Algae-based aquafeed firms breaking down barriers for fish-free feeds

Published on
April 6, 2017

The future of aquaculture lies in fish-free feeds – and it isn’t far away.

At this year’s Seafood Expo North America, leaders from both the aquaculture and aquafeed industries spoke compellingly about the innovations being made – and now marketed – in fish-free feeds.

Historically, aquafeeds have been composed of fishmeal, primarily derived from forage fish. When fed to salmon and other farmed species, forage fish passed on their high omega-3 fatty acid content, and were therefore until recently considered indispensable as an ingredient in aquafeeds. However, in order to feed a growing global population and in response to mounting criticism of the industry’s fish-in, fish-out ratio (FIFO) – the total weight of forage fish compared to the total produced mass of farmed fish – the industry has sought out more sustainable alternatives.

At the Seafood Expo North America panel “The Feed Revolution: Driving Eco-Efficiency and Innovation in Salmon Aquaculture,” the chief executives of several aquafeed and aquaculture companies spoke about the broad consensus in the industry of the need for innovation to spur change in current industry practices.

“There’s a recognition that the current use of marine ingredients is not sustainable for a rapidly growing industry,” Ricardo Garcia, the CEO of Chilean salmon farming firm Camanchaca, told attendees of the session.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been advancements in the sustainability of aquafeed in recent years and decades. According to Carlos Diaz, CEO of BioMar Group, one of the world’s largest aquafeed companies, FIFO decreased from 1.9 in the 1980s to 1.4 in the 1990s, and down to the range of 1.15 to 1.3 in 2016. 

“In 2017, there will be net producers of fish,” Diaz said, meaning a FIFO score under 1.0.

However, demand for farmed fish is expected to double in the next 10 to 15 years, and the world’s forage fish populations may not be able to sustain that level of increased harvesting. Aquafeed companies are therefore looking at alternative solutions – especially fish-free feeds, such as those made with algae, where there have been extraordinary breakthroughs recently.

Working with an algae first discovered in the mangrove swamps of Florida, in the United States, the ingredient company TerraVia has discovered a method of producing long-chain omega-3s, or DHAs, that can augment fish oils currently used in aquafeed. Teaming up with Bunge Limited, TerraVia has created a salmon aquaculture ingredient called AlgaPrime, currently being manufactured in Brazil using sugarcane as a feedstock for the algae. 

“This is about the future,” TerraVia Vice President for Global Sustainability and External Affairs Jill Kauffman Johnson told SeafoodSource about AlgaPrime. “The future growth of aquaculture is dependent on more responsibly sourced ingredients.”

For BioMar, which announced a distribution agreement for AlgaPrime in June 2016, the future is now. Since the agreement, BioMar has significantly increased its sales of its AlgaPrime-incorporated salmon feed, delivering more than 40,000 metric tons from September through March, according to World-Grain.com. And the partnership is now working on developing specialized feeds for other marine species, the article reported.

"We believe AlgaPrime will be a significant contributor to the further development of salmon products with a desirable nutritional profile,” BioMar’s Jan Sverre Røsstad, vice president and head of the company’s almon division, said. “We take pride in driving the sustainability agenda of the industry and are pleased to be the first feed producer to bring this new feed ingredient to our customers while ensuring economies of scale.”

The algae-based aquafeed market is not without competition. Skretting is also in the process of creating an algae-based feed product rich in omega-3s. It’s now in trials with a produced by natural algae from the ocean and cultivated in land-based facilities. The F3 Challenge, a competition between fish-free aquaculture feeds, has led to the development of several promising products. And another partnership announced in February 2017 between two American companies – Phoenix, Arizona-based Heliae and Ferndale, Washington-based Syndel – will result in the mass production and distribution of Nymega, a new algae-based aquaculture feed ingredient also rich in DHAs.

"Aquaculture is a critical source of protein and nutrition to meet the world’s food needs. Aquaculture's importance will continue to rise as the world population grows,” Syndel CEO Chris McReynolds said. “With this continued growth and expansion of aquaculture, the need for high performing and nutritious feeds will be imperative to the industry and their ability to deliver to the consumer a high-quality, DHA-rich finished product.”

Garcia, of Camanchaca, said on his panel at Seafood Expo North America that the price of fish-free feed is still a major impediment to wider implementation, but that the gap is narrowing.

“We are very much an industry that is cost-driven,” he said. “Cost is a big factor in buying feeds. But if a feed can bring better conversion rates, it will definitely get attention.”

Michael Tlusty, the Director of Ocean Sustainability Science at the New England Aquarium, said during the expo panel that fish-free feeds are vital to the world’s future.

“In coming years, we’re going to need 40 million metric tons of seafood annually to feed 2 billion additional people, and we just can’t squeeze more resources out of the rocks,” Tlusty said. 

Progress on fish-free feeds will be incremental and requires proactive engagement from the aquaculture industry, Tlusty said.

“It’s a wide river and we’re not going to be able to jump over it in one leap. But there are innovations out there now and more being developed that are very promising,” Tlusty said. “The industry needs to step up and support them.”

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