Opinion piece: Aquaculture is the most efficient way to use nutrients from small pelagic fish species

An opinion piece was published in Spanish in MisPeces in November 2022

The English version is available below:

With the world’s leaders gathering in Egypt for COP27, discussing implementation of all the provisions of the Paris Agreement and how to avert further negative impacts, we believe it is important to connect climate and nutrition.

Climate change remains the greatest and growing challenge for fisheries with ocean temperatures having already risen considerably, causing fish populations to shift and impacting population growth rates. Impacts are amplified as you move up the food chain: larger species will be most dramatically impacted, with forage fish, also known as small pelagic fish, with lower metabolic rates, being less impacted[i].

A secure future relies on both nutritious and sustainable foods. Farmed fish is the most resource-efficient animal protein on the planet and is considered core to FAO’s Blue Transformation[ii]. To grow farmed fish, fishmeal and fish oil are needed at key stages of their development. "Fishmeal and fish oil are still considered the most nutritious and most digestible ingredients for farmed fish, as well as the major source of omega-3 fatty acids.", the Food and Aquaculture Organisation wrote in its State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2022.

Fishmeal and fish oil are produced mostly from small pelagic species and fish by-products. They are top performers in both dimensions: climate and nutrition.

The small pelagic fisheries are sustaining their biomasses at expected Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) levels. Key to that sustainability has been the rationalisation of fishing effort, most clearly noted by the reduction that occurred across those sectors from about the year 2000 onwards.

Their carbon footprint is much more favorable than that of the vast majority of any other feed ingredients. The carbon footprint for fishmeals and fish oils is most influenced by fuel use during fishing operations. High volume catch per unit effort (CPUE) and a predominance of purse-seine fishing results in most small pelagic fisheries having very low fuel use per tonne capture. If we focus on anchovy, its carbon footprint is less than 8 percent of the CO2 emissions related to feed ingredients compared to land-based ingredients such as soybean (over 90 percent)[iii].

As we all know, carbon footprint is just one metric, and we have been advocating for a more holistic assessment of all feed ingredients to be made considering a full set of parameters such as biodiversity, land use change, water use, etc. The marine ingredients sector has embraced modern environmental assessment methods like lifecycle assessment, because impacts do not just occur at a single point, they occur all through the value-chain. When we use this “apples-against-apples” approach, we can see that marine ingredients actually compare quite well against other ingredients in terms of their environmental costs. This is even more apparent when we consider this on the footprint relative to the nutrient density. To attempt to standardise such assessments and establish an agreed global framework for such assessments, the Global Feed Lifecyle-Assessment Institute (GFLI) was established as an independent database, of which IFFO is a proud member.

Aquaculture is the most effective way to use the nutrients that small pelagic species contain. It is underpinned by a 1:5 multiplier effect: 1 kg of marine raw materials used in aquafeeds gives 5 kg of farmed fish[i]. Small pelagic species can be used otherwise (fresh, canned, frozen), but one has to bear in mind that small pelagic species have specific features which limit the way they can be used: short life span, volatility and seasonal harvesting.

Fishmeal and fish oil accentuate the palatability of feed and provide well rounded nutrition in aquatic diets. Fish oils contained in fatty fish are the most effective way to get
EPA and DHA, which, among omega-3s, EPA and DHA have the most health benefits. As a consequence of aquaculture, humans benefit from fishmeal and fish oil and their exceptional nutritional properties.

The increased use of quota systems to reduce the fishing effort has been successful in improving fish stock status[ii]. Now, it is our responsibility, alongside that of the maritime industry and regulators, to ensure that fisheries management is implemented across all parts of the globe, so the global biomass of small pelagic fish is sustained and can contribute to feeding the world through aquaculture.


[i] Christopher Free, University of California-Santa Barbara, IFFO Conference 2022: https://www.iffo.com/lima-2022-key-takeaways-closing-session

[ii] Speaking at the SDG Media Zone at the Conference in Lisbon, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, Peter Thomson, called aquaculture the “healthiest nutrition for the world”, that holds the “potential to feed our grandchildren and other generations to come, if we do it right”.

[iii] Data from Dr Richard Newton, Stirling University, UK – more available here.