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The Race to Find Fish Feeds That Don’t Bankrupt the Ocean

Wild fisheries are stable at best and declining at worst. That means we need aquaculture to meet the world’s growing demand for protein. And to feed the world sustainably, the industry has to figure out how to feed farmed fish without using wild fish stocks.

Fish feed stood out in our Fish 2.0 Market Report research as a huge opportunity for innovation. Most farmed fish need some form of prepared feed to grow, and fish feed prices are on the rise as demand strongly outpaces supply. The aquaculture industry has doubled over the past 20 years, but it is still using fish feeds developed in the 1990s. It’s time for a new approach.

Fish destined for fish meal or feed in Vietnam
Fish destined for fish meal or feed in Vietnam

This is why the F3 Fish-Free Feed Challenge caught my eye. F3 essentially sets up a race to become a major player in the alternative fish feed market. Competitors sign up, send in a sample of their feed for analysis, and if it’s accepted as seafood-free, start recording their sales. A $200,000 prize goes to the company that sells the most fish-free feed by September 15, 2017, or to the first one to sell 100,000 metric tons of feed—about 5,000 truckloads.

When the registration period closed, I was excited to see that 19 competitors had signed up for the challenge. That inspired me to call Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor of environmental science at the University of Arizona and former president of the World Aquaculture Society, who helped organize the challenge and is one of its three judges. I asked him about the companies and trends he is seeing in F3.

What kinds of companies are participating?

“We’ve got some of the really big feed companies and some of the smaller, more boutique outfits that make specialized feeds. Htoo Thit is the largest feed company in Myanmar, which has a big aquaculture industry. We’re excited about them being involved. We also have a couple of the biggest feed companies in China, Guangdong Evergreen Feed Industry and Tongwei Hainan Aquatic Products. Southern China and Southeast Asia are the nexus of most food aquaculture, so having them involved is really critical.

“Then there’s Star Milling of California, which is working with a trout farm in Northern California that sells to high-end restaurants. They make algae-based feed products, and are looking at pistachio meal and some other nut meals and byproducts.

“In Thailand, a smaller feed company partnered up with a shrimp farm, Sureerath Prawns, and is looking at organic, sustainable feeds as a way to differentiate themselves. And [California-based] Calysta, which makes single-cell proteins, has partnered with Cargill, one of the biggest players in making fish feed around the world. This is part of the puzzle we’re really keen to see—new ingredient suppliers pairing up with the big feed companies.”

Farmed prawns
Farmed prawns

Why do you think these companies are drawn to the challenge?

“It’s a disparate group, but they’re all very much interested in being ahead of the curve. They all recognize that fish meal and fish oil are becoming more expensive, and there are likely to be restrictions on their use from regulations or social pressure. If they can find alternative ingredients that are more sustainable, that’s really where they’d like to go and where we hope we can provide some stimulus.”

If they’re not making fish feed with seafood, then what are the sources of essential nutrients?

“The soy bean people have been real supporters of this contest because there are so many different soy products—concentrates, oil, meal—and some of them are pushing 70 percent protein. Camelina, an oil seed that’s grown in the northern U.S., is getting a trial.

“On the insect side, people are looking at black solider flies, crickets and meal worms. We’re also seeing poultry byproducts.

Photo courtesy of Entofood and Fish 2.0
Photo courtesy of Entofood and Fish 2.0

For example, you can treat feathers with acids to make a protein concentrate.

“A couple of outfits—Calysta is one—are looking at bacteria called methanotrophs, which feed on methane. We’re trying to get rid of that, so that’s good, and you can grow them in large amounts.”

Why has it taken so long to develop non-seafood based feeds?

“Part of it is that farmers are conservative. They’ve been told that fish meal and fish oil are necessary in aquaculture feeds, so they’re leery of trying something new. There’s plenty of research that shows there are a lot of good feeds, but most fish farmers don’t read the Journal of Fish Biology. We’re hoping this competition will generate interest and publicity.”

Who are the prize sponsors?

“Over $140,000 of the prize funds have been crowdsourced. Co-sponsors include the University of Arizona, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the New England Aquarium, and the World Bank. It’s been great to see a broad range of international support for this.”

What are your long term goals for F3?

“We would like to see a new niche product developed—fish meal–free seafood. It would be the equivalent of grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. If we can get some of that product out there and generate enough interest from the public to ask for it, farmers are going to be more willing to jump on the bandwagon and use the feed.

“Developing and adopting fish-free feeds is necessary for the aquaculture industry to become more sustainable and is a big step in protecting marine life. We can’t just keep trashing one fishery after another. Aquaculture is growing so fast we’ve got to find these alternatives.”

He is absolutely right. I’m looking forward to seeing how F3 turns out and if any these companies can move the needle on sustainable seafood production.

Comments

  1. John Martinez
    Calif.
    June 30, 12:01 pm

    My main concern with non-fish fish feed is the fact that this idea is taking into a non-holistic view of aquaculture. Have we not learned what happens when we feed animals food they have not eaten in their natural habitats? The result is a less naturally healthy food. The reason fish is considered a “better” source of animal protein is their nutrition profile. This will surely change in the move to corn and soybeans. Why not work on identifying a way to feed fish sustainably with fish stocks that aren’t depleting oceans?

  2. Tres English
    Tucson AZ
    June 6, 6:33 pm

    Does anyone know about using plants that are high in Omega-3s as worm food that can be fed to fish? Do they pass thru to the fish?

  3. Art S.
    California
    May 27, 3:24 pm

    Nice article and interesting competition.
    The controversy around fish meal use in aquaculture has been around for decades, ever since farmed salmon started taking off. The argument was “why should we use fish meal in aquaculture when aquaculture should be producing fish, and not consuming fish”. Something that stood out to me was that for many years the majority of fish meal was used to feed pigs and chickens, and by some estimates, up to 50% of fish meal produced was used for this purpose as recently as 2009. Why isn’t there more focus on this practice? Fish is a natural food for other fish, not so for pigs and chickens.
    Also, if fish farmers aren’t allowed to use any fish meal or oil, what will happen to the healthy omega 3 fatty acid content of the farmed fish we eat?

  4. Randy Hartnell
    Bellingham, Washington
    May 26, 1:41 pm

    Your question about nutrients is a good one. Especially essential brain building marine omega-3 fats that make seafood the ultimate “brain food.” As far as I know you’re going to have a hard time getting DHA from soy and other grain-based options, though perhaps GMO options could solve this? Shellfish aquaculture that requires nobody has tremendous potential.

  5. Maureen C. Berry
    Kentucky
    May 26, 12:14 pm

    Monica! Terrific interview.
    This. “…regulations or social pressure.” Wouldn’t it be grand if regulations AND social pressure equaled change? There is hope for the future of sustainable fish feed. I’m following too. Thanks.