Is there potential to strengthen the circular economy in Asia?

This article has been published in Frontline of Fisheries - February 2020 issue

China is the world’s biggest fishmeal market, with 1.8 million tons usage in 2018 and the second biggest fishmeal producer country in the world with 520 000 tons in 2018. While seafood produced by aquaculture will continue to expand worldwide, from 50% today to 62% by 2030 (FAO), China will remain the largest aquaculture as well as total feed and aquafeed producer in the world.  China is itself the birthplace of aquaculture, with a long history of producing food from aquatic systems that stretches back more than 2,000 years.

The future will involve a substantial growth in fishmeal production, but this is not available from capture fisheries directly.  Fish processing byproduct has been used by the fishmeal industry since at least the 1970s, and this resource is recognised by the FAO as a major contributor to global food security. Byproducts result from the processing of fish for human consumption, in the form of heads, viscera, frames, skins and others such as tails, fins, scales, mince, blood, etc., and once processed also provide a high quality feed ingredient with high protein content, high digestibility, excellent amino acid and fatty acid profile as well as being rich in a range of micronutrients important for farmed fish health (predominantly vitamins and minerals).  

The Marine ingredients industry has been involved in the circular economy for decades, although the term has only recently come into modern parlance. Of the roughly 20 million tonnes of raw material that is used every year to make 5 million tonnes of fishmeal and 1 million tonnes of fish oil, roughly about a third (c.7 million tonnes) currently comes from the fish processing sector. The rise of vessels becoming equipped with fishmeal plant on board shows that the Industry recognises the importance of the material and is taking steps to use it.  It is a valuable resource.


A research conducted by IFFO with the University of Stirling showed that there is more material available than is currently being used, considering that more than half of a fish often becomes byproduct. As aquaculture grows, there are also more opportunities for byproduct utilisation with even more volume of supply possible ultimately from processed farmed fish. It is a positive development that the fish processing byproduct is increasingly used as raw material to produce fishmeal and fish oil. 

However, there are regional differences in the use of byproducts. Where does Asia stand?

The Stirling report commissioned by IFFO highlighted that the available unutilised byproduct is found mostly in Asia in terms of volume. One of the issues in Asia is the market for live fish and the consumption of the whole fish in homes, because then there is no byproduct available. Interestingly, this may change as there is growth in the middle class in China and elsewhere in Asia: consumers may want to eat their seafood processed to a standard level in the future, which would then create opportunities for centralised processing. Centralised processing makes it easier to collect this byproduct, maintain it at low temperatures (which is crucial for quality), and use it quickly and efficiently in fishmeal and fish oil production thereby securing the optimal value of the material. 

It is interesting to note that in Europe the proportion of byproducts used to produce fishmeal and fish oil is 54% of the raw material, with that increased figure being partly down to improved logistics and practicalities of collection and transfer to fishmeal plants. 

Utilising the byproduct reduces waste and produces high value products that contribute to the improved health of humans and animals. With byproducts, aquaculture will help to support its own development and will continue to contribute to feeding the world with highly nutritious proteins.