Are insects the best soldiers to fight overfishing?

Larry Kotch
18 September, 23

One of the biggest challenges that threaten sustainability is food insecurity and damaged environmental ecosystems. Our oceans are the largest of our ecosystems, and its resources are being plundered by overfishing, which occurs when more fish are removed from the oceans at a greater rate than can be replenished naturally.

A whopping 34.2% of global fisheries are fished beyond sustainable limits. It erodes feeding relationships across ecological communities which could lead to the loss of biodiversity and vulnerable species as well as the health, economy and livelihoods of the millions of people who rely on the $362 billion fishing industry. In particular, it impacts those living in developing economies and coastal areas. Meanwhile, global consumption of seafood is currently at a record high and is projected to increase by 16.3% by 2029 while fish continues to be crucial to future food and nutrition security – providing around 3.3 billion people with nearly 20% of their average per capita intake of animal protein.

The threat of overfishing continues to be one of the biggest impacts on our oceans and global sustainability ambitions – one that is difficult to tackle due to its complexity as an unplanned and unintended outcome of a chain of interrelated social and ecological events. It’s clear then that we need to find innovative solutions to tackle this problem if we want to protect the environment, build sustainable economies, and advance sustainability agendas.

But, just like the simple addition of a belt of fabric to a car’s chassis has done more to reduce injury and save lives than anything else since the creation of the three-point seatbelt in 1959, innovation doesn’t need to be big. A solution to overfishing could be just as simple.

Reserving fish catches for human consumption

A significant portion of fisheries are fished from the oceans not for feeding humans but for the purpose of feeding livestock. In fact, 43% of global fisheries contribute to the protein diet of animals through fish oil supplements and fish meals.

Fish oil is used for the preparation of balanced feed for poultry, pigs, cows, goats, aquatic animals raised through aquaculture, and pets due to its high nutritional value. Meanwhile, fishmeal is currently used as the preferred animal protein supplement in the diets of farm animals, as high-quality fishmeal contains between 60% and 72% crude protein by weight.

Currently, forage fish such as anchovies, sardines and other small to medium-sized fish species are predominantly used in animal feed, but these highly nutritious fish species are also well-suited for human consumption.

So, with such a large number of fisheries being used for animal food, if we replace the fish supplements commonly used in livestock feed with another form of protein, this could have a drastic impact on our supply, providing the potential to significantly reduce and even prevent overfishing, the destruction of marine life ecosystems, and the threat to global food security.

Bugs – a stronger protein alternative?

What if nature has already figured out a way to help us and it’s right under our noses? Or better yet, under the ground we walk on? Animals need protein and nutrients for a balanced diet, and overhauling entire food systems is no simple feat. However, insects offer up an excellent substitute to fish supplements as they are nutrient-dense and offer up a more sustainable alternative to other protein sources. Even fish species such as trout, salmon, bass, and sea bream are carnivorous, and feed on animal proteins.

Insects are more sustainable because the process of turning them into animal feed is simple, populations are easily replenished with short life cycles, and they require very little capital or land investment. Additionally, insect farming will lead to a number of environmentally friendly benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions,  water usage, and waste. This means that insect farming could easily take over the supply of protein for animal feed at scale, enabling the fishing industry to cut down on fishing for agriculture without disrupting the livestock sector, which is a pillar of the global food system.

With less than seven short years left to deliver on the targets laid out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), industries, organisations and leaders need to move beyond the pledge to sustainability towards taking actionable steps that drive positive change.

Although switching to insect protein for animal feed is unlikely to be the single fix to overfishing and food chain inefficiencies, it has the potential to make a significant impact by substantially reducing the number of fisheries removed from the oceans. And, due to the higher cost of fishmeal – compared to soymeal and other plant proteins – it’s a good one to start with as insect protein prices need time to get cheaper over the decade.

Replacing traditional animal feed with insects might seem to be a small and seemingly insignificant change, but it has the potential to play a key role in helping to ensure healthy environmental ecosystems. As funny as it sounds, the gravitas that insects have can also uphold the right to freedom from hunger for communities around the world and strengthen global commitments to sustainable development for a future with a better quality of life for all.

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