Is fishmeal production sustainable for the future?

Regular fishmeal (ranging from 60 to 70 percent crude protein) is produced by harvesting whole fish for the sole purpose of producing this protein-rich ingredient for feeding commercially raised animals.

Vladislav Gajic | Dreamstime

Regular fishmeal (ranging from 60 to 70 percent crude protein) is produced by harvesting whole fish for the sole purpose of producing this protein-rich ingredient for feeding commercially raised animals. Fish species harvested for fishmeal production include those unsuitable for human consumption, with most common being herring, mackerel, anchovy, menhaden, capelin and sardine. Thus, in theory, fish harvesting for preparing fishmeal for animals does not compete with fishing for human consumption. Assuming ocean capacity for fish production is not as limiting as that of land for protein plant production, these two activities remain independent to each other.

Two kinds of fishmeal

There are two major kinds of fishmeal, distinguished by their concentration in protein: 60 or 70 percent. In general, fishmeal produced in Latin America, Eastern Asia and Australia is of the lower protein type, whereas fishmeal produced in Northern Europe is of the higher protein type. As it happens, the 60 percent fishmeal is mostly from sardines and other white fish, whereas the 70 percent fishmeal is mainly from herrings.

In addition, high-protein fishmeal is considered to be of superior quality as it is often produced under higher standards, including a lower-drying temperature that preserves its protein quality. Standard fishmeal (fair average quality, or FAQ) is used in older animals, where prime fishmeal (low temperature, or LT) is more expensive, more digestible and thus more suitable for young animals. Naturally, this is an oversimplification, as excellent 60 percent fishmeal products exist in the market, whereas not all high-protein fishmeal products are of the best possible quality.

Improving global sustainability of wild fish stocks is the only way to keep this ingredient in our feed formulas.

Globally, fishmeal is used mainly in aquaculture (over 50 percent of global fishmeal production is being recycled in farmed fish feeds) because most farmed fish species of value are carnivorous. Lamentably, a suitable substitute to fishmeal in aquafeeds has not been found, yet, although strong efforts are being made . As such, prices for fishmeal have increased considerably in the last twenty years, going from about $400-500/metric ton (MT) up to $2000/MT (in years of low harvest conditions and for the highest quality product). Considering that the usual alternative to fishmeal in diets for young animals, that of soy protein concentrate with comparable protein levels, costs below $1000/MT, it becomes clear why the use of prime fishmeal in such diets has declined. Other soybean specially-treated products have also appeared with significant claims to replace fishmeal.

Global authorities, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), have deemed the practice of uncontrolled wild fish harvesting for fishmeal production as not sustainable for the long-term future — that is, without careful planning and monitoring by government institutions. Indeed, there is pressure to limit the duration and intensity of fishing seasons, but nevertheless, wild stocks continue to diminish. Chile and Peru, two major fishmeal producing countries, have often banned fishing in certain years to preserve wild stocks, but this is considered a temporary measure that does not provide a long-term solution to the problem. Other countries follow this example, but the high prices enjoyed by all kinds of fishmeal place considerable pressure on authorities and fishmeal manufacturers to maximize fishing in the short-term.

Read more: Substituting fish meal in piglet diets

The fact that no alternative to fishmeal is foreseen for aqua feeds, and that aquaculture continues to expand globally, the outlook for fishmeal is that of diminishing availability, increased demand and ever-increasing prices. Some relief has been experienced by alternative solutions in feeds for terrestrial animals, but the demand for fishmeal remains strong as most nutritionists recognize its value and importance in designing high-quality feeds for young and high-producing animals.

Requirements of an alternative

Any alternative ingredient destined to replace fishmeal faces a battle uphill as it has to complete the following requirements:

  • It must be a highly digestible source of proteins with an excellent amino acids profile. It should contain relatively high levels of amino acids deficient in cereals (such as lysine).
  • It should be at least as good as other animal-based protein sources in terms of biosecurity, and it must carry virtually zero chances of transferring or harboring pathogenic agents. In fact, low quality fishmeal is usually a source of pathogenic Salmonella strains.
  • Animal derived alternative protein sources must come from material exceptionally fresh, preferably processed immediately after harvest or after suitable cold storage. This is valued by nutritionists because stale ingredients are the main source of feed rejection complains.
  • It must enhance appetite, in addition to providing a source of high-quality proteins. Thus, taste is as important as amino acid profile. Most young animals fed diets based on fishmeal usually suffer from low appetite.
  • Preferably, any alternative should be a source of bioactive peptides that can enhance overall gut performance, something that fishmeal and other animal protein sources are believed of being capable of. Logically, plant based material should not possess such functionality, but they might bring about other currently unknown or little appreciated compounds.

In brief, fishmeal is a valuable ingredient for all species, but currently it remains the privilege of farmed fish. Improving global sustainability of wild fish stocks is the only way to keep this ingredient in our feed formulas. Long term, a rigorous management of such stocks may enable their recovery leading to more reasonable prices that will bring fishmeal back into the feed formulas of land animals. In the meantime, alternatives abound, but their performance is not equal to that of the best of fishmeals, perhaps because we are still unaware of all the benefits fishmeal brings along.

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