For Mother’s Day in my house, we enjoyed a nice fish dinner – it was a delicious meal in celebration of the special day! This is a luxury we are fortunate to enjoy but, in many places, fish are beyond luxury; they are absolutely vital to maternal health.
Pregnant and lactating women, as well as their young children, have the greatest nutritional needs of any population demographic due to the critical role of micronutrients and essential fatty acids in fetal and child growth and development. During the short window from conception through a child’s second birthday (i.e., the first 1,000 days of life), the brain grows more quickly than at any other time in life. Poor nutrition during this time can cause irreversible damage and delays where, ultimately, children do not meet milestones on time and cannot meet their developmental potential (for more, see Cusick and Georgieff 2016). These consequences have significant repercussions for health and well-being throughout their lifetimes.
Fish consumption contributes to cognitive development during these most crucial first 1,000 days of life (FAO 2020). Research studies (e.g., Fiorella et al. 2018, Kawarazuka 2010) show the value of fish as a dietary-derived source of essential fatty acids which is passed along to babies via breastmilk. Processed fish products can also help deliver the micronutrient-dense benefits of fish as dietary supplements such as fish powders, wafers, and chutneys.
Small-scale fisheries often have an out-sized role to play in getting fish to mothers and their young children, especially in the most vulnerable communities. Often fish are the best, if not only, available resource for these essential nutrients. Using inland fisheries as an example, at least 43% of the world’s inland fish capture comes from 50 low-income food deficit countries (FAO 2020). Over 90% of inland capture fisheries are for direct human consumption, most in low-income countries, providing high nutritional content where other quality food items are limited due to poverty and access (Welcomme et al. 2010).
Any way to get a diversity of fish to pregnant and lactating women, as well as their small children, is a boon to nutrition and an investment in the future. Global initiatives, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which prioritize maternal health recognize the direct link to broader social equity, economic productivity, and well-being. These policy positions make an explicit commitment in saying when mothers and children thrive, broader society flourishes because of them.