For the first time in human history, farmed fish production overtook that of beef in 2012, based on data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United States Department of Agriculture.
Where 63 million tons of beef were produced last year, some 66 million tons of fish were harvested from fish farms, mostly to meet the world population's growing need for animal protein.
Recent research from the Earth Policy Institute projects that this year could mark the first instance where people will consume more fish grown in tanks, closed-system ponds, and open-sea pens than those caught in the wild.
Many fisheries experts see this as part of an emerging trend in human consumption, where exponential population growth and poor natural resource management are making it more untenable for world food demand to be met solely through natural systems.
More and more, catching fish in the open seas is becoming difficult since widespread overfishing has brought to the brink of extinction entire species, including northern cod from the Georges Bank near Canada, salmon from Maine, and the prized blue fin tuna from the Pacific.
In the Philippines, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources says that 10 out of the country's 13 major fishing grounds, mostly around Visayas, are heavily exploited. Some estimates see that our present stock is a mere 10 percent of what was available 50 years ago on account of unregulated fishing and habitat degradation.
Hence, the country has started to import much of the fish and fish products it consumes, taking in last year around 700,000 metric tons worth of galunggong, sardines, mackerel, salmon, dory, and fish feed, despite high prices.
Many governments, including our own, have tried to implement regulations to stave off the obliteration of precious marine resources. The FAO noted that some of these measures have begun to bear fruit, contributing to the slowing growth of capture fishery levels in recent decades.
But world fish supply continues to expand, growing at an annual average of 3.2 percent between 1961 and 2009, with farmed fish quickly contributing a bigger portion of this continuous uptrend.
Leading the shift is Asia, accounting for 89 percent of world aquaculture production. Here, Chinese aquaculture dominates, providing more than two-thirds of the world's total volume and boosting China's seafood exports to $13.2 billion in 2010.
Aquaculture is fast becoming the alternative means for both developed and developing countries to feed their populations. Countries like India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, and Peru have turned to farm-fishing, becoming major producers in their regions.
However, aquaculture does not come without challenges. Waste and excrement from open-sea pens have been proven to pollute seabeds and cause significant damage to delicate eco-systems. Schools of fish housed in close quarters are particularly susceptible to diseases and die-offs.
Fortunately, solutions are available. Fish waste has been proven to be a very effective fertilizer, giving birth to the new field of aquaponics, where fish and crops are jointly cultivated in an environment that mimics Mother Nature. Multi-sector research is occurring all over the world on better, more sustainable aquaculture practices.
The Philippines can succeed in this area, given that in 2010 close to half of fish production in the country was sourced from fish ponds and pens.
Building up our capacity for aquaculture will definitely help feed the country's hungry, some 3.9 million Filipino families as recently reported by the Social Weather Stations.
Coupled with aquaponics, fish farming could also boost the incomes of Filipino fishermen, long considered the poorest of the country's agricultural workers.
With ASEAN economic integration set for 2015, the country should soon identify industries where it can build up its competitive advantage and make the corresponding investments. I believe aquaculture stands as an industry abundant with opportunity.
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