New perspectives on an aquacultural geography

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

Boy holding a pangasius catfish (photograph by Ben Belton)

by Ben Belton and Simon Bush

So how many people realise that more than half the fish eaten by human beings will very soon come from aquaculture? The answer may well depend on where you live, which raises a series of questions about the geography of where and how farmed fish are produced and consumed.

The rise of aquaculture over the last four decades has been as uneven as our understanding of its development. Our recent paper published in The Geographical Journal, explores this apparent deficit in knowledge about aquaculture by asking whether geographers have responded in any substantial way to a call to arms published by Barton and Stanifordt in Area in 1996 urging them to do just this.

Our results are not as positive as one might hope. While a potential global deficit in food fish has been averted by the growth of the industry, geography’s contributions to understanding patterns of aquaculture development have been less expansive. Work has focused largely on species exported from, and areas  exporting to, the global North, rather than on the more significant production, trade and consumption that occurs in the South. In other words, why focus on ‘booms’ in catfish from Vietnam or shrimp from Thailand which end up on dinner plates in North America or Europe, when other fish consumed in the South make up more than 90% of the world’s production? A geographical attention deficit is clearly evident.

What then should an aquacultural geography look like? In addition to the big questions of politics and trade that have been asked of export crops, researchers should be unpicking the intricacies of everyday food production and consumption. In spite of globalisation, domestic (often urban) markets in the South remain the main sites of global consumption. Overlooking the importance of these markets and the production systems which feed them, means ignoring some of the most important trends in food production for the coming decades.

Geographers are extremely well placed to develop a more considered understanding of what further growth of aquaculture will mean, not just in terms of export trade, but also in terms of both a growing urban middle class and marginalised rural communities. Given that the forecast is for a further 50% expansion of the industry simply to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent global population by 2020, the need for closing the knowledge deficit has never been greater.

The authors: Ben Belton is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The WorldFish Center, Dhāka, Bangladesh; Simon Bush is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

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Belton B and Bush S R 2013 Beyond Net Deficits: New priorities for an aquacultural geography The Geographical Journal DOI:

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Barton J R and Stanifordt D 1998 Net deficits and the case for aquacultural geography Area 302 145-55

60-world2The New York Times 2013 Fish in the global balance 10 February

60-world2WorldFish and Conservation International 2011 Blue Frontiers : Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture June

60-world2BBC News 2011 Global fish consumption hits record high 1 February

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