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Q&A with Report Author John Virdin

Capture (wild caught) fisheries are one of the world’s important food systems, providing nearly one-fifth of the average per capita animal protein intake for more than 3.1 billion people as well as essential micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—and omega-3 fatty acids that are needed to end malnutrition and reduce the burden of disease around the world.

Yet the contributions of these fisheries to food and nutrition security remain relatively absent from a range of policy dialogues, say the authors of the new report, Contribution of Fisheries to Food and Nutrition Security: Current Knowledge, Policy, and Research. The authors suggest that support of capture fisheries’ contributions will require development of policies to ensure their sustainability, while also recognizing tradeoffs and synergies between conservation and food security objectives. Developing these policies will require a better understanding of the drivers and threats to these fisheries.

Authors are Abigail Bennett of Duke University’s World Food Policy CenterPawan Patil of the World Bank, Kristin Kleisner and Doug Rader of the Environmental Defense FundJohn Virdin of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Xavier Basurto of the Duke University Marine Lab.

Q: Your research focused on capture fisheries’ contributions, challenges, and need for a unique policy outlook. What are the big takeaways?


Virdin: We conducted an extensive literature review to lay out the current contributions of capture fisheries to food and nutrition security—globally and in individual regions and countries—the current policy dialogue regarding links between the two, and the data available to inform research and policy development. Our literature synthesis suggests that capture fisheries’ nutrition and food security contributions are critically important to the world’s growing population.

To maintain these contributions, policy needs to address drivers of and threats to capture fisheries, but policy is only just beginning to recognize, and explicitly account for, the importance of capture fisheries to nutrition and food security. Therefore, more research on the magnitude and drivers of fisheries’ contributions to nutrition and food security is needed to strengthen the evidence base for policy making.

How does this work relate to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

That agenda includes goals to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition. It’s pretty clear that meeting these goals will require capture fisheries, along with aquaculture, to make even larger contributions —and to do so at a time when those contributions may be undermined by threats such as overfishing, climate change, pollution and competing uses for fresh water.

Helpful policies could be informed by a growing body of data and research focused specifically at the intersection of fisheries, nutrition and food security. Our aim in this report was to provide a foundation of knowledge about how capture fisheries may help in achieving sustainable development goals.

Why are capture fisheries so critical to meeting U.N. Sustainable Development Goals?

Three reasons. First, hunger and malnutrition remain a critical problem. Eleven percent of the world’s population (some 815 million people) suffers from hunger and more than one-fifth of children under five are stunted.

Increasingly, the food security and nutrition community recognizes that the world faces not just a problem of insufficient caloric intake, but also, crucially, of deficiencies in essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Second, many fish species are especially high in these micronutrients—unlike some staple foods such as rice and other grains. And finally, fish is typically more affordable than other animal-source foods. So, it plays an especially important dietary role in countries where access to animal protein is low and staple foods predominate.

With some capture fisheries overexploited and others at risk to join them, what must happen to ensure they do more to end hunger and malnutrition?

Multiple processes could undermine capture fisheries’ food and nutrition contributions. Population growth, overfishing, climate change and trade are likely to alter the volume and distribution of these fisheries’ supply of fish. However, our literature survey turned up estimates suggesting that, with governance reforms to address overfishing, the world’s marine capture fisheries could sustainably contribute an additional 16 million metric tons annually.

Because many fisheries are not managed explicitly for food security and nutrition outcomes, there is ample space to develop innovative policy solutions. For example, policies might focus on harvesting more nutritious and less-exploited stocks, or addressing some of the distributional aspects of governance and trade to get nutritious fish to places where need is highest. Ultimately, any reforms must address the tradeoffs and synergies related to reducing fishing effort (or allocating freshwater resources) while maintaining supply and ensuring access traditionally enjoyed by small-scale fishers.

What are the most notable research efforts that could be brought to bear in policymaking?

Developing informed, integrated, and coherent policies will require collection of evidence for evaluating the multiple pathways through which fisheries contribute to nutrition and food security—pathways like direct consumption, income, empowerment of women, and macroeconomic growth. Expanding the geographical scope of research to inform understanding of the full range of relationships between capture fisheries and nutrition and food security is also necessary.

To ensure the sustainability of resources and to recognize tradeoffs and synergies between conservation and food security objectives, research could also focus on emerging issues regarding gender, aquaculture interactions, and the food and nutrition impacts of fisheries policies. Given uncertainty about how much fish is being produced and where is it going, research could focus on delivering both improved global datasets and in-depth studies identifying which policies are effective and which are not.


One of the authors of the new report, Abigail Bennett, talks with Kelly Brownell.