Global fish consumption
Our global analysis focuses on population and income per capita as major determinants of blue food consumption and assumes that supply is not constrained. During the 20-year period from 1998 to 2018, global average fish consumption per person rose from 15.6 to 20.4 kg/year on a live-weight basis, and from 11.5 to 15.1 kg/year in edible weight33. Multiplying these figures by the growing population, the aggregate volume of fish demand (live-weight) increased from 93.6 to 152 million tonnes (Mt).
Income growth and associated changes in dietary habits have been shown to be a more influential driver of fish demand in recent decades than population growth at the global scale3,5. Cai and Leung3 disaggregated the effects of population growth and consumption per capita for the period 2008–2013 and found that they accounted for 40% and 60%, respectively, of the increase in global fish demand. Their results showed considerable regional variation: in Sub-Saharan Africa the contribution of population growth to total demand was 90%, while in East Asia (mainly China) where economic growth was much stronger and population growth relatively weak, population accounted for only 13% of the overall increase in fish demand. Asia was the source of virtually all of the increase in global fish consumption over this period, suggesting that Asian countries are undergoing a significant dietary transition, one that is just beginning in Sub-Saharan Africa.
To assess the role of income in blue food consumption globally, we use an aggregate metric for fish following the demand model of Muhammad et al.2 and compare per capita apparent consumption in relation to income for fish vs. terrestrial meat with cross-sectional data (see “Methods”). Our analysis reveals a weak relationship between per capita fish consumption and income across the 72 countries in our global dataset (r2 = 0.11) (Fig. 1). The best-fit model in Fig. 1 shows a significantly stronger relationship between consumption of terrestrial meat and income (r2 = 0.64), reflecting the nutrition transition whereby meat consumption rises steadily with income growth and tapers off at higher levels of income11. These results are consistent with estimates by Muhammad et al.2,34 showing a uniformly higher income elasticity of demand for meat than for fish.
A key explanation for the weak relationship between income and fish consumption per capita is that “fish” comprise thousands of different species captured or cultivated in a wide array of freshwater and marine systems. The diversity of seafood consumed globally is substantially higher than that of terrestrial meat, which is dominated by a relatively small number of cattle, poultry, and swine breeds. Previous models of fish demand have shown that consumption of blue foods cannot be characterized by a single ‘fish’ variable, as preferences and income elasticities of demand differ widely between low versus high market-valued fish1,3,5. Fish consumption also tends to be measured less accurately than terrestrial meat in FAO data due to the wide variety of edible products35. Preserved blue foods (dried, salted, fermented, smoked) account for a substantial share of fish consumption, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa, adding nutrients and distinct flavors to local cuisines20,36,37,38. In the Mekong River Basin, small quantities of dried or otherwise processed fish account for 15% of fresh whole animal equivalent weights39, and in Myanmar they constitute roughly one-third of all blue food consumption14.
Terrestrial meat and fish are often grouped together in analyses of diet diversification9,11,35, yet disaggregation by beef, pork, poultry, and seafood is critical for understanding substitution in demand. During the past 60 years, poultry consumption has increased while beef consumption has declined; between 1961 and 2017, global annual growth in edible per capita consumption was 3.4% for poultry, 1.6% for seafood, 1.4% for pork, and −0.8% for beef (Fig. 2). Although substitution of fish for beef has been advocated on health and environmental grounds40,41, poultry appears to have already served as a major substitute for beef in global diets. Certain fish species, such as salmon and shrimp, are similar to poultry in industrial organization, processing techniques, and nutritional and cuisine attributes42. Global per capita fish and poultry consumption has converged at 15–16 kg/cap/year in edible weight (Fig. 2a). Prices for the two commodities are roughly equivalent (as measured against the price of staple calories) in certain large countries undergoing nutritional transitions, such as China and India, but show greater divergence in other countries that have varied availability and tastes for fish versus poultry43. Preferences have long been recognized as a major factor in consumer choice of animal source foods7,44, highlighting the need for further analysis at regional to sub-national scales where geography, culture, and tastes can be differentiated.
Regional fish consumption and trade
To capture the regional heterogeneity of blue food demand, we disaggregate fish consumption into seven major species groups: freshwater fish (including diadromous fish such as salmon), demersal (e.g., cod, halibut), pelagic (e.g., tuna, forage fish), other marine fish, crustaceans, cephalopods (e.g., squid, octopus), and bivalves (Supplementary Table 2). There are distinct patterns of seafood consumption across regions (Fig. 3): for example, relatively large shares of freshwater fish consumption in Asia, pelagic and freshwater species consumption in Africa and South America, and demersal species in Europe, North America, and Oceania. Per capita fish consumption in Asia, Europe, and Oceania exceeds the global average, whereas Africa and South America are well below the global average.
Viewing consumption patterns over time for individual countries within regions (Fig. 4) provides additional insight into the roles of preferences, availability, and economic determinants of fish demand. This set of countries is confined to continents accounting for 5% or more of global consumption and includes those with high per capita consumption—up to 30 kg/year, twice the global average—and those with relatively low per capita consumption but large populations. A cursory look at the types of fish consumed in each region demonstrates that China is the dominant consumer of freshwater fish, while Ghana and Peru are large consumers of pelagic fish (especially small forage fish). Fish consumption in USA, Mexico, Spain, and France is highly varied, with relatively large consumption of high market-valued demersal fish, crustaceans, pelagic fish (including tuna) and other marine fish. Per capita consumption of bivalves is greatest in Spain, France, and China.
Delineating fish by species group is also critical for understanding trends in fish trade, as demand is met by both domestic production and imports. The volume of fish trade for the seven species groups in our 10-country regional dataset reveals several interesting patterns (Fig. 5). China is the leader in total fish exports and imports; it also dominates in several specific categories of fish trade, such as mollusc, freshwater, and other marine fish exports, and demersal fish imports. USA, France, and Spain are also large importers of most species, with the exception of pelagic and other marine fish. USA, a large producer of farmed catfish during the past half century, has become the world’s leading importer of freshwater fish as well as crustaceans. Although India has the lowest per capita consumption of fish in our regional dataset, it is a net exporter of fish overall and second only to China in crustacean exports. As fish supplies increase in India, however, consumption per capita is also rising13,45. Demand for higher market-valued marine and freshwater species, both farmed and wild, is increasing in several Asian countries as production and incomes rise, gradually redirecting products once produced mainly for export to domestic markets13,18,46,47.
The dominance of certain countries in international fish trade masks the importance of trade for Africa, where imports of frozen fillets and small pelagic fish have been rising as production from domestic fish capture has either stagnated or been exported20. Fish demand has grown faster than supply in Africa, resulting in an increase in the import share of consumption from 16% in 1970 to 39% in 2017—a major jump given that the import share for food in aggregate was 13% in 201720. In Nigeria, fish have traditionally been among the cheapest animal source foods, but limited domestic supplies and rising imports of frozen fillets have caused real fish prices to rise significantly during the past decade20.
Real prices of blue foods, particularly relative to terrestrial animal products that substitute in demand, are important determinants of consumption, with low-income households being more responsive to price than wealthy households1,3,5,8. Global price indices for fish generally represent traded commodities12,19 and do not fully capture the diversity in species, processing, and quality across geographies and countries at different stages of economic development (Supplementary Fig. 1). Demand models that estimate consumer prices by dividing expenditures by quantity consumed without accounting for quality produce biased results10. Prices have been recorded for a wide variety of standardized fish and meat products through the World Bank International Comparison Program (ICP) in 2011 and 201748. During this period, the price of fish rose in all 10 countries in our regional comparison set, while meat prices were more stable overall, particularly relative to fish (Supplementary Table 3). Using ICP data to calculate the relative caloric price of seafood to staple grains, Headey and Alderman43 found that fish are comparatively expensive in low-income countries and cheap in high-income countries. In Asian countries where availability is high, fish are an affordable source of animal source foods43.
Case studies of China, India, Nigeria, and Chile provide further insight into geographic patterns of blue food demand at national and sub-national scales. China and India were selected on the basis of their large populations, strong growth in GDP per capita in recent decades, and sizeable roles in global fish production, consumption, and trade. Nigeria has relatively low per capita fish consumption but contains the largest population in Africa, projected to exceed 400 million by 2050, surpassing USA as the world’s third most populous nation49. Although Chile is much smaller than the above-mentioned countries, it serves as an interesting case given its export orientation and substitution of terrestrial meat for fish in national diets. Across these four countries, the relationship between income growth and fish consumption per capita is varied (Fig. 6).
China is the largest producer, consumer, processor, and exporter of fish globally, and its imports of fish have been rising in recent decades46,47,50. Per capita consumption of fish (edible weight) increased five-fold between 1975 and 2015 (Fig. 4) and is projected to rise by almost 50% from 2015 to 2050 (Fig. 8). More than 95% of China’s fish production and domestic consumption is concentrated in its eastern, southern, and central provinces51. Chinese National Statistics reported per capita fish consumption of 16.7 kg/yr and 9.6 kg/cap for urban and rural areas, respectively, in 2019, with fish consumption exceeding 25 kg/cap/year in eastern cities and as low as 1 kg/cap in western provinces51. It is worth noting that urban fish consumption may be underestimated by 25–30% because government reports omit out-of-home consumption52,53.
Freshwater aquaculture systems have supported local demand for fish in China for centuries and have expanded under government incentive programs since the mid-1980s when the country’s capture fisheries became over-exploited. With its long coastline, local marine fish such as yellow croaker have long been part of Chinese diets, but consumption of freshwater fish, molluscs, and even non-traditional salmon products has risen with domestic aquaculture expansion18,54. Output from aquaculture (both freshwater and mariculture) exceeded that of wild fisheries in 1988 and now contributes over three-quarters of China’s total fish production50. Consumption of marine species has tripled during the past 30 years, and the gap between inland and coastal consumption of marine fish has narrowed with advances in supply chain logistics and cold chain technology55. Consumption of all animal source foods has increased in China since 1975 (Fig. 7). Although pork remains the dominant animal source food in the average Chinese diet, the demand for fish has been rising with income growth and is often preferred as a healthy food to terrestrial meat56. Demand for eco-labeled seafood in China is also emerging57.
India is the second-largest producer and consumer of fish globally and a net exporter, although consumption per capita is well below the world average (Supplementary Table 4). National Sample Survey Reports from 1987–88 to 2011–12 show that average consumption increased from 1.92 to 2.64 kg/cap/year (live weight) and the share of households consuming fish regularly rose from 27 to 32%58,59. Two-thirds of all households in India, however, reported eating no fish at all in 2011–1259. Annual per capita fish consumption estimated from national survey data was below that published by FAO (Fig. 4), underscoring major estimation and reporting inconsistencies at the national scale.
National Sample Surveys reveal substantial variation in fish consumption among states in India59. Ninety percent of all households in Assam, Kerala, and West Bengal eat fish regularly, compared to less than 2% of households in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan. In states where fish is not a common food, urban and wealthier households report lower consumption than their rural and poorer counterparts. Fish consumption is also higher in Muslim versus Hindu households, and in Schedule Tribes versus upper caste households. Households that do not consume fish typically adhere to vegetarian diets and are significantly less likely to report consumption of meat (beef, chicken, mutton, or pork) or eggs. Fish consumption is more common in the predominantly rice-eating southern and eastern states—mainly due to agroecological conditions, availability, and regional cuisines—than in the northern and western parts of the country where wheat is the staple food24.
Given wide inter-state variation, national-scale projections may misestimate future fish consumption in India. Existing projections use single values for income and price elasticities of fish demand for the entire country1,5,45 despite large differences in consumer behavior among states (e.g., authors’ calculations from59 indicate the income elasticity of demand for fish is substantially higher in eastern and southern states than in northern states). For India as a whole, poultry consumption has increased in recent decades along with fish, whereas beef and pork consumption have fallen (Fig. 7). Milk consumption per capita (not shown in Fig. 7) was significantly lower for households where fish was consumed across all income classes in 2010–1159. In addition, butter, ghee, and eggs have been shown to be substitutes for fish in Indian diets60.
In Nigeria, edible fish consumption was estimated at 10 kg/cap/year in 2015 (Supplementary Fig. 5), slightly higher than the regional average for Africa of 9 kg/cap/year and below the global average of 14.6 kg/cap/year33. Fish plays a major role in the average Nigerian diet with roughly half of the population eating fish two to three times per week61. Like India and China, however, there are sub-national differences, with households in southern Nigeria consuming about twice as much fish as those in the north20. Per capita fish consumption is higher in urban than rural households, particularly for fresh (versus dried) fish, and middle- and high-income households eat fish more frequently than do lower-income households62. Households in the south also consume more frozen imported fish than in the north. Higher levels of fish consumption in the south reflect its proximity to the coast, and hence historical preferences and access to imports, as well as the region’s relative success in aquaculture development20.
Per capita consumption of fish exceeds terrestrial meat in Nigeria, although pork consumption has risen in recent decades (Fig. 7), mainly in the non-Muslim southern region. Local studies suggest that affordable, small pelagic, and preserved fish (dried and smoked) are most widely consumed, but imported frozen fish now comprise the largest budget share of seafood consumed across the country on average20. Given steady growth in fish demand, Nigeria has invested heavily in aquaculture production (mainly freshwater catfish), accounting for 52% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s farmed fish output63. Replacing locally diverse indigenous species with farmed freshwater fish has mixed nutritional consequences37, but having access to affordable fish in the diet is critical for Nigeria’s nutrition security overall20,36,43,64.
In Chile, fish consumption has traditionally played an essential role in national diets given the country’s a long coastline and extensive freshwater bodies in the south. An estimated 55% of high-income and 38% of low-income households consume fish weekly65. Despite Chile’s culinary history, per capita consumption of fish has fallen during the past two decades while consumption of poultry and pork has increased (Fig. 7). A shift in dietary preferences and a re-orientation of domestic capture fisheries toward global markets help to explain this trend.
Chile is the second largest producer and leading exporter of mussels globally65. Expansion in the mussel industry has been driven by strong international demand, mainly by European countries, which together with Russia and the U.S., accounted for almost 70% of Chilean mussel export volume in 201966. Domestic fish consumption has decreased in response to rising prices over the past 15 years, a trend that artisanal fishing communities are trying to reverse67. Local consumption of certain mollusc species sold in luxury export markets, such as the gastropod “Loco” (Concholepas concholepas), has fallen dramatically68. Salmon aquaculture in Chile is also export-orientated, with output destined mainly for markets in high-income nations such as the U.S., Japan, and EU69. Chilean consumers have not yet demonstrated a strong preference for farmed salmon despite large-scale domestic production70.
National health and environmental consequences of shifting diets from fish to terrestrial meats60, in addition to the environmental implications of expanding intensive salmon aquaculture to meet rising international demand71, illustrate the influence of global markets on nutrition and sustainability outcomes in countries like Chile that are significantly engaged in blue food trade.
Fish consumption to 2050
To assess future fish demand, we calculate growth in fish consumption, disaggregated by species group, for the 10 countries in our regional dataset from 2015 to 2050 based on projections of population and income growth (see “Methods”; Supplementary Table 4). Real prices are held constant as we do not create a closed model that solves for price endogenously with supply estimations and assume instead that production keeps pace with demand. Our projections do not represent a linear extension of 2015 consumption patterns, as consumption of different types of fish will change with income growth depending on the relevant income elasticity of demand, typically favoring higher market-valued products as countries become richer11.
Our projections indicate that per capita fish consumption, measured in edible weight, will increase in all areas, more than doubling from the current global average consumption of 15 kg/cap/year33 in half of the 10 countries by 2050 (Fig. 8). Asia will continue to lead in freshwater fish consumption and will have the highest demand for fish overall in 2050 (Fig. 9). China will remain the world’s largest fish consumer, vastly surpassing all other countries in the regional dataset. Total fish demand (live weight) in India, the second largest consumer, is projected to increase from 6.2 Mt to 19.8 Mt due to its large and growing population (~1.6 billion by 205049). Projections based on FAO data may overstate India’s future fish consumption as discussed earlier, but even at half the projected national per capita consumption level, India’s population-driven demand will be large. Projections show China consuming a diverse set of species in 2050 including crustaceans, demersal fish, and cephalopods, while Ghana and Peru will continue to dominate the consumption of small pelagic fish (Fig. 8). Europe, North America, and South America will continue to consume a wide variety of species. Per capita edible fish consumption in Ghana is expected to be roughly triple that of Nigeria in 2050, but given the size of Nigeria’s population, its aggregate edible fish consumption is projected at 4.6 Mt in 2050, significantly higher than Ghana’s at 1.7 Mt (Supplementary Table 4).
Overall, our projections indicate that aggregate edible consumption for the sum of countries in our regional model will increase by over 80%, from 54.7 Mt to ~100 Mt, between 2015 and 2050 (Supplementary Table 4). These countries comprise 55% of global fish consumption today and are thus indicative of the degree of change in future fish consumption worldwide. On a live-weight basis, total demand for fish across the 10 countries will almost double from 80.7 Mt to 154.6 Mt. The model provides a rough gauge of future fish demand but is only suggestive as it does not include changes in dietary preferences for different types of fish and other animal source foods. Preferences will likely change for a variety of reasons such as consumer concerns over human health, sustainability, food safety, convenience, and the emergence of plant-based meat substitutes.
Nutritional and environmental consequences of demand
Looking forward to 2050, the nutritional and environmental consequences of fish demand will depend largely on the quantity and types of fish species consumed and substitutions in demand between fish and other animal source foods. The dietary transitions unfolding globally will serve to restructure food systems and will likely set certain countries onto particular nutritional trajectories72. Although projections in Fig. 8 rely on a partial structural model of demand, they suggest a significant rise in fish consumption from current levels. As blue food consumption increases in several of these 10 countries (i.e., China, India, Nigeria, USA, Peru, Mexico, Brazil), per capita consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs will likely decrease, leading to greater dietary intake of DHA + EPA fatty acids, iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12, but reduced vitamin A intake if aquatic foods are substituted for other meat and dairy products60. If preferences were also to shift toward aquatic foods and away from ultra-processed foods at higher levels of income for health reasons, consumers would likely experience reduced rates of diet-related non-communicable disease (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke)60 provided that they have access to affordable fish supplies. For most countries in Fig. 8, rising fish consumption will enrich diets in terms of micronutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc, and seafood omega-3 fatty acids60.
Dietary transitions will also influence environmental outcomes at local to global scales. The EAT-Lancet Commission report in 2019 concluded that sustainable and healthy diets for the global population require a shift away from beef and foods high in saturated fats and sugars, and towards nutritious foods such as fish, vegetables, nuts, and fruits40. Substituting seafood for terrestrial meat for a growing world population will be accomplished mainly through aquaculture expansion, although capture fisheries, if managed sustainably, also have the potential to add to future fish supplies41,73. Aquaculture production is more geographically concentrated than capture fisheries, and thus an increase in the share of aquaculture in the total fish supplies will require more seafood trade or further development of aquaculture into new geographic areas17.
Aquaculture has become progressively more sustainable over the past 20 years, yet environmental challenges persist18. As aquaculture intensifies in both freshwater and marine systems, feed formulations will depend increasingly on terrestrial crop production and will continue to rely on marine resources18,71. Bivalves are widely advocated as a sustainable seafood option, but it is unclear how dietary preferences will evolve for this group of species. Global demand for sustainable seafood will help shape future consumption patterns, yet such demand has been dominated to date by North America, Japan, and Europe and does not capture the breadth of global seafood demand described here74. Although the quantity of certified seafood has grown substantially in recent decades, future expansion is uncertain given the lack of inclusion of small-scale producers in many areas including Asia30.
The degree to which aquatic food systems will be able to keep up with changes in demand also depends on their ability to maintain production in a rapidly changing climate75,76,77. The prospects of climate-driven constraints on blue food supplies mean that seafood prices could rise and become more variable in the future, impacting fish consumers, especially the poor who spend a disproportionate share of their income on food77,78. Low-income consumers typically respond to rising prices and declining purchasing power by decreasing overall food consumption, shifting from nutrient-rich to energy-rich foods, and substituting from high- to low-quality starchy staples79. Intersecting issues related to environmental change, food equity and justice, and nutrition will thus be important to address in the coming decades.