Fish micronutrients elude malnourished people

Small-scale marine fishing in the Koh Tonsay Archipelago Marine Fisheries Management Area in Kep Province (Photo: IUCN/DFC/FIA)

New study shows potential of fisheries to help tackle nutrient deficiencies suffered by millions worldwide


PENANG, Malaysia - Millions of people are suffering from malnutrition despite some of the most nutritious fish species in the world being caught near their homes, according to new research published in Nature.

Children in many tropical coastal areas are particularly vulnerable and could see significant health improvements if just a fraction of the fish caught nearby was diverted into their diets.

Omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc and calcium As well as omega-3 fatty acids, fish are a source of important micronutrients such as iron, zinc and calcium. 

Yet more than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies linked to maternal

mortality, stunted growth and pre-eclampsia.

The study suggests enough nutrients are already being fished out of the oceans to substantially reduce malnutrition.

At a time when the world is being asked to think more carefully about where and how we produce our food, fishing more may not be the answer.

“Nearly half the global population lives within 100 km of the coast,” said Professor Christina Hicks of Lancaster University, the lead author of the study.

"Half of those countries have moderate to severe deficiency risks,” she said. 

"Yet, our research shows that the nutrients currently fished out of their waters exceed the dietary requirements for all children under five years old within their coastal band. 

More accessible catches could have ‘huge’ impact on food security "If these catches were more accessible locally they could have a huge impact on global food security and combat malnutrition-related disease in millions of people.”

The Lancaster University-led research team collected data on the concentration of seven nutrients in more than 350 species of marine fish.

The team developed a statistical model for predicting how much nutrition any given species of fish contains, based on diet, seawater temperature and energy expenditure.

Important nutrients ‘not reaching many local populations’ Results showed important nutrients readily available in fish already being caught but they were not reaching many local populations, who were often most in need.

Parts of Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean were some of the coastal regions showing high malnutrition despite sufficient fish nutrients in the local catch.

"Fish is thought of by many as a protein,” said Dr Andrew Thorne-Lyman at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a co-author of the study.

“But our findings suggest that it’s actually an important source of many vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that we often see are missing in the diets of poor populations throughout the world.

‘Food swimming right under their noses' “It’s time that food security policymakers acknowledge the  nutrient-rich food swimming right under their noses and think about what can be done to increase access to fish by those populations,” Dr Thorne-Lyman said. 

Dr Philippa Cohen of WorldFish said the rssearch "clearly shows that the way fish are distributed needs to be carefully looked at. 

“Currently, many of the world’s fisheries are managed to get the most revenue, often by directing their efforts towards catching the highest-priced species and shovelling fish landings towards the mouths of the rich in cities or feeding pets and livestock in wealthier countries.

"It is slipping through the hands of small-scale fishers and malnourished people. We need to find a way to put human nutrition at the core of fisheries policies.”

The study was part of a research program on fish and agri-food systems led by WorldFish, an international research group based in Penang.

Related Articles