IFFO Responds to fishmeal article published in The Salt

Following an article titled '90 Percent Of Fish We Use For Fishmeal Could Be Used To Feed Humans Instead' published in the Salt, IFFO's Andrew Mallison responded with the following:

Thank you for your article on the use of fish for direct human consumption (DHC) or as ingredient for animal feed. As you mentioned, the types of fish that are caught but not used for DHC are usually the unwanted varieties (for good reason) and I agree “unwanted” can and does change.

I read the paper you quoted, which estimates the amount of fish caught for Direct Human Consumption (DHC) and for conversion into Fishmeal and Fish Oil (FMFO) and questions whether the percentage of fish for DHC could be increased. Due to the basic assumption that fish is better consumed directly than indirectly (e.g. the use of fishmeal in farmed animals, including farmed fish, diets) and that much of the fish is of a quality suitable for DHC, there is a prima facie case raised for increasing the quantity of global catch used for DHC.

However, this question has been asked many times and is well researched. In reality, free market forces regulate the ratio between uses. Returns for the fishers are typically greater when selling to DHC and this trend is acknowledged in the paper, quoting 30% of catch in the 1990’s going for FMFO reducing to around 18% by 2010, a trend we expect to continue. The reduction in whole fish entering FMFO production has been offset by an increased recovery of processing by-product, to the extent that around 35% of the total raw material used to produce FMFO is now from recycled waste products. Many companies that process FMFO also produce products for DHC where possible, allowing a rapid response to divert raw material to DHC as markets emerge.

Markets for DHC can also decline. The North Atlantic Herring was a staple of the British diet in the post war era, but fell from grace as other more convenient choices of protein became available. Landings were then used for fishmeal production until another market swing around 2000, when West African, East European and Russian markets opened and landings switched again into DHC production.

However, experience has shown that, even with subsidies or other market distortions, the many choices of convenient fish and non-fish proteins available today makes it exceptionally difficult to persuade consumers to change eating habits in favour of those small bony fish mainly used for FMFO production. After many years and dollars of promoting the consumption of Anchoveta in Peru, and with local communities in need of good nutrition, the percentage of the catch used for DHC is still less than 3% at around 150,000 tonnes. It would be interesting to know how much Anchoveta, Menhaden or Sand Eel is eaten by the authors of the paper.

A significant factor not considered by the paper is the capacity of the market to absorb the high and peaking volumes of catch. In Peru, the Anchoveta fishery is well managed but by nature is seasonal, with millions of tonnes being landed in two seasons each of approximately 3 months. The local DHC market is unable to absorb this quantity fresh, and preserving e.g. through freezing, adds costs and distribution requirements that make this option non-viable. This situation is similar in other small pelagic fisheries which are seasonal, where the cost of landed fish is low, the relative cost of preservation high and conversion into ambient stable, dried protein and oil is the only option.

The paper recommends “..greater steps towards the efficient use of our limited ocean resources to feed humans directly, instead of indirectly via fattening farmed fish, chicken and pigs” but does not support this with a comparison of the health benefits arising from increased fish consumption resulting from aquaculture, or the economic contribution aquaculture makes in developing world countries and rural economies. Marine feed ingredients have allowed the modern aquaculture industry to develop and become established, which is now recognised as a great contributor to global food security and rural and developing world economies.

It is also likely that the health of many consumers who prefer not to eat fish and instead take Omega 3 Fish Oil supplements would be prejudiced if Fish Oil production declined.
The position of IFFO and its members is that marine products like Fishmeal and Fish Oil have a significant role to play in human nutrition, whether directly via Fish Oil supplements or indirectly via use in feed to produce farmed animals for which there is clear demand. We believe markets should be allowed to operate freely to allocate raw materials for processing to markets that offer the best returns for the producer, whether for DHC or indirect use.

Yours sincerely,
Andrew Mallison

Director General, IFFO