2 min readMicronutrients ‘Slipping Through Hands’ of Malnourished People

Douglas, Australia — Millions of people across the globe 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 today.

Scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU) are part of an international team that found children in many tropical coastal areas could see significant health improvements if just a fraction of the fish caught nearby was diverted into their diets.

Co-author Dr. David Mills from Coral CoE at JCU is a senior scientist with WorldFish. He says fish is an important source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and calcium. 

“Yet, more than two billion people worldwide suffer from micronutrient deficiencies,” he said.

For some nations these deficiencies–linked to maternal mortality and stunted growth through childhood–are estimated to reduce GDP by up to 11 percent.

Lead author Prof Christina Hicks started the project when she was a research fellow at Coral CoE at JCU. The study suggests enough nutrients are already being fished from the oceans to substantially reduce malnutrition–but in some countries they are not reaching local populations, who are often those most in need.

“Our research shows that the nutrients currently fished from their waters exceed the dietary requirements for all under five-year olds living along their coasts,” Prof Hicks said.

“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 team of 11 researchers recorded the concentration of seven nutrients in more than 350 species of marine fish and developed a statistical model to predict how much nutrition any given species of fish contains. This was based on their diet, sea water temperature and energy expenditure.

The predictive modelling allowed researchers to accurately calculate the likely nutrient composition of thousands of fish species that were never nutritionally analysed before. 

They used this model to quantify the global distribution of nutrients available from existing marine fisheries. This information was then compared with the prevalence of nutrient deficiencies around the world. 

Parts of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean were some of the regions with high malnutrition despite sufficient fish nutrients in the national catches.

Researchers say that a complex picture of international and illegal fishing and trade in seafood is standing between malnourished people and the more-than-adequate fish nutrients caught on their doorstep.

“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 Mills said.

Co-author Dr Philippa Cohen, a WorldFish partner investigator of Coral CoE at JCU, said the research clearly shows that the way fish are distributed needs to be carefully examined. 

“Currently many of the world’s fisheries are managed to get the most revenue, often by directing 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,” Dr Cohen said. 

“By contrast, where collaborative management or co-management is in place, fisheries catches and value chains are in the hands, and reaching the mouths, of local populations.”

Dr. Mills said this highlights the need for fisheries policies focused on improving nutrition rather than simply increasing volumes of fish harvested or produced or the revenues generated from fish exports.

“As the demand for ocean resources increases up to the limit of what can be harvested sustainably in many instances, research initiatives like this show that there are opportunities to fish and distribute fish strategically to address fundamental challenges to human health and wellbeing,” he said.

Article adapted from a ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies news release.

Publication: Harnessing global fisheries to tackle micronutrient deficiencies. Hicks, CC et al. Nature (September 25, 2019): Click here to view.

Fish, malnutrition, micronutrient

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