Fish is an important source of food and livelihoods in Southeast Asia. Fish provides a large share of animal protein intake, from 40% in the Philippines and Thailand to 57% in Indonesia and Cambodia. Low value fish in particular is a major component of the diets of the poor. Fisheries are also a significant source of livelihoods for communities on coasts, riverbanks, and floodplains, which cover a large bulk of the populations of Southeast Asia.
Recently the fisheries sector has been undergoing unprecedented changes: production in the region has grown rapidly, averaging 4.2% average annual growth from 1980-2003, compared to a 2.7% average annual growth over the same period for all other agricultural products. Fish has spearheaded the globalization of agriculture, following the reduction in import barriers and duties and the harmonization of food safety standards under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements. The share of fish all agricultural exports reached 20% in 2003, compared to only 6% in 1980. The value of fish exports in 2003 (US$ 8.6 billion) is far in excess of exports of fruits and vegetables (US$3.5 billion), cereals (US$ 2.7 billion), coffee, tea, and cocoa (US$ 2.3 billion), and poultry (US$ 1.2 billion). For example, Vietnam is well-known as a coffee and rice exporter: however the export value of these two crops combined was less than US$ 1 billion in 2003, compared to fish exports of US$ 2.4 billion in the same year.
However rising global demand for fish has placed tremendous pressures on aquatic ecosystems and wild stocks. The "live reef food fish trade" is a case in point: consisting mostly of groupers, snappers, and wrasses, this trade involves exports of reef fish mostly to Hong Kong - China to meet a nearly insatiable demand for live fish. Unfortunately extraction of reef fish is both too heavy, and often done in an unsustainable manner (e.g. reliance on cyanide fishing).
What is the future of global fish trade, given rising demand and dwindling stocks? Not so bright - higher prices are in the offing, including for fish consumed heavily by the poor. (And there are ways to project the magnitude of these price increases, and even the impact of these future trends on economic well-being). But while gloomy, the situation is not hopeless. Yet. (I think.)