen sort wild salmon off the the island of Kodiak, Alaska. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

With the human population still booming—we’ll be 9 billion by 2050—a new study suggests that if we want there to be any wild fish left in the ocean 40 years from now we’ve got to put the brakes on...now!

The biggest impact of adding the next 2 billion people is that while many of them will be born into poverty on the fastest-growing continent (Africa), many will join the burgeoning middle classes in India, China and Brazil…which means they’ll be demanding more wild fish and lots more sushi.

... like so many environmental issues, the solutions are somewhat murky.

One avenue for decreasing the hit on wild fish will be to encourage more aquaculture, or fish farms. But this presents a catch-22 because many of the most prolific species currently being raised are dependent on fishmeal, made from fish caught in the wild, like sardines and anchovies.

Clearly a balance must be arrived at, and soon.

Surveys recently completed by a team of scientists from the U.K., Malaysia, Canada and France asked the question, how many fish will there be in the sea 40 years from now? In addition to overfishing, the impacts of climate change, a growing human population, estimates of fishmeal prices, and new technology were all weighed in the study.

Currently, two-thirds of wild fish caught end up on your plate; the rest goes to fishmeal and fish oil. The process is wildly inefficient. For example, producing two pounds of healthy farmed salmon requires more than eight pounds of wild caught fish.

The study, conducted by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the U.K. and published in Global Environmental Change, makes it clear that while building up aquaculture and slowing down the take of wild fish from the ocean is imperative, like so many environmental issues, the solutions are somewhat murky.

“You could be forgiven for thinking that farmed fish is a greener option than severely depleted fish like cod or bluefin tuna, but it really depends on the type of farmed fish you eat,” says Dr. Gorka Merino, who led the study, in the report.

Several unknowns factor into the equation, including how wild fisheries are managed in the future, the impact of climate change on productivity, and just how fast the aquaculture sector can grow.

Specific suggestions from the study to aid wild species included turning the leftovers of fish processing (including cod, haddock and tuna) into fishmeal and eating smaller fish, like anchovies and sardines, rather than rely on big fish for our meals.

The best farmed fish that is least dependent on wild fish for feed? Tilapia and carp.

Do you think you’ll eat less wild fish, knowing how quickly their populations are declining? Let us know in comments.

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