Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

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Subjects of Interest

  • Food Security
  • Governance
  • Health
  • Sustainable Development

Making consumption of fish sustainable in Nigeria 08 Sep 2021

As food, all animal proteins have their pros and cons. But, generally, consuming fish and other aquatic foods in the right proportion is more beneficial to health compared to red meat. Although on-land food production system is the major provider of foods consumed worldwide, according to a recently report by the United Nations Nutrition, fish and aquatic foods are gaining recognition for their beneficial role in sustainable nutrition and food security.

Aquatic foods – animals, plants and microorganisms reared in water and harvested for consumption – have been identified by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) for their potential to address micronutrient deficiencies, under-nutrition and overweight or obesity.

In this article, I will discuss the importance of eating fish and other sea foods. Seafood includes edible marine fish such as mackerels, sardines, herrings and may also include shellfish such as squid, snails, oysters and crustaceans such as crab, crayfish, lobsters, shrimps and prawns. Fresh water fish include catfish, tilapia, and carp. Notwithstanding, a varied diet that combines nutrient dense foods is essential for everyone at every stage of life. Such diets should include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, dairy foods, sea foods and water to meet basic body requirements.

I will also mention the challenges of fish farmers and fisher folks in Nigeria, how government can support fish production to increase the availability and affordability of different types of fishes and sea foods and make fish farming more profitable for farmers.

The nutritional and health benefits of fish and other aquatic foods are numerous. Apart from being good sources of protein for both children and adults, fish are rich in micronutrients – minerals and vitamins. They are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients are very important to boost the nutrient and health status of people in countries with high burden of malnutrition. The minerals present in fish include iron, iodine and zinc, which are required for development in children.

There can as well be devastating consequences if these minerals are deficient in adults. To highlight some of the benefits of these minerals, iron in fish is essential for brain development in children; it is also crucial in pregnant women to increase maternal survival rate and prevent iron deficient anaemia. Iron deficient anaemia is a condition in which a person lacks enough healthy red blood cells to move adequate amount of oxygen to body’s tissues. Premature birth, low birth weight, increased risk of infant death before and immediately after birth are some of the risks associated with severe anaemia during pregnancy.

Iodine also functions in brain development in foetus and children. This mineral has been shown to reduce the risk of stillbirths, while zinc prevents stunting and diarrhoea in children and improves childhood survival according to the UN. Vitamins A, D and B12 present in fish help to prevent blindness and promote the development of healthy bones, teeth and muscles. They, in addition, support brain and nervous system development in children.

The third class of nutrients present in fish are the omega-3 fatty acids. These include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are long chain polyunsaturated omega-3s that are mainly available to the body through fish and other sea foods. The body cannot produce these nutrients on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids are powerful nutrients that help to protect the brain, heart and eyes in all age groups. DHA and EPA improve heart health by reducing blood triglycerides, lowering blood pressure and decreasing the risk of cardiac arrest that can lead to sudden death.

However, when consuming large predatory fish such as king mackerel, shark and others, there is a need to exercise caution especially during pregnancy. This is because some of these fish contain high levels of mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals released into water bodies. High amounts of heavy metals in the bloodstream can be detrimental to a baby’s brain and nervous system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend about two to three servings of fish/sea foods that are low in heavy metals per week. Salmon, shrimps, crabs, catfish, sardines, herrings, oysters, snails, squids, prawns and others should be properly cooked before consumption to avoid food poisoning during pregnancy.

In case you are wondering why as an adult you should choose to eat fish instead of red meat, here are some reasons. As rightly stated by Ayojesutomi Abiodun-Solanke, a fish safety and post-harvest lecturer in the Department of Fisheries Technology, Federal College of Fisheries and Marine Technology, Lagos, fish, especially those with darker-flesh like catfish, salmon and herrings, are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and very low in saturated fats. On the other hand, some red meats are high in these saturated fats that increase blood cholesterol. High levels of low-density lipoproteins increase the risk of heart disease.

Moreover, researchers have linked increased risk of cancer, especially colorectal cancer, with increased consumption of red meat or processed red meat. Eating red meat has environmental implications caused by the heavy impact of meat production on the environment. Livestock farming releases greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating the impact of global warming.

Another downside of meat production is the high demand for grazing land by cattle, sheep and goats. Making land available for raising livestock often requires destruction of forest ecosystems, which further release trapped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Roughly 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are from the meat and dairy industry, according to FAO. Relying more on fish and aquatic foods as animal source of essential nutrients can reduce your carbon footprint as an individual. It is also a more sustainable and healthier option.

In Nigeria and many coastal developing countries, aquatic foods, especially fish, have long been consumed and cherished as important sources of nutrients. Nigeria was ranked third globally, based on the number of people depending on fisheries for nutrition and food security. However, in a 2018 report by FAO, fish consumption per household in the country was 13.3 kg per capita per year, which was relatively low compared to the global average of 20.3 kg per capita per year.

Recently, the prices of fish and sea foods have increased significantly, almost doubling the earlier price per kilogram in some parts of the country. Ngozi Oguguah, a Principal Research Officer at the Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR), shared some reasons for the high cost of fishes in the country. “Most of our fisher folks are not equipped to go into deep waters. It is worse now that the rainy season is here and the tides are high, making it difficult for them to carry on with their activities. Their fishing boats most times cannot withstand the turbulence and increased sea level,” said Dr. Oguguah. She also stated that some fishes are seasonal, which make them more expensive at certain periods of the year, thereby reducing affordability.

According to Dr. Oguguah, another factor that could be responsible for the high cost of fish and sea foods in the country is increased exchange rates, as some of the fishes consumed locally are imported. Mrs. Abiodun-Solanke highlighted the quick perishability of aquatic foods, which contributes to food loss in the absence of proper storage and processing facilities. “Although Nigeria is the largest catfish producer in sub-Saharan Africa, many of the current policies for fish production and consumption require very urgent and comprehensive review. Ensuring strict compliance to regulatory measures to derive the expected benefits from the sector and also improve the safety of fisheries for consumers is crucial,” she said.

Government intervention can go a long way to increase fish supply and improve the lives of fisher folks and fish farmers. “Most of the fisher folks we work with have indicated that they need government interventions including subsidies to improve their productivity. Government should empower fish producers with better fishing vessels that have higher catching power and reduced operating costs. Harvesting machines, gill and entangling nets, and other tools to make fish production easier should be made available to support the activities of fisher folks just as farm inputs are distributed to terrestrial food producers,” said Dr. Oguguah.  

To encourage young people to take up fishing and fish farming engagements, Mrs. Abiodun-Solanke emphasized the need for government to provide enabling environment and incentives through budget allocation to the sector. When it comes to safety, better policy coherence and institutional coordination to make safe aquatic foods available to consumers is essential.

Scaling up local fish markets and establishing cottage fish processing facilities across the country, distributing fish smoking kilns and other processing equipment to fishing communities, and increasing private sector participation in the dissemination of information and training of stakeholders in proper handling, preservation, processing, packaging and storage of aquatic foods are other interventions that can spur growth in the sector, reduce cost and increase fish consumption.

Mojisola Karigidi, a Financial Nigeria Columnist, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources. She is also a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.