Aquaculture plays a critical role in today’s food system. It provides consumers around the world with a vital source of protein, eases the exploitation of marine resources, and creates employment opportunities in several developing countries. But given its rapid pace of expansion, it is time we ask if there is enough wild-sourced feed to nourish all the fish we’re farming.
What do farmed fish eat?
Aquaculture involves breeding and growing fish in a captive environment. For fish farms to be productive and yield high volumes of good quality produce, the fish need to be fed a diet that fulfils their nutritional requirements. Herbivorous fish subsist on feeds made from a mixture of plant-based protein like soy, vegetable oils, and mineral and vitamin supplements.1 Carnivorous fish eat other fish in the wild and therefore, fish meal makes up a large (30-50%) component of their diet.1
What is fish meal?
Fish meal is a commercially important protein-rich flour made by cooking, pressing, drying, and grinding fish and fish by-products.2 Fish oil, obtained by pressing cooked fish and centrifuging the liquid, is also used in aquaculture feed for carnivorous fish because it provides fats and various micronutrients.2 Being an excellent source of nucleotides, essential fatty acids, and phospholipids, fish oil plays a crucial role in a nutritious diet for many farmed fish.3 It also contains important minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, and iodine as well as water and fat-soluble vitamins.3 Fish oil is a natural source of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoicacid (DHA) – less formally known as omega-3 oils.3 Ingredients that go into the feed are often combined and transformed into pellets that resemble pet food.
The largest consumers of commercial aquaculture feeds are estimated to be carp species, followed by tilapia, shrimp, catfish, and salmon.4 A majority of commercially successful aquaculture fish are omnivorous or carnivorous and their diets, therefore, include fish meal and fish oil.
Is current fish feed unsustainable?
Forage species such as herring, sardine, anchovy, and mackerel are sourced from marine waters specifically for producing fish meal and oil. Given the steep rise in the number of aquaculture farms around the world, research indicates that our oceans may not be able to meet the feed demands of the sector in the years to come.5 Besides aquaculture, these fish are highly sought-after raw materials for the pet food, animal feed, pharmaceutical, and nutraceutical sectors.2,5 This pushes fishers to catch more fish than what is sustainable. To meet the growing demand, some fishing companies are known to use illegal methods to procure fish, such as not respecting conservation requirements and exploiting workers.
Besides exerting immense pressure on marine resources, fish meal production also impacts food security. It is estimated that around 90% of the fish used for producing fish meal are food grade and therefore fit for direct consumption by humans.5 In developing and least developed countries, fishing companies are often tempted to export forage fish for fish meal instead of selling it for local consumption. In West Africa, for instance, an increasing volume of catches are being turned into fishmeal for export.2 These fish have been traditionally consumed by local populations.
Are there any alternatives?
Replacing fish meal and oil in aquaculture feeds is challenging because they are the most nutritious and digestible ingredients for many farmed fish species.2 However, it is clear that relying solely on ocean-sourced forage fish is not a sustainable way to meet the needs of the aquaculture sector. Using by-products of wild-caught fish instead of the whole fish is promoted as a way to keep using fish meal and oil in aquaculture feeds without exploiting our oceans and compromising access to food. Currently, 27% of all fish meal and 48% of fish oil are estimated to be produced from by-products and these numbers are expected to grow in the years to come.2 Aquaculture farmers are also being more selective about using fish meal and oil.2 Fish may be fed these ingredients at certain stages of the production cycle such as hatching and finishing more than the others. Next to using fish meal and oil more selectively, some other methods to make aquaculture feeds more sustainable have been suggested as well.
Microalgae are found in abundant quantities in oceans and form a vital part of wild fish diets. When consumed live, they provide fish with nearly all essential nutrients such as polyunsaturated fats, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.7 Algae such as Spirulina, Chlorella sp., Scenedesmus sp., Dunaliella sp., and Nannochloropsis sp. are widely used as additives in feed for fish, prawn larvae, crustaceans, and molluscs.7 Research on microalgae confirms that it shows the potential to completely replace fish oil in the diets of important aquaculture species such as salmon, catfish, and grouper.3 However, the biggest bottleneck in using microalgae on a large scale is the storage and maintenance of live cultures, with the taste and uptake by fish being another notable hurdle.7
Similar to pigs and chickens, many omnivorous fish are capable of thriving on a diet composed of food scraps and leftovers. Experiments involving partial replacement of traditional feeds with food waste have shown that fish like the orange-spotted grouper and Nile tilapia adapt well to such diets.8 However, these fish were fed selected waste streams like bakery products and fish market waste while carefully checking nutritional composition.8 In reality, food waste is a heterogenous biomass and sorting and checking nutritional composition is not always feasible. However, feed producers around the world have shown that suitable feed safety laws combined with animal nutrition expertise make it possible to create nutritious, safe, and sustainable feed from food waste.9 Following the footsteps of countries such as Japan and South Korea, the European Union recently allowed waste streams containing animal-source products to be used in fish feed.10
Insects are a relatively sustainable source of protein because they can be farmed using few resources and with low greenhouse gas emissions. Silkworm (Bombyx mori), black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), housefly (Musca domestica), yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor), and house cricket (Acheta domesticus) are some of the most promising insects for use in aquafeed.11 For reasons related to digestibility and amino acid composition, insect meals can only replace 30% or less fish meal in aquafeeds. However, current production levels cannot supply insect meals in large enough quantities to meet the sector’s feed requirements. Developing legal frameworks and cost-effective supply chains and production infrastructure can help close the demand and supply gap.
Genetically Modified Microorganisms
Researchers have been working on developing plant-based feeds that can entirely replace fish meal and oil. Soybean meal is a popular ingredient in such feeds due to its high protein content but its antinutritional properties do not allow wide usage.7 By applying bioengineering techniques, it is possible to breed soybeans that lack this antinutritional element.6 It is also possible to fortify soybeans with beneficial pigments like β-carotene.7 Other genetically modified organisms that have shown promising results for use in aquaculture feed include camelina (Camelina sativa; false flax), yeast (Yarrowia lipolytica), algae, and metabolically engineered diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum.3 However, genetic modification of living organisms is strictly regulated or even prohibited in most countries around the world. Implementing this technology to improve aquafeed can take several decades.
What does the future hold?
From the ongoing research and pilot projects, it is clear that the global aquaculture industry is aware of the consequences of relying on fish meal and oil and is striving to move towards more sustainable feed. In the years to come, we can expect to see improved techniques for the mass production of these sustainable ingredients, the discovery of new ingredients, and strides in the field of fish nutrition to enable the development of better-quality feeds.3 Given aquaculture’s critical role in feeding our growing population, this progress will play a significant role in achieving the FAO’s ‘Blue Transformation’ – a vision for sustainably transforming aquatic food systems.
5.Sarker, P. K., Kapuscinski, A. R., McKuin, B., Fitzgerald, D. S., Nash, H. M., & Greenwood, C. (2020). Microalgae-blend tilapia feed eliminates fishmeal and fish oil, improves growth, and is cost viable. Scientific reports, 10(1).
6.Rao, M., Bilić, L., Duwel, J., Herentrey, C., Lehtinen, E., Lee, M., … & de Boer, A. (2021). Let Them Eat Fish!—Exploring the Possibility of Utilising Unwanted Catch in Food Bank Parcels in The Netherlands. Foods, 10(11), 2775.
8.Ansari, F. A., Guldhe, A., Gupta, S. K., Rawat, I., & Bux, F. (2021). Improving the feasibility of aquaculture feed by using microalgae. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 28(32), 43234-43257.
10.Commission Regulation (EU) 2021/1372 of 17 August 2021 amending Annex IV to Regulation (EC) No 999/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council as regards the prohibition to feed non-ruminant farmed animals, other than fur animals, with protein deriv