First study of Southeast Asian fishmeal industry shows path to sustainability

The first comprehensive look at the fishmeal industry across Thailand and Vietnam was released 26 April, providing recommendations for achieving a sustainable supply chain. 

The study, executed through a partnership between the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) and the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO), gathered data for 10 months from both countries and took a deep look at the way the region’s fishmeal sector has operated for decades.  Through the study, the report created some recommendations for how members of the industry and nonprofits can cooperate to improve the sustainability of the fishmeal industry in the region. 

“The fishmeal industry is generally more familiar with the cold-water ecosystems off countries like Peru in the North Atlantic,” Duncan Leadbetter, director of Australia-based fisheries and natural resource consulting company Fish Matter, and the lead on the project during a webinar reviewing the report’s findings. “The warm tropical waters in Asia are less well-known.”

The goal of the report, said Neil Auchterlonie, technical director at IFFO, is to eliminate that lack of familiarity and use that to create a plan for the fishery moving forward.

“A lot of people know what the challenges are, but what IFFO and GAA were seeking to get out of this is additional information that we can then use to identify areas of action or recommendation, or how to take this further forward,” he said. “There’s important cultural and historical frameworks that have been developed. There’s a real complexity of detail that’s important to understand.”

One of the key differences between the fishmeal and reduction fisheries in cold-water countries and those in the warm-waters of Southeast Asia is the numbers of different species the fisheries deal with regularly.

“The cold-water areas may have few species, but those species are tremendously abundant,” Leadbetter said. In contrast, Asian fisheries often contend with a huge variety of species that all coexist in the same area, making targeted fishing difficult. “Fishing tropical ecosystems to only extract a single species, can be really challenging.”

That has posed issues for sustainability in the past, Leadbetter said. Traditional single-species models of sustainability are difficult to apply to many Asian fisheries, as bycatch is almost inevitable. Single-species approaches have been tried, but many have failed. 

However, approaching the problem from a different angle than a traditional approach leads to surprising results, Leadbetter said.

“One of the things that we found when we looked at the fisheries in Southeast Asia, is that they’re very efficient,” he said. Fishermen in the region discard very little of their catch, and use a wide variety of species in a wide variety of products, according to Leadbetter.

“This has made the fisheries very efficient in terms of catch utilizations," he said.

Overfishing, however, is still an issue for many of the fisheries. Enforcement of rules preventing illegal, unreported, and unregistered (IUU) fishing in the region has been lacking, leading to little incentive for fishermen to follow regulations. 

That overfishing lead to a decline in larger food fish, which in turn increased the number of smaller, faster-growing species. As those smaller fish started to be relied on, net sizes in turn decreased, creating what Leadbetter called “a downward spiral in the fishery.”

Compounding problems is that facilities on board many of the vessels are designed for the catching of human food species, not species that are used in reduction fisheries. That leads to poor-quality catches, and the result was that a lot of those species were dubbed “trash.”

Changing the perceptions of those fish will be key to getting the reduction fishery to make the investments needed to develop a sustainable supply chain, said Melanie Siggs, the director of GAA’s strategic engagements. 

“Not talking about trash fisheries is one of the most important things we can do,” she said. “Changing our language around this is going to be critical.”

Through the report, GAA and IFFO came up with a set of recommendations for improving the state of the Southeast Asian reduction fishery. First, providing assistance to fisheries for assessments will be important, and having IFFO RS finalize its efforts to create a multispecies assessment will be key.

Second, sharing knowledge so that IFFO and GAA can maintain an up-to-date knowledge base. Finally, developing further research will be important to continue understanding the structure of the industry. 

“The structure of the industry and, especially the links with the food processing sector, is not well documented and a better understanding would be positive for industry development purposes but also important for understanding supply chains and traceability,” the two organizations wrote in a release. 

The region’s importance, in terms of fishmeal production, make it a critical part of the industry in all of Asia, and understanding the structure of the reduction fishery is key to increasing sustainability and food production, Siggs said.

“If we are going to meet FAO’s requirements for aquaculture, by 2030 … we’re going to continue needing a lot of feed,” Siggs said.    


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