SWSS15: Essential forage fish have an identity crisis


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
February 11, 2015

A lively discussion about fishmeal and fish oil — longtime afterthoughts now at the forefront of seafood sustainability — at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit on Wednesday started with the salient question: What exactly is a forage fish?

Dr. Konstantine Rountos, senior postdoctoral associate at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, said that from a scientific perspective, there is no distinct definition of what a forage fish is. Small, schooling pelagic fish like anchovies and menhaden fit the bill. But do squid? Some say yes, others say no, he said.

“One thing is consistent, is they play an important and critical role in transferring energy from plankton to predators,” he said, adding that 25 percent of the global fish catch is forage fish for fishmeal and fish oil. “But humans are breaking the evolutionary defense strategy of these species; we have succeeded in getting rid of their strategy that has made them persist.”

The vast majority of global fishmeal and fish oil supplies are going to aquaculture and livestock production, said Dr. Andrew Jackson, technical director of IFFO, The Marine Ingredients Organization. Annual production of fishmeal globally sits at 5 million metric tons (MT), with 1 million MT of fish oil. Of that total, 3.2 million MT goes to aquaculture (up from 2.5 million MT in 2000) with 1.3 million MT being fed to pigs.

“Fishmeal has been pretty constant, but yet there’s a huge growing demand for it. The price was for a long time steady at USD 500 a ton, now it’s USD 2000 a ton,” said Jackson. “We must manage these stocks properly. We’re not going to argue on the need to do that, but fundamentally, instead of ‘mining’ them, if we ‘crop’ them, and use them as a fundamental for human nutrition and agriculture, as an industry we should survive.”

The omega-3 fatty acids in fishmeal and fish oil are essential for farmed animals, particularly at their juvenile stages, he said. And that goes for fish raised in hatcheries released into the wild, such as a large chunk of Alaska’s wild salmon fishery. “If the fishmeal industry collapsed, so would a large part of Alaska’s wild salmon industry,” he said.

An encouraging development for the global seafood industry’s long-term prospects has been reformulating fish feed to reduce the dependency on forage fish stocks. Salmon feed used to have 40 percent fishmeal, said Jackson, but are now between 10 and 12 percent. In the near future, that figure could be as low as 5 percent. “A little bit goes a long way,” he said.

Naturally, the question of whether humans should eat forage fish directly was raised. Barton Seaver, chef, author and director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, spoke on the cultural aspects and attitudes toward forage fish.

“They are part and parcel of our social fabric, and in the United States, a sad tale. All the sardine canneries in Maine are closed and the current forage fisheries participants, at least in this country, they’re rather divorced from the food system; 100 percent of herring goes to the lobster bait fishery. It could be part of the human diet, but they’re not concerned with it. They’re not able to dictate how their product is used. They don’t think of themselves as food producers.”

Jackson added that anchovy producers in Chile and Peru are canning more and more of their product but have difficulty in finding a market for it. “They would love to sell more canned fish. If the Peruvians could get the price that Scots get for mackerel they’d close their fishmeal plants like that. But there’s only so many anchovies you can eat on your pizzas and Caesar salads.”


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500