Are alternatives to fish oil really more sustainable?
A recent event which claimed that a new alternative source of omega-3s in aquafeeds is more sustainable than fish oil was “misleading”, according to Neil Auchterlonie, Technical Director of IFFO.
The global annual supply of fish oil, at c.1 million tonnes or a little under, is not enough to meet the demand of the growing aquaculture industry. That much is clear. IFFO acknowledges the importance of alternative ingredients for both fishmeal and fish oil in support of aquaculture, but within its “As Well As, Not Instead Of” approach to the presence of those other ingredients in the marketplace.
The important thing to recognise is the need for a basket of ingredients for fish and animal feed in the future, and the requirement for those industries to work together and be supportive in achieving the goal of improved protein supply. Progress will be hindered where one sector attempts to advance its own product at the expense of another – and particularly where the information provided on that sector is inaccurate.
Although inclusion rates have declined over time, as a response to global supply and natural fluctuations in raw material availability, fishmeal and fish oil remain essential nutrients in aquafeeds to meet the requirements of many farmed aquatic species. The other aquafeed ingredients currently incorporated or planned for incorporation in the future, should be complementary to the marine ingredients that are the foundation for modern fed aquaculture systems. Overall, such a complementary approach supports the need for additional protein supply for humanity, provided by aquatic systems with all the environmental benefits that come from fish production when compared with terrestrial farming systems, such as improved feed conversion ratios and protein utilisation efficiencies.
Papers such as that produced by Sprague et al., 2016 highlight that fish oil, and the provision of omega-3 fatty acids in particular, may be the ingredient at the forefront of a restriction to the supply of aquafeed ingredient requirements. It is therefore no surprise that companies focus on alternatives to produce these much-needed compounds in an attempt to augment the annual supply that is already produced by the fishmeal industry.
However, a recent event in Bergen which outlined a joint venture by DSM and Evonik, which aims to provide material that alleviates some of that pressure on omega-3 fatty acid supply, was misplaced in its attempt to position this alternative as a more sustainable option than fish oil. An example of the negative messaging is the statement that the algal oil will be produced “to keep up with the increasing demand for EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids without endangering fish stocks, while contributing to healthy animal nutrition as well as to the ecological balance and biodiversity of the oceans” (emphasis mine). Further we come across reference to: “high purity, free from fish-based ingredients and genetic modification”, “by replacing fish oil by the algal oil, the fish-in fish-out ratio could substantially be reduced”, “1kg of …algal oil can replace 60kg wild catch fish”, “our joint venture contributes to five United Nations Sustainable Development Goals” (one of which is No.14, Life Below Water). Over 40% of the world’s fishmeal supply comes from sources certified as sustainable.
The implication from the Bergen presentation is that fish oil is in some way environmentally-damaging, impure as an ingredient, and its use in aquafeeds is thus questionable. At IFFO we find this approach and implication inaccurate, and, given the context and location of the event the wording may also be described as inappropriate. Bergen could be viewed as the capital of the salmon farming industry in Norway, an industry that was built on fishmeal and fish oil. Algal oil production may, at some point, reach an annual production volume that reaches the quantity of fish oil – and that is very much needed for aquaculture – but it is several years from that position and should not seek support at the expense of an industry that has actually created a market for its own product, with misinformed and poorly researched statements.
IFFO has been representing the fishmeal industry since 1959, so we have experience and knowledge about the sector developed over several decades, and have been countering any inaccurate information that has been circulating about the industry equally as long. We understand the pattern of raw material supply into production and communicate extensively on the subject. Many of the whole fish used for fishmeal and fish oil production are the small pelagic species originating from the forage fish stocks. They are typically characterised as fast-growing, early maturing species, for which there are no direct human consumption markets (if there were then they would be used for this as prices are better). They are comparatively easily managed fisheries (in comparison to more complex multiple stock fisheries), and recent science is now showing that stock levels are largely driven by environmental factors (rather than fishing) and that the impact of fishing on mammalian and avian predators (eg dolphins, seals, pelicans) is much less than has previously been stated. Current estimates, however, are that globally about 67% of the raw material supply comes from whole fish – the remaining proportion comes from the processed byproduct from other seafood (frames, heads, offal, trimmings, etc) and so is an excellent technique for producing a product that supports global food production from an unutilised resource. The percentage of byproduct used in production varies by region, and there are notable variations around this figure, such as Europe, in which a figure of 54% from byproduct has been calculated.
Finally, with regard to the certification of the available ingredients for aquafeed and other animal feeds available, it is interesting to note that the global supply of fishmeal and fish oil significantly outperforms other feed ingredient supply when it comes to the volumes of certified product available. The industry can quote a volume of certified product supply that currently exceeds 40% with a continued upward trend that is supported by the use of Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) as a mechanism that brings advances in fisheries management, and progression in marine ecosystem and socio-economic sustainability. In this way, the developing industry is actually enhancing the marine environment.
The developing algal industry is some way from achieving this kind of environmental performance, and will not be without its own environmental impacts (eg energy use) for which it could equally be criticised.