The Socio-economics of Aquaculture

Aquaculture notably affects people and societies far beyond obvious contributions to food security or any positive or negative environmental impacts. Globally, 18.7 million people currently work as fish farmers and, as with fisheries, this figure increases by three- to fourfold if secondary and post-harvest employment is included (FAO 2016). The income earned by each of these employed individuals supports up to four dependents (Smith et al., 2010). Increased training of women and greater participation in the workforce have followed. Employment figures mirror trends of increasing production data over the past years as well. Fish farmers now represent one-third of all employees involved in fish production. In 2000, 12.6 million fish farmers composed just one-quarter of that global total. Macroeconomic benefits derived from export earnings are also self-evident (Smith et al., 2010), but these impressive numbers do not tell the whole story.

Even when aquaculture activities do not return the same economic benefit per unit effort as fishing, aquaculture job demands differ fundamentally from fishing and seasonal (self-) employment, thereby creating distinct advantages (Irz et al., 2007). Aquaculture jobs offer a certainty of location, which allows fish farmers to make choices about family position and housing that improve household stability. This brings many advantages over fishing in terms of access to education, health provision, and appropriate housing (Fatunla, 1996). Furthermore, regularity of working hours allows individuals to incorporate further education and other beneficial planned activities into their daily lives (Slater et al., 2013). While fisheries may offer higher returns at times of plenty, aquaculture returns are generally more predictable in both time and value. With this advantage, individual farmers are able to make informed financial planning decisions and investments.

Aquaculture can, however, cause unwanted societal effects when it produces boom and bust cycles or otherwise collapses, for example, due to disease outbreaks, food safety recalls, or natural disasters. Equally rapid commercial aquaculture development can impact more traditional societies by, for example, leading to increased levels of debt. Disturbances in societal resilience and reduction in social capital can be associated with shifts toward high-capital aquaculture. Resource conflicts can rapidly arise when traditional users feel that aquaculture is encroaching on their “patch” (Orchard et al., 2015). However, most of these defined disturbances to traditional societies are typical for fast-expanding industries, not aquaculture alone.

Most insights into aquaculture's societal effects come from developing nations. In industrial nations, aquaculture is known to bring jobs and infrastructure, particularly to isolated rural areas. Many aquaculture industries in developed nations suffer from low availability of high-paying jobs combined with a lack of appropriately trained staff willing to work in menial positions for low wages. Nonetheless, job retention in isolated areas helps stabilize community structure and drives secondary industry and services (Neiland et al., 1991).Unfortunately, few sociological studies have been conducted on aquaculture in developed nations. The research focus remains on economic and societal conflict around resource use, environmental concerns, and potential recreational/leisure conflicts.

Much of this information has led to increasingly onerous and costly regulatory response (Abate et al., 2016; van Senten & Engle, 2017). In developed nations, increasing importance is thus being assigned to social license, or “the demands on and expectations for a business enterprise that emerge from neighborhoods, environmental groups, community members, and other elements of the surrounding civil society” (Gunningham et al., 2004). Objective, stakeholder-led studies on the social and economic impacts of aquaculture (both positive and negative) could help establish a better understanding of and consequently greater trust in aquaculture activities in both developed and developing countries (Leith et al., 2014). Scientists act as catalysts for stakeholder dialogue when such studies are conducted and positively affect social license and science policy when they effectively communicate the diverse benefits of application.

An enhanced research effort to address the economic and social impacts of aquaculture in systematic and comprehensive ways is clearly needed. There is compelling evidence that affirms aquaculture to be a global economic powerhouse that provides livelihoods and can be a driver of positive social development. It brings jobs to isolated and underprivileged areas in industrial and developing nations and almost universally offers significant societal benefits in terms of access to food, infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

Yet, a great deal of contextual variability around aquaculture in communities remains (Stevenson & Irz, 2009) and many important questions are still unanswered. It is important for aquaculture researchers, extension specialists, those who work in international development, and policy makers to understand these benefits and communicate them to the broader scientific and research community.

Bhari and Visvanathan (2018) denote that aquaculture differs from the conventional approach of capture type of fishing and refers to more planned and technical approach of farming which is a more labour-intensive process. Aquaculture helps to sustain many farmers and is one of the major sources of income to many households.

It also indirectly affects the social and economic aspects of many stakeholders who are indirectly involved in it. Thus, a considerable socio-economic impact can be associated with it, in addition to the environmental aspect of aquaculture. As the aquaculture industry utilizes resources to cultivate the stock beyond the natural carrying capacity, ecological and environmental impacts are the major concern in the aquaculture industry.

As presented in Fig. 1 external environment which majorly includes market demand, governmental regulations and institutional capacity of the countries plays a significant role to control the internal environment of aquaculture. However, as presented in Fig. 1, these forces are smaller than the raising social and environmental issues. An uncontrolled external environment can worsen the internal environment leading to many social and environmental issues.

Figure 1. Internal and external environment of the aquaculture farm (Bhari & Visvanathan, 2018)

As aquaculture business deals with the usage of environmental resources and human resources for the extraction and production of the consumable products, it will inevitably cause distortion in the social and economic conditions of the project area. This distortion often termed as ‘impacts’ can be both beneficial (positive) as well as adverse (negative) in nature as presented in Fig. 2. However, the ultimate goal of any project is to maximize the positive impact and minimize or eliminate the negative impact of proper technological and operational measures.

Figure 2. Causes of socio-economic impacts (Bhari & Visvanathan 2018)

In practice, despite the differences among different countries and regions in the socio-economic, environmental and cultural environment and in relation to fish species and products as well as harvesting techniques, the consensus view is that it's imperative to protect and improve the quality of fish through the development and deployment of new sustainable practices and techniques. In this direction, Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) allows farmers to combine fed aquaculture with inorganic extractive (e.g., seaweed) and organic extractive (e.g., shellfish) aquaculture, to create balanced systems for environmental remediation, economic stability (improved output, lower cost, product diversification and risk reduction) and social acceptability (better management practices).

Such new systems are even more critical in the COVID-19 pandemic era, which has the potential to aggravate poverty, hunger and malnutrition, including an unprecedented impact on the fisheries and aquaculture sector. In this respect, FAO (2021) recalled the goal of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to end poverty and hunger everywhere, noting that the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger (FAO et al., 2020), with close to 750 million people exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019, while one in four children under five remains chronically malnourished.

The important role and contribution of small-scale fisheries and aquaculture in poverty eradication is acknowledged, as well in ensuring food security and nutritional needs of local communities.  Fish can play a major role in satisfying the world’s growing middle-income group needs, while also meeting the food security needs of the poorest.

Sustainability of aquaculture not only requires that it has a neutral effect on the environment but also that it be economically feasible (Barrington et al., 2010). One of the critical factors that will motivate aquaculture industries to invest in IMTA systems, is general public awareness of sustainable production of IMTA fish and other species and their impact on society and the environment. This will result in consumers that are willing to purchase the end product (Gempesaw et al., 1995), and financial gains for all stakeholders in the industry.

Additional interesting findings deriving from literature are the following:

  • Aquaculture research institutes are increasingly located near production sites and some organise traineeship for students on aquaculture farms (Budzich-Tabor et al., 2018)
  • IMTA has the potential to improve the social perceptions on aquaculture and provide financial benefits for aquaculture producers via product diversifications (Knowler et al., 2020). The latter is very important since the prices of finfish continue to decline due to COVID-19 pandemic conditions.
  • Taking into account the reductions in nutrient discharge and greenhouse gas emissions, IMTA results in net social benefits collectively larger than the net gains in profits alone (Knowler et al., 2020)
  • 50% of the respondents in a market survey were willing to pay a 10% premium for IMTA-labelled products (Barrington et al., 2010)

seaweed lines


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Last modified: Monday, 10 May 2021, 22:37