Farmed salmon, but not as you know it
As an aquaculture sector, salmon farming has made considerable progress with regards to implementing new technologies, responsible practices, and achieving commercial success.
Indeed, the technical know-how that now exists in the space has been responsible for a rich stream of feed and nutrition breakthroughs that, in turn, have enabled the fish to penetrate deeper into consumer markets all over the world. Whereas a lot of the main players’ innovation-focus has been on producing more fish and quicker while also utilizing less quantities of limited marine resources like fish oil and fishmeal, one partnership has elected to follow a very different path to establish its place in the market, where the emphasis is not on speed of production – it’s on providing consumers with a healthier and cleaner choice of salmon.
Norwegian salmon producer Kvaroy, feed company BioMar, and seafood distributor Blue Circle Foods (BCF) first came together around four years ago. In 2016, the companies then united with U.S. retailer Whole Foods Market and publically launched the “In the Blue” salmon diet concept. This original feed comprises optimized levels of marine algae and trimmings from wild-caught fish that has been processed for human consumption. But unlike other aquaculture feed ingredients, the “In the Blue” fish oil is put through a special cleaning process to remove environmental contaminants like PCBs and dioxins.
“All of us – Kvaroy, BioMar and Blue Circle Foods – were looking for ways to produce a healthier fish; one that has less contaminants and more omega-3s. That’s really where the idea came from,” David Pilat, vice-president of business development for Blue Circle Foods, told SeafoodSource. “You need a truly innovative farmer like Kvaroy and an innovative feed company like BioMar to make that happen because it is always risky when you change feeds.”
“The three of us are constantly pushing the envelope on sustainability, fish health and what we as consumers are putting into our bodies. The next step was we found a retail partner, Whole Foods Market, who was really interested in the feed. They appreciated what we were doing and were keen to be part of it,” Pilat said.
Available in Whole Foods stores nationwide in the United States, as well as via select retailers and on Amazon since 2017, the fish are sold in fresh and frozen formats.
Through the partnership, the diet has been continually refined and improved over the past two years to the point that the salmon that’s in today’s shopping basket has less contaminants, and with upwards of 2.2g of omega-3s per 100g fillet it has at least twice the fatty acid content of much of the Norwegian or Chilean farmed salmon sold in current markets. At the same time, the fish-in, fish out ratio (FIFO) is at a record-breaking 0.47 to 1.
“It’s about taking salmon back to where it belongs,” said Vidar Gundersen, global sustainability director at BioMar. “Coming from fish and fish oil, omega-3s are a finite resource that have been at their maximum level for the last 30 years, making them both limiting and frustrating, and where an El Niño can lead to the loss of half the fish oil supply.”
“This is not a reliable source at all, and of course with a growing aquaculture industry that’s applying fish feeds containing less and less of the omega-3s that are essential to us and also to the salmon, it just came to the point where we said ‘enough, we have to start restoring the omega-3s.’ Of course, we knew that we had to restore them responsibly and that’s when we started to work with microalgae oil,” Gundersen added.
“We are actually bringing completely new marine omega-3s to the world with this project. It’s very sustainable in so many ways. We have been steadily taking the content up, restoring the omega-3s in salmon to their natural level and even above,” he said.
While the various technologies used to manufacture microalgae have been around for a number of years, cost and scale have typically provided the main stumbling blocks to their commercial application, and that is after significant investment has been made into finding the right strain of algae capable of producing the most omega-3s. Nonetheless, the partners say they have a viable source – a producer in Brazil with a 100,000 metric ton (MT) annual capacity, which ferments the ingredient using local, responsibly-grown sugarcane as a feedstock.
The biggest risk taker in this venture, though, is Kvaroy – a modest-sized, family-run farming business. And company CEO Alf-Goran Knutsen, said that there was a degree of natural trepidation when the new feed was first implemented. However, the business has been rewarded for its leap of faith, with the lowest mortality levels and highest growth rates in its four-decade history.
“It has gone way beyond our initial expectations. The fish are healthier and growing faster than ever, which are big pluses, but as Vidar says, it’s about taking the fish back to where they were in terms of omega-3s; that has had a big effect on their health too. Omega-3 is the main ingredient in the diet and they need that sort of lipids to grow and survive,” Knutsen said.
“I firmly believe that this is the way farming needs to go when it comes to producing salmon. We need to find and use different protein and omega-3 sources that are sustainable to produce these fish,” he said.
Gundersen added that while the diet is unique to Kvaroy and BioMar, the long-term hope is to see all Atlantic salmon farmers use a form of this type of feed, so that they too can provide markets with fish with low contaminant levels and high-omega-3s.
Another key element of the partnership is to educate consumers, so while the stakeholders agree that the product and what has been achieved is probably ahead of large-scale consumer comprehension at this stage, the omega-3 merits are hooking increased public engagement.
“We are at the stage where we are finding lots of consumers that want the cleanest and healthiest fish, and while they may not know how you get that result, they certainly want the product. The omegas are undoubtedly bringing many more people into the conversation,” said Pilat.