Fisheries decline may increase malnutrition

A new analysis predicts that falling fish stocks could have serious health consequences for more than 10% of the world’s population.

Woman fish seller in Malawi
Falling fish catches will affect the health of people in poorer countries hardest.
Credit: Science Photo Library

For many people in low- and middle-income countries, fish is a crucial source of nutrients such as vitamin B12 and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. It is also rich in zinc, iron and vitamin A.

But fish stocks, which have been declining since the 20th century, are likely to shrink further in coming decades. This is due to a combination of damaging trends and practices, including:

  • destructive and illegal fishing
  • pollution
  • poor management
  • coastal development
  • climate change. 

Christopher Golden and colleagues at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have calculated that this decline could leave:

  • 845 million people (11% of the global population) at risk of deficiencies in iron, vitamin A or zinc
  • 1.39 billion people (19% of the global population) vulnerable to deficiencies in vitamin B12 and DHA omega-3 fatty acids.

This would increase the risk of maternal and child mortality, and health problems such as cognitive deficits and reduced immune function. 

In a commentary published in Nature today, Golden warns that it is low- and middle-income countries, in particular in low latitude regions, who will be hit hardest. He calls for policy makers and international agencies to pay more attention to human health when deciding how to manage marine environments.

Clare Matterson, Wellcome’s Director of Strategy, described the analysis as "a powerful reminder of how the futures of our food sources, the environment and our health are entirely interdependent".

The research is supported by Wellcome’s Our Planet, Our Health initiative.