Seafood Production

This article was first published in September 2019.
The content and structure in the current version do not yet cover all the key aspects we intend to cover. We plan to revise and extend the material in the future.

Global seafood production

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How much seafood do we consume?

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How is our seafood produced?

The world now produces more seafood from fish farms than wild catch

Global production of fish and seafood has quadrupled over the past 50 years. Not only has the world population more than doubled over this period, the average person now eats almost twice as much seafood as half a century ago.

This has increased pressure on fish stocks across the world. Globally, the share of fish stocks which are overexploited – meaning we catch them faster than they can reproduce to sustain population levels – has more than doubled since the 1980s and this means that current levels of wild fish catch are unsustainable.

One innovation has helped to alleviate some of the pressure on wild fish catch: aquaculture, the practice of fish and seafood farming. The distinction between farmed fish and wild catch is similar to the difference between raising livestock rather than hunting wild animals. Except that for land-based animals, farming is many thousand years old while it was very uncommon for seafood until just over 50 years ago.

In the visualization below we see the change in aquaculture and capture fishery production from 1960 onwards. What’s striking is that global wild fish catch has not increased since the early 1990s and instead remained relatively constant at around 90 to 95 million tonnes per year.. Fish farming on the other hand is growing very rapidly, from 1990 until 2015 it has increased 50-fold to over 100 million per year.

In the 1960s, aquaculture was relatively niche, with an output of a few million tonnes per year. Particularly since the late 1980s, annual production has increased rapidly. In 1990 the world produced only 17 million tonnes. It now produces over 100 million tonnes.

As we see, aquaculture production has now surpassed wild catch. It has absorbed almost all of the growth in global demand in recent decades and will continue to playa critical role in protecting wild fish populations as demand for seafood continues to rise.

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Capture (wild) fishery catch

The first chart below presents FAO wild fishery catch data, broken down by region. Here we see a steady increase in fishery catch until the mid-1990s, when this trend typically levels out in the range of 90-95 million tonnes per year.

In the following two charts we present revised data published inNature by Pauly and Zeller (2016).1

Here, the authors argue that catch from small-scale fisheries is typically under-reported to, and published by the FAO. The authors write:

“This data set, however, may not only underestimate artisanal (that is, small scale, commercial) and subsistence fisheries, but also generally omit the catch of recreational fisheries, discarded bycatchand illegal and otherwise unreported catch, even when some estimates are available. Thus, except for a few obvious cases of over-reporting, the landings data updated and disseminated annually by the FAO on behalf of member countries may considerably underestimate actual fisheries catch.”

The authors’ revised figures therefore show significantly higher fishery catch which peaks around 1996 at 130 million tonnes, before declining to 109 million tonnes in 2010. Although different in magnitude to that of FAO figures, these revised trends support the trend of a global maximum in wild fishery catch (but now with a significant decline). As shown in the charts below, the majority of this decline has resulted from falling industrial catch; small-scale artisanal catch actually increased over this period.

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Aquaculture production

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Data Sources

UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) database
  • Data:Covers Production-level data in terms of kilograms of meat & seafood by type; livestock numbers and yields; and per capita food supply of animal products
  • Geographical coverage: Global – by country and world region
  • Time span: Since 1961
  • Available at: Online at FAOSTAT here.

UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) FishStat Database
  • Data:Capture fishery and aquaculture production and consumption data by country and species
  • Geographical coverage:Global, Regional and by country
  • Time span: 1961-present
  • Available at: Online here.