The state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2022


United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030)

Science opportunities for fisheries and aquaculture management

Science is one of the key levers to accelerate progress in the transformation of food systems and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (United Nations, 2019), as scientific evidence is necessary to create sustainable solutions. A strong science–policy interface is crucial to help design these solutions and ultimately ensure that decisions, agreements and actions are based on the best available evidence. Several recent events facilitated by FAO specifically refer to and build on science. The International Symposium on Fisheries Sustainability (18–21 November 2019, Rome) was held to identify pathways to strengthen the science and policy interplay in fisheries production, management and trade, based on solid sustainability principles for improved outcomes on the ground. The symposium brought together a diverse group of experts and participants from around the world (around 1 000 attendees from more than 100 countries) and enabled an open dialogue and mutual understanding promoting science-based strategies for synergistic actions and supportive policies, at all levels. The discussions held resulted in a set of science-based recommendations and overarching actions to help achieve sustainable, equitable and resilient aquatic food4 systems, while enhancing sustainable productivity to improve food security and nutrition and contribute to economic growth, raising living standards, and empowering women, youth and vulnerable communities (FAO, 2020h).

The Global Conference on Aquaculture Millennium +20 was the fourth in a series of decadal development and science-oriented conferences that have shaped global aquaculture. It attracted over 1 700 delegates from more than 100 countries and a diverse set of sectors. The conference identified key policy and technology innovations, scientific findings, investment opportunities and areas of cooperation that will promote the further development of sustainable aquaculture. It was informed by nine science-based thematic reviews, six regional reviews, and a global synthesis as well as over 100 academic posters. The Shanghai Declaration – a key output – took full account of the science-based information emerging from the thematic reviews and the conference to outline a common vision, key priorities and a call for actions for sustainable aquaculture.

With the increasing recognition of the importance of aquatic food comes the need to improve the scientific knowledge on its nutritional value and overall contribution to nourishing a growing population and addressing the objectives of the 2030 Agenda (Box 24). The outcomes of the above-mentioned events, as well as the dialogue on new research needs related to aquatic foods, should generate priority actions that will characterize science contributions to the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) and ultimately enhance the long-term sustainability of fisheries and aquaculture.


Sustaining aquatic foods was identified by the Scientific Group of the United Nations Food Systems Summit as one of seven science-driven priorities needed to accelerate the transformation to healthier, more sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems. Aquatic foods also emerged as a solution cluster to achieve specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets and contribute to possible solutions for transforming food systems.

In 2021, there were two major scientific initiatives for positioning aquatic foods towards achieving the SDGs: the UN Nutrition Discussion Paper, The role of aquatic foods in sustainable healthy diets,2 and the peer-reviewed paper on aquatic foods to nourish nations by Blue Food Assessment.3 These present the breadth of the current evidence and propose recommendations to steer policies, investments and research so that aquatic foods can better contribute to improving global food and nutrition security.

A shift in the global narrative from feeding to nourishing is necessary in order that the full benefits of aquatic foods as “superfoods”4 can be recognized. Greater recognition and generation of data on the contribution of diverse aquatic foods – animals, plants and microorganisms – in providing multiple bioavailable micronutrients (e.g. calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin A) and essential fatty acids, as well as protein, are required. Further, research is needed to develop diverse, culturally acceptable, affordable and convenient aquatic food products, for use in the first 1 000 days of life in order that aquatic foods can contribute to improved health and nutrition in women, and cognition, development and growth in young children.

Huge gaps in disaggregated data on consumption patterns, diversity and abundance, environmental footprint, and sustainable production systems of diverse aquatic foods hinder the discourse, understanding and integration of aquatic foods in food system transformation. Multidisciplinary research on the benefits of aquatic foods for different population groups – for food and nutrition security, environmental resilience and sustainability – and socio-economic development, especially in low- and middle-income countries, must be prioritized.

A nutrition-sensitive aquatic food systems approach is needed to frame the scientific agenda for advancing aquatic foods as superfoods for nourishing nations. Research needs for this approach include:

  • analysis of the nutrient composition and food safety of diverse aquatic foods, from inland and marine fisheries and aquaculture;
  • development of innovations to reduce loss and waste;

  • development of integrated production systems that include diverse aquatic foods as well as nutritious plant-source foods; and
  • generation of the scientific basis for incorporating diverse aquatic foods in national food-based dietary guidelines.

In addition, attention should be given to the inclusion of low-trophic aquatic foods such as seaweed, jellyfish and sea cucumber.

The disruptions and risks caused by the growing climate crisis represent a mounting threat for aquatic food systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the fragility of these systems, increasing the negative impacts on food and nutrition security, income and livelihoods, especially of small-scale actors. Research on the scale of the disruptions and vulnerabilities for different groups of actors, including consumers and the poor and vulnerable, is needed to ensure sustainability of aquatic food systems.

The United Nations declaration of 2022 as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture provides a strong platform to strengthen research efforts and better acknowledge the role of diverse aquatic foods as superfoods that can be harnessed to nourish nations.

To foster integration of scientific advances and recognizing the achievements and challenges facing the sector since the endorsement of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the COFI Declaration for Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture (FAO, 2021b) was adopted unanimously at the Thirty-fourth Session of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in February 2021. The Declaration recognizes that challenges in implementing effective fisheries management measures are complex, region-specific and multidimensional, further complicated by climate change and ocean acidification, and are often due to insufficient data to support science-based decisions. It recognizes the need to address these challenges through innovative, inclusive, effective and adaptive fisheries management measures based on the best available scientific information. It also recognizes the key role of the ecosystem approach as an effective framework for integrating conservation and sustainable utilization objectives and the need to strengthen the scientific basis in support of fisheries and aquaculture management decisions. This entails the use of new information and communication technologies with recent technological advances, such as interoperable fisheries information systems, which offer new opportunities to better monitor fisheries and aquaculture and generate comprehensive multidisciplinary data and information underpinning science to inform management policy while engaging a multitude of stakeholders (Box 25). Also key is the promotion of international scientific cooperation, capacity building, education and training. Finally, the Declaration recognizes the potential of aquaculture for further growth, and the need for innovative practices which support environmental stewardship, with particular attention to food-deficit regions. It provides strategic orientation for enhancing the science–policy interface in support of fisheries management under the stewardship of COFI, the main global forum for discussions and decisions on fisheries and aquaculture-related issues, to further strengthen participatory and science-based solutions.5


Technological innovations are transforming the way information and knowledge about living aquatic species are collected, distributed and made available to decision-makers. The application of machine learning and web-enabled handheld devices can for the first time bring the skills of taxonomists and fisheries scientists to fishers working in the sector and the general community.

The innovations offering scientific breakthroughs for sustainable development include advancements in the identification of marine organisms of actual and potential interest to fisheries and aquaculture. Such improvements facilitate access to species identification, and in so doing, enhance data quality across fisheries and aquaculture value chains.

To publicize advances and connect innovators working in this field, FAO held the global forum, Artificial Intelligence for a Digital Blue Planet, bringing together data scientists and analysts from marine research institutions, universities and the private sector to share their knowledge, skills and innovative ideas. The forum explored issues on how artificial intelligence can identify images of thousands of aquatic species and be utilized to determine size, number and life stage of aquatic life forms. Other topics focused on how global participants can work together in a virtual environment and seek solutions that can be further developed and deployed.1

Following the global forum, a webinar explored the use of still imagery and video to record deep-water shark and vulnerable marine ecosystem catches,2 illustrating the advanced development stage of camera technologies to support on-board fishery observers, especially in the taxonomic classification of rarer species that are difficult for fisheries researchers to identify.

FAO will continue to play an important role in bringing together the various actors working on digital innovations in species identification and promoting the use of camera systems linked to machine learning across a wide range of fisheries globally. By providing guidance and technical advice on the identification of important target or bycatch species, FAO enables targeted interventions for the management and conservation of fisheries and aquaculture value chains.

What is the Ocean Decade?

The proclamation by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2017 of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) (UNDOSSD) underscores the priority that United Nations Member States place on achieving ocean sustainability, and their conviction that science must play a central role in the process.

The Ocean Decade strives to stimulate “the science we need for the ocean we want” in order “to catalyse transformative ocean science solutions for sustainable development, connecting people and our ocean” (IOC-UNESCO, 2021, p. 17), and seeks to ensure that ocean science fully supports countries’ actions to sustainably manage the ocean and to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

The Ocean Decade will be implemented based on a Plan (IOC-UNESCO, 2021), produced through a highly participatory and inclusive process led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission involving more than 1 900 stakeholders, including Member States, thematic experts, civil society and representatives from United Nations bodies, all making significant contributions.

The Implementation Plan provides a non-prescriptive framework for transformational action that will build on existing achievements and deliver across geographies, sectors, disciplines and generations. It focuses on addressing ten challenges, which articulate the immediate priorities for the Decade and aim to unite the Decade partners in collective action, thus ensuring that the whole of the Decade is greater than the sum of its parts.

UNDOSSD Challenge 3 is particularly relevant to the fisheries and aquaculture sector, as it seeks to generate knowledge, support innovation and develop solutions to optimize the role of the ocean in sustainably feeding the world’s population under changing environmental, social and climate conditions.

The world will have an additional 2 billion people to feed over the next 30 years. Today the ocean makes a significant contribution to food security and nutrition, and it holds the potential to play an even bigger role in the global food system. The Ocean Decade provides an opportunity to strengthen the fisheries–science–policy nexus and support the building of the networks and partnerships needed to operationalize the recommendations contained in the 2021 COFI Declaration.

FAO and the Decade Actions

Ocean Decade Actions are one of the prime vehicles for engagement with the Ocean Decade; these are tangible initiatives that will be carried out across the globe over the next ten years to overcome the challenges identified in the UNDOSSD Implementation Plan. The actions will focus on the advancement and application of knowledge to support the development of solutions and address inequalities in ocean science capacity and capabilities.

Ocean Decade Actions can be put forward and carried out by a wide range of proponents including, but not limited to, research institutes, governments, United Nations entities, intergovernmental organizations, other international and regional organizations, business and industry, philanthropic and corporate foundations, non-governmental organizations, educators, community groups and individuals (e.g. via community-led science initiatives) (Figure 64).


FAO is working with partners to deliver targeted actions and help ensure that science and innovation contribute to sustainably feeding the world’s population and ending poverty by promoting development of fisheries and aquaculture and informing policy responses to changing environmental, social and climate conditions. Two of the FAO-led actions endorsed by the Ocean Decade are outlined below.

EAF-Nansen Programme

The EAF-Nansen Programme (FAO, 2021h) is a long-standing partnership between Norway6 and FAO. It builds on more than 45 years of experience and currently involves collaboration with 32 partner countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, regional fisheries organizations and other entities and institutions. The programme promotes sustainable use of marine resources through improved governance, science and knowledge generation and development of capacity in partner countries, which are at the core of the Decade initiative. Another important aspect, relevant to the principles of sustainable development, is the implementation of the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) (FAO, 2003), promoting, among others, consideration of ecological, social and economic aspects of sustainability.

The programme aims to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 14 (Life below water), and to promote gender equity to help achieve, among others, SDG 5 (Gender equality).

The programme comprises three main areas of work:

  1. Improving knowledge of fisheries and marine ecosystems for use in decision-making and policy development.
  2. Supporting sustainable management of fisheries by providing specific support to countries and regions in implementing the EAF.
  3. Developing capacity of partner countries to improve their knowledge base to manage fisheries, by organizing specific workshops and training programmes.

A unique feature of the programme, closely aligned with the Ocean Decade, is its contribution to the collection of scientific data through missions of the research vessel Dr Fridtjof Nansen (FAO, 2019c). It is the only marine research vessel to currently fly the United Nations flag and be fully dedicated to international development work. Data and information are collected on marine ecosystems, including on fishery resources, biodiversity, nutritional attributes of aquatic foods, climate change and pollution impacts during research surveys carried out in African and Southeast Asian waters, and on the high seas.

In a normal year, the research vessel spends around 270 days conducting surveys; 2019 saw the participation of 215 scientists from 19 partner countries, making an important contribution to nurturing science and development collaboration across national borders. Research priorities for the activities of Dr Fridtjof Nansen are based on the programme’s Science Plan (FAO, 2020i) and the needs of the national and regional partners in relation to their fisheries management priorities.

The programme supports the analysis and uptake of data and knowledge in decision-making at the national and regional levels, for example, through partner regional fisheries bodies such as the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization, the Fishery Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic and the Southwest Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission, and the cross-sectoral Benguela Current Commission. Countries are supported to develop, implement and monitor EAF-compliant fisheries management plans, policies and legislation and to establish fisheries management cycles. Finally, substantial efforts are made to address gender issues and promote equal participation of men and women in the governance of fisheries.

Digital innovation Hand-in-Hand with fisheries and ecosystem scientific monitoring

This programme (FAO, 2021i) aims to develop an atlas that uses open data and open science to describe ecosystems (including fisheries) and, where relevant, support monitoring of SDG targets and UNDOSSD outcomes. It draws from and enhances the FAO Hand-in-Hand Initiative (HIHI), which is an evidence-based, country-led and country-owned scheme to accelerate sustainable rural development to eradicate poverty and end hunger and all forms of malnutrition. HIHI prioritizes countries where national capacities and international support are most limited or where operational challenges, including natural or human-made crises, are greatest. The Initiative includes advanced geospatial modelling and analytics to identify the most promising opportunities to raise the incomes and reduce the inequities and vulnerabilities of rural populations, which constitute the vast majority of the world’s poor (Box 26).


FAO’s Hand-in-Hand Initiative (HIHI) supports projects in more than 35 countries. One such project assessed the potential in Nigeria for African catfish and Nile tilapia.1 The study was a pilot case for aquaculture Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that apply multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA).

Hand-in-Hand supported the zoning methodologies to identify areas within the country that have good, yet most likely unrealized, aquacultural potential. The programme also coordinated inputs from various disciplines across FAO and country technical task forces, including through round tables to help define priorities. Based on modelling methodology earlier defined by FAO, the MCDA analysis used a GIS to delineate farming systems by weighing various factors, excluding – depending on the farming system – protected or heavily urbanized areas, large waterbodies and areas located an excessive distance from major roads.

The study resulted in a set of maps indicating areas suitable for intensive fish farming of both species, and suggested zones at regional and state scale directed at open non-intensive integrated pond systems, with high potential impact on poverty alleviation, improved nutrition and food security.

Based on optimal natural conditions and urban market access, the study results indicate significant growth potential for intensive fish farming systems in the southwest, southeast, and north-central regions of Nigeria, but also highlight the lack (or unreliability) of energy supply and the poor transport infrastructure as major limiting factors for the entire value chain in these regions. However, there is increasing potential for alternative photovoltaic energy generation from south to north, driving intensification opportunities in sites located in the north-central region. Nevertheless, the most promising locations remain in the southeast states.

Modelling of intensive tilapia cage systems in large waterbodies indicates significant untapped aquaculture potential promising high returns on investment in the southwest, centre and north (Figure A). Development interventions focusing on integrated non-intensive farming systems (Figure B) capable of contributing to several Sustainable Development Goals, have extensive prospects, with limitations only in northern and northeast arid regions. With poverty set as a constraint, the central belt and parts of the north and northeast show high potential; these could be considered priority areas for aquaculture development.

FIGURE A Modelled favourable locations for tilapia intensive cage farming (large waterbodies), Nigeria

SOURCE: Adapted from Figure 16 in Ribeiro, N. 2021. GIS Multicriteria Decision Analysis – Nigeria Fresh water fish farming. Rome, FAO. Internal document. Cited 13 April 2022.
NOTES: The location score is the result of an arithmetic weighted sum of gridded location factor (criteria) normalized with values from 0 to 100, with 100 corresponding to the ideal location for intensive tilapia cage farming systems. Unsuitable locations are pink and suitable locations are blue. Identification of the most suitable locations finally leads to a shortlist of recommended dams or reservoirs with the best conditions for intensive tilapia cage farming systems (the shortlist is not presented here).
SOURCE: Adapted from Figure 16 in Ribeiro, N. 2021. GIS Multicriteria Decision Analysis – Nigeria Fresh water fish farming. Rome, FAO. Internal document. Cited 13 April 2022.

FIGURE B Modelled favourable locations for open non-intensive farming systems (small waterbodies), Nigeria

SOURCE: Adapted from Figure 5 in Ribeiro, N. 2021. GIS Multicriteria Decision Analysis – Nigeria Fresh water fish farming. Rome, FAO. Internal document. Cited 13 April 2022.
1 SALB = Second Administrative Level Boundaries (Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management:
NOTES: The location score is the result of an arithmetic weighted sum of gridded location factor (criteria) normalized with values from 0 to 100, with 100 corresponding to the ideal location for open, non-intensive farming systems (ponds and other small waterbodies). Unsuitable locations are red and suitable locations are purple.
SOURCE: Adapted from Figure 5 in Ribeiro, N. 2021. GIS Multicriteria Decision Analysis – Nigeria Fresh water fish farming. Rome, FAO. Internal document. Cited 13 April 2022.

While the HIHI study indicates potential, the integration of additional criteria would provide a fuller picture. For instance, the pilot study did not take into account environmental aspects that might impact long-term sustainability. Similarly, health and disease monitoring and management are likely to become more important as the sector develops. They should be considered in the future, along with environmental indicators from flood risks to longer-term climate risks.

In future, the implementation of any action in warm freshwater aquaculture should also recognize ethnic and cultural diversity and consider pre-existing resource competition issues in the country. It is important to note that the models discussed above provide working directions under the Hand-in-Hand Initiative, rather than turnkey solutions. Increased local collaboration to cover possible additions to the methodology – including value chain, socio-economic and fish farming production scenarios – would further enhance this study.

The programme will leverage the HIHI Geospatial Platform and provide access to fisheries information and topical environmental maps built on select data generated by FAO (including catalogues of maps of regional fishery body [RFB] competence areas, species distributions, stocks and fisheries), as well as by UNDOSSD partners. It will allow countries and RFBs to disseminate comprehensive open data on the state, impacts and management of fisheries and ecosystems and support monitoring of their progress towards the SDGs and UNDOSSD outcomes. The programme will also: (i) promote collaboration, as countries and regions need to reach agreements on standards for the dissemination of open data; and (ii) help bridge the digital divide, as it will build on FAO’s ongoing efforts to facilitate the co-design of fisheries information products with West and East African coastal States, Southeast Asian States, and small island developing States.

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