June 2022 Editorial

It was revealed earlier in April by a Nofima paper that novel ingredients keep increasing their share in feed for Norwegian farmed salmon but remain at a limited level of 0.4% of all feed ingredients. 

With a share at 20% in 2020, fishmeal and fish oil remain the benchmark in aquafeed. It was never a concern about sustainability which triggered research for novel ingredients, actually, but rather the question around volumes: with more or less five million tonnes of fishmeal and one million tonnes of fish oil produced every year, additional ingredients (40 million tonnes of feed ingredients by 2030) are needed to keep the aquaculture sector growing. Indeed, the total volume of fishmeal and fish oil consumed by aquaculture has increased by more than 30% in the past twenty years from three million to 4.1 million tonnes. 

According to the FAO, out of the 97 million tonnes of fish caught in the wild every year, 22 million tonnes, pelagic species only, which do not have a strong market for direct human consumption, are destined for non-food uses, mainly fishmeal and fish oil. This 22% share is far from some old data pretending that one third of the world fish catch is used for fish oil. But more importantly, fish is not harvested just for the oil. There is no such thing as waste and all parts of a fish should be used, which is an increasing trend.

If we focus on fish oil solely, 51% of it come from fish by-products. With the harvested raw material, that is wild caught fish and fish by-products which would otherwise be discarded, aquaculture is able to produce five times the amount of marine raw materials it consumes. 

Fish oil is a natural source of the omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (EPA and DHA), that are essential nutrients for all vertebrates having important roles in development and in regulating metabolism and physiology. EPA and DHA intakes are important at critical stages in the life cycle of fish.

It would of course be completely wrong and probably quite presumptuous to state that certain activities can avoid impacting the ecosystem. Every activity generates impacts and we have to be mindful of trade-offs. Whatever is sourced in the ocean, be it fish, marine organisms or algae, has a role to play in its natural environment. This is why the vast majority of fisheries are regulated and managed, so that people’s needs for feed can be met without putting natural resources at risk. Fishing is done according to MSY – maximum sustainable yield – defined by scientists as the level of fishing that ensures fish stocks have full reproductive capacity.

There is actually a fine balance to strike so as not to exacerbate the carbon footprint of feed ingredients by moving away from fishmeal and fish oil, which have a low carbon footprint compared with other ingredients.

The evidence from a recent paper is that the impacts on fisheries come from carbon footprint rather than overfishing: In a study by Halpern et al (2019) the authors examined the cumulative impact related to 14 different stressors (e.g., climate change, fishing, terrestrial pollution, etc) and how these impacted 21 different marine ecosystem types over an 11-year period (2003-2013). Of the ecosystems examined in the Halpern et al study, the three most vulnerable each reported almost zero impact associated with any of six different forms of fishing activity. The big threats being those of sea surface temperature and sea-level rise changes. 

When it comes to being bold on assessing costs for ocean life / wild life and mitigating them, let’s first be bold by being transparent: there is a public database on feed ingredients to ensure environmental impacts are assessed in a way which enables for cross sectoral comparisons to be made. Let’s contribute to making this database a comprehensive one so every consumer is able to make an informed choice, consciously.