The potential of inland fisheries for alleviating hunger

The work

This work was commissioned in 2014-15 by the Fisheries & Aquaculture Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a United Nations agency leading international efforts to defeat hunger.

My role

I was the lead author and coordinator of a study recognising, demonstrating and capturing the value of inland fisheries' ecosystem services in decision-making under The Economics of the Environment and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Agriculture and Food initiative.


Freshwater ecosystems, and inland fisheries in particular, are under threat:

  • 65% of the world's rivers are under medium to high levels of threat,
  • It is expected that there will be a 100% increase in water withdrawal by 2050,
  • There are 40,000 large dams worldwide, all of these impact riverine fisheries to some degree,
  • An estimated 470 million people live downstream from dams in riverine communities that are at risk from poorly planned and managed dam and water developments.

Breaking new ground, this holistic assessment looks at the impacts, externalities and dependencies between fish production, environmental, social and economic systems. Considering different fish production systems and water management scenarios in different parts of the world, the report examines the full range of services that freshwater ecosystems provide and their trade-offs.

The study takes stock of the current state of knowledge on the multiple services (benefits) that fish production generates, globally and in three case studies in North America (Columbia River), Asia (Lower Mekong Basin) and Africa (Lake Victoria Basin).

The case studies provide an analysis of the economic value of the provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural services of inland capture fisheries and freshwater aquaculture under existing and alternative water management scenarios. This enables quantifying the changes in ecosystem services values arising out of management alternatives. The main ecosystem services considered in each system are:

(I) Food production (animal proteins and nutrients);

(II) Water quality;

(III) Biodiversity;

(IV) Carbon fixation and greenhouse gas emissions;

(V) Nutrient cycling;

(VI) Income and livelihood support.

Other ecosystems services were included where important.

The report

1) Executive and policy makers' summary

Whilst freshwater fish is vital to the nutrition, food security and livelihoods of the global population, particularly those in developing counties, the value of inland fisheries and freshwater aquaculture is massively underestimated and often overlooked in water development agendas. The report provides key messages and recommendations at the attention of policy makers to change this.

2) Context  

Building on findings of the 2005 The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that 60 percent of the earth’s ecosystem’s services were degraded or used unsustainably, the report places inland fisheries in an ecosystem perspective, offering an innovative framework to discuss production, interactions and externalities. It highlights that aquatic systems should be treated as equal to terrestrial systems in the TEEB Agriculture and Food Initiative.

Linkages between fish production, ecosystem services and governance (Based on WLE, 2014)

3) Case studies

The report includes detailed investigations of the ecosystem services linked to fish production in the Lower Mekong Basin (Asia), Lake Victoria (Africa) and the Columbia River (North America), revealing the dramatic implications of not recognizing the true value of these services.

4) Synthesis and conclusion

Planning, developing and managing freshwater aquatic ecosystems must include all ecosystem services – and especially fish production – and all sectors using them.

Fishers and fishery dependent communities are at risk of losing their livelihoods from the development of inland waters if such balance is not achieved.

Crucially, more commitment of will and finances is required to address the basic lack of data on inland fisheries capture fisheries and to demonstrate the importance of the role and value of the sector in supporting livelihoods, nutrition, food security, economic development and wellbeing.

Full report citation:

Brugere, C., Lymer, D. and Bartley, D.M.  (2015) Ecosystem services in freshwater fish production systems and aquatic ecosystems: Recognizing, demonstrating and capturing their value in food production and water management decisions. TEEB Agriculture & Food, UNEP, Geneva. URL:

Ecosystem Services publication:

The results of the Columbia River case study led to the publication of the following paper: 

Morton, C., Knowler, D., Brugere, C., Lymer, D. and Bartley, D. (2017) Valuation of fish production services in river basins: A case study of the Columbia River. Ecosystem Services, 24: 101-113.