Kona Blue seeks to improve sustainability score

Published on
October 19, 2009

 Kona Blue Water Farms is the only U.S. aquaculture producer of Seriola rivoliana, a close relative of yellowtail (Seriola quinqueradiata). The Hawaiian company, which markets its fish as Kona Kampachi®, received a "good alternative" rating in Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch yellowtail report, while its Japanese and Australian competitors received an "avoid" rating.

Kona's score was partly based on its wild-fish-in to farmed-fish-out (WI:FO) ratio of 1.68. Seafood Watch's requirement for the "Moderate Use of Marine Resources" category is a WI:FO ratio of 2.0 or less.

If Kona Blue, which represents the entire farmed yellowtail industry, adopts a new feed formulation, the whole rating for the United States is changed, while if a single Japanese producer did so, there would be little noticeable effect.

Assisted by its feed supplier, Skretting, which has a feed plant in Vancouver, British Columbia, Kona Blue sharply reduced the wild fish in its feed by using soy, grain and poultry byproduct. But part of the improvement was achieved by simply changing the ratio of fishmeal to fish oil.

To calculate WI:FO, Seafood Watch multiplies the kilograms of fish required to produce 1 kilogram of fishmeal by the weight of fishmeal in 1 kilogram of pelleted feed, and multiplies this figure by the feed conversion ratio. They do the same calculation separately for the fish oil content of the feed. The two resulting WI:FO scores for fishmeal and fish oil are not added together; only the larger of the two WI:FO values is used because both meal and oil can be produced from the same fish.

This method has been criticized by Dr. Andrew Jackson, technical director of the International Fishmeal & Fish Oil Organization, who wrote that using only the larger of the two WI:FO figures assumes wasting any unused oil that would have resulted from processing wild fish to make fishmeal. In the real world, the extra oil would be used elsewhere, but in the Seafood Watch method it disappears.

The way to get the lowest score under this calculation system is to formulate the feed so that the WI:FO figures for meal and oil come out as close as possible.

Considering Monterey Bay's estimate of the amount of wild fish required to produce meal and oil (4.5 kilograms and 8.3 kilograms, respectively), the proportion of meal should be about 1.85 times that of oil.

Kona Blue Water Farm's ratio of oil to fishmeal is set to achieve a WI:FO score of 1.68 for fishmeal and 1.67 for fish oil. Japan's scores were 6.6 for meal and 2.8 for oil, not even close to Seafood Watch's requirement for the "Moderate Use of Marine Resources" category. Australia was better, but still not close.

Kona's desire to market its product as sustainable and its ability to change the rating made it worthwhile for the company to take advantage of WI:FO balancing.

Kona's situation shows the WI:FO calculation method has a flaw that makes using meal and oil in a certain proportion appear better than using more meal and less oil, or vice-versa. Averaging the two WI:FO scores would overcome this and give producers more flexibility in the ratio of meal to oil.  

Seafood Watch additionally reduced Kona's 20 percent fishmeal content by 2 percent, because 10 percent of the meal comes from fish processing waste. Yet Jackson has said that 24 percent of all fishmeal is now made from processing waste. So, another key to getting a high score is documenting the use of processing waste in order to get the credit.

Pete Bridson, aquaculture research manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium, said that balancing WI:FO would not be something that a farm would do to try to get a better WI:FO score, as fish nutrition and economic factors dominate the choices.

Neil Sims, CEO of Kona Blue Water Farms, said that obtaining the "good alternative" rating was of the utmost importance for the company's brand and company philosophy. The ironic trade-off was that by using poultry byproducts the company lost its business with Whole Foods, which has a policy of not selling seafood with land-based animal protein in its feed.

Sims agreed that there are probably some more equitable ways to calculate WI:FO, but didn't see much to be gained in debating it. Rather, he favors a certification system that works on an individual farm basis rather than a country basis to create incentives for individual fish farmers, as in the organic industry.

"Imagine if all tomatoes were labeled organic or not, based on the average of all tomato culture systems. That is what we have at the moment," said Sims.

The company is now working on a feed that includes no wild fish, aiming for a WI:FO of zero and a Seafood Watch "best choice" rating.

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Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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