How unstable supply is forcing Japanese fish farmers to get creative

Published on
June 21, 2016

Fishing for anchovy started late this year in the main producing area of Peru, and the supply of fish meal used as an ingredient in feed for farmed fish is unstable.

In the main producing area of Peru, catches were poor at the end of 2014 and no quota was allocated for the 2015 season. The poor catches are attributed to the El Niño phenomenon, which changes ocean currents and water temperature.

In Peru, the season for catching anchovy for fish meal is usually from April to July and from November to February. Trial fishing was conducted before the season, to determine the total allowable catch. Usually the quota is announced in April, but this year no announcement was made until well into June, so fishing is only getting started. As it is rare for the fishing the season to be extended into August or later, it is likely that the season will simply be shortened, resulting in a continued supply shortage.

The good news is that the El Niño may have ended. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on 9 June reported that El Niño indices were near zero by the end of May. Based on surface and subsurface water temperatures NOAA reported, “For the first time in 2016, atmospheric anomalies over the tropical Pacific Ocean were also consistent with ENSO-neutral conditions.” (ENSO stands for El Niño–Southern Oscillation.)

Spot prices for prime fish meal were at a high point of USD 2,390 (JPY 248,966; EUR 2,119) per metric ton in December 2014. Currently, the price is at USD 1,530 (JPY 159,379; EUR 1,356). So, it is less a problem of price than of unpredictable supply.

The Peruvian anchovy is the world’s biggest fisheries catch, with harvests as high as 8.32 million metric tons in 2011. Sudden or late decisions on quotas reverberate throughout the feed and aquaculture complex, as the Peruvian product is the index price. According to Japan’s Fisheries Agency, feed makes up over 60 percent of the production costs of farmed fish.

Japanese feed companies are on the lookout for alternative sources of feed ingredients. Imports from Thailand were the largest in 15 years and will reach four times that of a decade ago.

Development of fish feeds containing less fishmeal is also advancing. Tokyo-based Euglena Company is developing fish-feed from the single-celled organism of the same name. The organism appears like algae on ponds, but is actually a member of the Protista Kingdom, having features of both plants and animals. That is, the organism can surround and absorb prey, or produce energy via photosynthesis.

Though reduced fish meal may work for some fish species, it is important in the fattening of eels and yellowtail. In particular, yellowtail accounts for half of fish meal based feed use.

Japanese feed manufacturers produce several different feeds for yellowtail, but all now include considerable soy protein content. An example is the “Expander Pellet” line of feed produced by Chubu Feed Products Co. The contents of the feed are 60 percent fishmeal, 20 percent soy protein, and 20 percent minerals and other supplements, such as taurine. Domestic horse mackerel and South American sardines and are the major sources of fishmeal.

When the food price rises significantly there is a national subsidy system as a safety net for farmers. Fish meal has historically been used in livestock feed and for fertilizer, but as the prices have risen, demand for uses other than for aquaculture has decreased.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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