The aquafeed dilemma

Feeding fish

The industry knows that we need to find alternative ingredients for aquafeed, but will consumers have a problem with that?

One of the North Atlantic’s key fish stocks is in crisis. Coastal states are stuck in a deadlock over quotas for blue whiting, a migratory pelagic fish that is valued as food for humans and as a source of fishmeal and fish oil.

A coalition of businesses, North Atlantic Pelagic Advocacy (NAPA) Group, is calling on the squabbling nations to sit down and thrash out a deal as a matter of urgency or the blue whiting fishery will no longer be considered “sustainable”.

So, why does any of this matter to fish farmers? Whiting is a key marine ingredient for aquafeed, and NAPA represents the biggest names in feed for the aquaculture industry. “Unsustainable” fish stocks cannot be used by a feed supplier looking to establish its credentials as “responsible” and, in particular, suppliers fear that their certification under schemes like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council could be put at risk. Ultimately, it could mean that their biggest customers would not be able to buy feed derived from potentially endangered stocks.

The impasse on blue whiting involves seven states – the European Union (negotiating as a single entity), Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom.

For several years these parties have been unable to agree quota allocations, so they have individually set their own catch quotas.

Unfortunately, these add up to more than 100% of what scientists say is a sustainable total.

Anchovies

Anchovies

Because of the failure to agree on quotas, the Marine Stewardship Council suspended its certification for Atlantic blue whiting in 2020, but NAPA stepped in with a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) which offers a route to sustainability through better management of the stocks.

This FIP is due to end in October 2024. Without any agreement on the part of coastal states, blue whiting will no longer be certified as sustainable – and therefore it will be off limits to the big aquafeed suppliers and their customers.

In an open letter to the Oslo government last month, NAPA is calling upon Norway to meet with fish feed producers and reflect seriously upon its own sustainability commitments. The alternative will be that the producers will have to boycott the whiting fishery altogether.

Speaking in April at Seafood Expo Global in Barcelona, Dave Robb, Sustainability Lead with the Cargill Aqua Nutrition Group, said: “Without a science-based sharing arrangement between coastal states, blue whiting cannot be used for Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) feeds.

“At Cargill, we are obliged to source fish sustainably, just as salmon producers and other aquaculture businesses are obliged to purchase certified feed. There is very little time left for change. We are preparing for a future where we must fundamentally change the sources of marine ingredients we use.”

Feed pellets

Feed pellets

Why fish feed is less fishy
As Mowi’s Salmon Handbook 2024 points out, feed for salmonids was once heavily dependent on marine ingredients. Unpredictability of supply, and related high prices for fish meal and fish oil, have led fish farmers to look for alternatives and now vegetable protein and vegetable oil represent a substantial percentage of typical salmon feed.

In Norway, for example, fish oil and fish meal combined accounted for just 30% of aquafeed last year.

Atlantic salmon can grow and be healthy as long as they have the right combination of protein, amino acids, vitamins and other nutrients.

They do not have to come exclusively from marine ingredients, but the more these are reduced, the more specialised alternative ingredients – such as algal oil, containing the long chain fatty acids known collectively as “Omega-3” – are required.

As the handbook points out, the supply of fish oil and fishmeal is volatile, and this is reflected in the price. Last year in Peru’s second anchovy season – an absolutely vital part of the world market – only 6,000 tonnes of fish oil was produced.

IFFO, the international organisation representing the marine ingredients industry, says that for the first three months of 2024, global fishmeal production dropped by approximately 27% compared to the same period in 2023.

This decrease was driven by the early onset of the second fishing season in Peru’s North-Central region back in 2023, along with a lower-than-average granted quota, resulting in a diminished catch at the tail of the fishing season at the beginning of 2024.

In contrast, Chile, the USA and the African countries have been showing a positive trend in fishmeal production compared to 2023.

As for fish oil, IFFO says, globally, cumulative output through March 2024 was 30% down year over year, mostly due, here again, to the timing of the Peruvian fishing season last year. In 2024 so far, the USA and the African countries are the only ones that have registered a positive trend compared to January-March 2023.

Meanwhile the argument is often made that using forage fish for animal and aquafeed risks depriving local communities of a nutritious food source.

Of course, plant-based ingredients are not entirely free from volatility. In 2022 wheat prices spiked, for example, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there are also questions about the sustainability of soya crops if mass deforestation is required to grow them.

It’s not surprising, then, that there has been a concerted effort to find alternative protein sources. Insects fed on agricultural by-products, myco-protein derived from fungi and single-cell microbes are all being actively explored, to name just three.

But will consumers balk at eating fish fed on unusual ingredients?

The yuck factor
A recent study by Norwegian research institute Nofima, with the retail group Auchan, found that consumers know very little about what the fish they eat actually eat themselves.

Consulting company Insightquest conducted a consumer survey in France, using focus groups, on behalf of Nofima and Auchan. The survey was conducted in the autumn of 2023 with 24 French consumers between 20 and 45 years of age, from different backgrounds, who all stated that they occasionally buy salmon.

“The respondents loved eating salmon, but did not know much about the fish”, says Katerina Kousoulaki, a senior scientist at Nofima.

Fishing trawler

Fishing trawler

She is currently leading a project aimed at creating sustainable salmon feed from algae and insect meal.  This is why she has been listening in on focus groups where French consumers of salmon have discussed their beliefs and thoughts.

“My impression is that we need to educate the consumers”, says Kousoulaki.

It turns out that consumers know very little about Norwegian salmon. What’s more, they think they “know” several things that are in fact wrong:
“Everyone was sure that farmed salmon contains lots of antibiotics – which is not correct. They like to eat salmon, but they don’t know much about how it is produced,” Kousoulaki adds.

When even existing knowledge is lacking, it makes it even more challenging to talk about feed with new raw materials.

“If you ask people what salmon eat in the wild, many will answer ‘algae’ and ‘shrimp’. However, salmon don’t eat algae, and they don’t eat much shrimp, either. They mainly feed on fish, and upriver they feed on insects,” she explains.

“Many of the surveyed consumers had a positive attitude towards using algae in fish feed but did not think that insects were a natural food for the salmon.”

François Saulais, international coordinator for the seafood division of Auchan, commented: “Our customers’ knowledge about the products they buy is not as good as we would like. This does not come as a surprise to us; the only surprise is that more people than we thought believe that fish farmers use antibiotics and growth hormones, a misconception we need to address.”

Sandra Bretagne, a leading partner in Insightquest, is confident that it is possible for consumers to accept salmon being fed more insects and algae – but it will take time and focused communication efforts.

She argues: “We need to start the communication on a very basic level. Consumers have little knowledge about industrial processes.”

It seems that it is not just the fish that need to be persuaded to accept novel ingredients.

WorldFeeds  Reed Mariculture

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