Population Action Tells a Fish Story about Fish Supply

January 01, 2010  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Environment

"A burgeoning population and the growing demand for seafood may make fish unavailable to nearly a billion of the world’s poor in the next century, says a new report." If you read USA Today or any number of other papers that carried a similar story, you probably believe that. Which is too bad because the report, issued by the pro-population control Population Action International is just one big, well, fish story. There’s one huge problem with the report. See if you can pick it out by reading between the lines of report co-author Robert Engelman. "We’re up against the wall," he said. "Since the end of the 80s, we’ve been catching the same amount of wild fish around the world, [but] there are about 90 million more people every year."

Did you notice the qualifying word: "wild"? Yes, the statement is true for wild fish but completely ignores the role of farmed fish, called "aquaculture." Looking at data provided in a 1995 United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization publication, "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture," we see that for the earliest year provided (1984) there were 51,105 thousand tons of wild fish caught with 6,933 thousand tons raised on farms. Wild fish capture peaked out in 1989 and has dropped slightly to 56,470 thousand tons by 1993, but aquaculture continued growing like gangbusters to 15,800 tons by 1993.

Combining both types of fish, there was far from a decline but rather a 24% increase in the nine-year period, fueled by a 128% growth in aquaculture. At the same time world population increased by only 16%. Unless you just happen to hate fish, that’s a mighty nice "wall" we’re up against. Far from running out of the slimy things, we’re practically swimming in them.

Unfortunately, neither USA Today nor some of the other papers that carried the story bothered to mention aquaculture. In fact, nobody who carried the story allowed any criticism of the report at all.

The Population Action International study does mention the growing aquaculture industry, saying it "compensates somewhat for declines in fish catches." It even depicts a chart showing its phenomenal growth. But it downplays the industry, saying "Cultivation of fish has so far proven too costly to provide large amounts of food to poor people."

But the aforementioned U.N. publication, using the same data as Population Action International, says otherwise. "The balance of 31 million tons in the supplies of food fish required by the year 2010 would have to come from aquaculture, which has been expanding at a rate of one million tons a year, increasing to almost two million tons in 1993." Meanwhile, to continue feeding the world at the same rate would require "an overall average annual increase of less than one million tons a year."

While Population Action says, "There is little prospect for major expansion of aquaculture in Africa, the U.N. report says aquaculture’s phenomenal "growth should continue, recognizing the significant potential of increased farmed fish production in Africa and Latin America." (Emphasis mine.) Yet, the real powerhouse could be the United States. So far all of North America produces only 3.7% of the world’s aquaculture. The United States produces less than a 16th of China’s output. The reason is that Americans are not big fish eaters and that, exactly opposite of what Population Action is telling us, those who are big fish eaters are finding or growing a plentiful supply. But if that ever changes, America’s ingenious farming know-how combined with abundant lakes and waterways will combine to make us not just the breadbasket but also the fishbasket of the world.

What we’re seeing is a rapid transition from depending on wild fish to raising our own which parallels civilization’s movement from hunting and gathering to husbanding animals and raising crops. The very reason that fish farming is catching on so rapidly is that it is so much cheaper and more efficient than setting out in boats and hoping for good fortune. Less romantic perhaps, but them’s the breaks.

The problem with all the population control groups and individual gurus like Paul Ehrlich is that they first decided they were against population growth and have spent the entire time since then trying to find evidence to justify their position, rather than forming their position based on the evidence. The result has been a stream of nonsense that essentially began with Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb which told us that "the battle to feed humanity is over."

In fact, except for the occasional politically-inspired famine such as Ethiopia’s, humanity is much better fed today than it was in 1968. Man’s ingenuity in providing new food supplies has readily outpaced his growth in population growth. Now, even as population growth is already slowing on its own, we’re beginning a new era of genetically-designed foods that will make even progress to date look anemic.

My advice to the population controllers: If you don’t like having more people around in the same sense a lot of American just don’t like eating fish, then simply say so. Quit concocting false evidence to scare everyone who doesn’t share your taste.

As for the rest of us, just ask any mermaid you happen to see, "What’s a big fib?"

"The Population Action study."