Some of the highest rates of malnutrition are found in coastal nations with the most nutrient-rich fisheries, according to a new Nature study. Developing more equitable and efficient fisheries to plug this nutrition gap would not only remedy widespread food insecurity, but could also benefit the environment.
These findings, produced by an international team of scientists, showed that 50% of coastal countries—mainly in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific—have moderate to severe nutrient deficiency. Yet these nations also have fisheries that produce more than enough nutrients to feed all their children under five, the most nutritionally-vulnerable population. For several of those at-risk countries, regional fisheries could actually exceed the nutrient needs of people living within 100 kilometers of the coast, the researchers discovered.
They used a statistical model to calculate the micronutrient-richness of 350 fish species worldwide, relying on factors like species, diet, and regional water temperatures—features known to affect nutrient compositions in fish. This revealed the regional richness of individual micronutrients, by fishery – which helped the researchers identify crucial missed connections between nutrient-rich fisheries, and struggling local populations.
This allowed a fine-grained analysis which showed, for instance, that in many African and Asian countries, regional fisheries contain high concentrations of iron and zinc. Yet, ironically, people in these countries – especially children—are at the greatest risk of deficiencies in these very nutrients.
A few examples stood out. In the southern African nation of Namibia, iron deficiency rates are high, at 47%. But just 9% of the fish landed from its coastline could cover the iron requirements for the entire coastal population, the researchers found. People living on the islands of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean have an 82% risk of calcium deficiency. But just a tiny proportion (1%) of fish caught from its seas could provide all the calcium required for every child there under 5 years old. For another 22 countries spread across Asia and West Africa, all the dietary requirements of every child under five could be met by using 20% of the fisheries from those nations.
But therein lies the rub: most of the time, the fish caught in one region end up being consumed somewhere else. That’s driven by lucrative consumer markets in wealthier nations for specific fish species, as well as for the huge market in using fish to make pet food, and livestock feed. This sees fish being funneled from the world’s coastlines – and away from people who could benefit hugely—to far-flung locations where it’s ultimately needed less.
This was held up by the researchers’ finding that foreign fishing vessels and international trade are both prominent in countries where there are high concentrations of nutritionally-rich fish, but also high rates of nutritional deficiency in the local population.
The takeaway, the researchers say, is that to we don’t need to produce more. Rather, we need to be distributing nutrients in a more nutritionally-targeted way, through more equitable supply chains designed to empower and benefit local populations.
This is where improving nutrient accessibility in these nations could dovetail with environmental goals. If fisheries were motivated by this, and not markets alone, fisheries could become more efficient, meaning we wouldn’t need to fish as much, and thus, overfishing could be reined in. And thanks to a more efficient supply chain, fish wouldn’t need to travel as far, either, and there would conceivably be less waste—another huge environmental scourge.
We only need a small quantity of current landings to feed people in the most vulnerable coastal nations. This, the researchers write, “suggests that a nutrition-sensitive fishery approach could align with environmental efforts to reduce current harvest levels.”
Source: Hicks, et. al. “Harnessing global fisheries to tackle micronutrient deficiencies.” Nature. 2019.
Image: David Shterenberg