Landmark report calls for better conservation of aquatic genetic resources

A new United Nations report calls for better conservation of aquatic genetic resources as one of a range of measures to ensure the world can meet rising demand for fish.

The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food And Agriculture, published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is the first global assessment of its kind.

It provides an overview of the challenges and opportunities for the conservation, sustainable use and development of fish, plants and other aquatic foods based on assessments from 92 countries and five specially commissioned Thematic Background Studies.

“This is an impressive and much-needed report that has important ramifications for the way we respond to the global call to transform food systems through fish,” said Dr. Gareth Johnstone, Director General, WorldFish. “The world's aquatic genetic resources will play an increasingly critical role in feeding billions and nourishing nations in the future; this timely report provides a foundation for much needed action.”

Our food systems depend on diverse supplies of aquatic foods from wild and farmed sources, and the report states that the growth of aquaculture will be essential to meeting the projected 40 per cent increase in global demand for food fish by 2030. But in order to do this, better approaches to conservation of wild species and their habitats will be key, with the report stressing the close links between wild fisheries and fish farming. For example, fish producers and scientists depend on fish and eggs from wild sources for breeding programs and to multiply stocks for aquaculture. As a result, one of the report’s key messages is the need for “well-designed ex situ and in situ programmes for the conservation of aquatic genetic resources,” with collaboration between the conservation, fisheries and aquaculture sectors.

During his keynote speech to the 10th Session of the FAO Commission on Fisheries (COFI) Sub-Committee on Aquaculture, a side-event at the official launch of the report in Trondheim, Norway, recently, Dr. Johnstone called for serious consideration to also be given to a new global initiative on gene banking for aquatic genetic resources. This would help ensure vital genetic diversity is safely conserved and shared, enabling fish breeders, for example, to more easily discover traits for nutrition, disease resistance or fast growth, and develop improved fish, both for aquaculture systems and some capture fisheries.

“There has never been a better time for all of us to seriously consider, invest and work together to develop and establish bio-secure gene banks for aquatic foods – both plants and animals - as well as the common measures to manage wild genetic resources through national and regional collaborations,” he said. 

“[T]he time is right to consider this as part of the genetics revolution required to transform food systems for future sustainability and resilience. Feeding and nourishing current and future generations cannot be achieved without the long-term protection and sustainable use and development of farmed aquatic genetic resources and their wild relatives,” added Dr. Johnstone.

In addition, the report also calls for better data collection and sharing on aquatic genetic resources; promotion and refinement of existing policies on conservation and the sustainable use of the resources; promotion of the uptake of genetic improvement technologies; and capacity building, amongst others. Next steps will include the development of a Global Plan of Action for Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The State of the World’s Aquatic Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was produced by the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Dr. John Benzie, of WorldFish and the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agi-Food Systems (FISH), was part of the COFI Advisory Working Group on Aquatic Genetic Resources and Technologies, which supported development of the Report. Click to download the report summary.