Tackling the myths: The position of marine ingredients in future aquafeed supply

Article submitted by IFFO’s Neil Auchterlonie, published in INFOFISH International

Fishmeal and fish oil have moved from being commodities to high value products which will continue to be the major components in quality aquafeeds. This is despite feed companies moving towards partial substitution by vegetable-source and other novel ingredients, which may be far from being commercially realised. All may play a role in satisfying aquaculture’s demand in the future, and it will be important to utilise all available materials as ingredients for an important global food industry. Nevertheless, that future remains dependent on fishmeal and fish oil supply, even with reducing inclusion rates.


The fact that aquaculture has been the best performing protein sector for several decades will not come as a surprise to readers of this magazine. The pace of farmed seafood growth has been substantial through the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, and although that rate decreased to 5.8% per annum (2005-2014) from 7.2% (1995-2004) according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, 2016), it is still markedly higher than the next protein group, poultry, which reported an overall growth rate of 4.4% over 1991-2007, and is forecast to drop to 2.1% over 2005-2007 (Alexandratos & Bruinsma, 2012). The FAO recognises that the rate of growth in aquaculture production exceeds the rate of human population increase, and so makes a vital contribution to global food supply.

Not all aquaculture requires feed, however, and the FAO estimates that unfed species contributed 22.7 million tons, or 30.8% of world farmed fish species in 2014 (FAO, 2016). It is clear that the majority, the remaining 69.2% (equivalent to about 51 million tonnes), do rely on feed and maintaining rates of development will require a parallel increase in feed volumes. That is one of the big challenges for modern aquaculture.

Feed supply and ingredient volume

Feed supply is dependent on the provision of suitable ingredients to meet the nutritional profiles in feed formulations. Marine ingredients have rightly been regarded as the gold standard for aquafeed for decades, possessing high protein levels, high digestibility, excellent amino acid profiles, and a range of important micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and long chain omega-3 fatty acids including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They make excellent contributions to farmed fish nutrition worldwide, and are the foundation for global fed aquaculture production. Marine ingredients come from a finite resource, however, with global annual supply usually in the range of approximately 5 million tons of fishmeal and 1 million tons, or slightly under, of fish oil. Although there is some annual variability, these are roughly the volumes to be expected every year.

Some writers argued in the early years of the century that the availability of marine ingredients had the potential to constrain the growth of aquaculture. The term fishmeal trap was coined to describe the situation (New and Wiljkstrom, 2002). Concern was voiced over the increasing volume of global fishmeal and fish oil supply that was supplying the aquafeed sector, as it had shown a consistent year on year increase in demand until that time. Other authors (e.g. Jackson, 2010) showed that the pessimistic forecasts did not reflect reality, and total fishmeal and fish oil supply into aquafeed was, and is, relatively stable as the materials continue to provide an essential nutritional contribution for farmed aquatic species, albeit at lower rates of inclusion.

The pattern of use of these materials has, however, become more strategic as the ingredients are used more in order to optimise performance in farmed fish at key production stages (Jackson & Shepherd, 2010; FAO, 2016; Han, Zhang, Xie, & De Silva, 2016) than as a crude protein and energy supply. There has therefore been a step-change in optimising the efficiency of the use of these important materials, adding even more value to an already valuable contribution.

IFFO estimates that currently a little over three million tons of fishmeal go to aquaculture every year. Fish oil is also essential to meet aquaculture’s needs (particularly for farmed salmonids) and of an apparent global use of 916 000 tons of fish oil in 2015, IFFO estimated that aquaculture took a 58% share (i.e. about 531 280 tons). These are rather low volumes when viewed against the total production of fed farmed fish, and it is quite clear that there are other ingredients involved. [They are also low volumes when viewed against annual production volumes for the more widely recognised animal feed ingredients such as soya, for example: 348 million tons of soya bean is the USDA’s estimate for production over the 12 month period between June 2017 and June 2018; soybean meal accounts for 35% of the weight of raw soybean, which equates to 121.8 million tons; therefore, the volume of fishmeal produced equates to some 4.1% of total soya volume].

The partial substitution of fishmeal and fish oil over time allowed for the continuing development of the fed aquaculture sector, and the fishmeal trap view has now been proven to be incorrect. The reduction in marine ingredient use in aquafeeds over time is well known, although not as well documented - with some exceptions (e.g. Ytrestøyl, Aas, & Åsgård, 2015) - likely as a result of the commercial importance of feed formulations to the aquafeed companies.

There has also been a very large scientific effort over more than 20 years that has gone into looking at suitable alternatives and levels of substitution in diets for a whole range of different fish species. These are too numerous to mention here, but each one of those studies takes into account the specific nutritional requirements of the farmed species under investigation, and are therefore technically complex. Parallel to the academic effort was the work of the feed companies themselves, largely focused on easy to source vegetable-based ingredients such as wheat and soya, which, in reality, drove the partial substitution in viable aquafeeds.

Development of novel alternatives to support ingredient volume

Anyone with an interest in aquaculture and fish nutrition cannot fail to notice the contemporary media attention and hype around the promotion of ‘new’ alternatives to marine ingredients. At IFFO we watch these reports with interest because, unfortunately, there is sometimes a misrepresentation of the marine ingredients industry sustainability performance, in an effort to position novel products in a more favourable light. That the global aquaculture industry requires more feed to support development is unarguable, and increased volume is unlikely to come from fishmeal and fish oil (although there may be opportunities to increase the volume at least a little with better use of byproduct from capture fisheries and a growing aquaculture sector).

The more recent technological developments and possible commercial application of novel ingredients has certainly attracted a lot of attention. Some of the materials show similar systems to aquaculture itself (e.g. microalgae production); some are high-tech (e.g. GM Camelina crop to produce terrestrial source long chain omega-3 fatty acids) and may have some customer resistance; and some have the possibility of managing low value resources to produce added-value materials (e.g. insect meal, and methane-based protein production). Each one of these ingredients has the potential to make a contribution to aquaculture’s demand. Each one, however, is still some way off achieving realistic supply volumes into the market, despite the level of media coverage.

At IFFO our view is that those other contributions are needed, but it should be “As Well As, Not Instead Of” marine ingredients. Note also that when it comes to comparing sustainability of production, every ingredient carries an impact, and the profile of those impacts will differ and it is generally too simplistic to place one above another. For some of the categories within a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach, fishmeal and fish oil compare well even with the vegetable-source ingredients that already supply aquafeed production (e.g. land use and water use).

The terrestrial impacts of feed ingredient supply are starting to be examined by some researchers (Fry et al., 2016; Pahlow, van Oel, Mekonnen, & Hoekstra, 2015), and noted as carrying significant impacts. Equally the novel ingredients will carry impacts as well. It is the profile of the impacts as a whole that needs to be considered, although even then the LCA approach doesn’t take into account different contributions and societal benefits of the ingredients in the feeds.

Certification and links to sustainability

There is an increasing trend for certification in seafood products that now accounts for something like 14% of the global seafood market. Although some debate remains over the concept of sustainability in fisheries and seafood (e.g. Hilborn et al., 2015), it may be considered that the certification process itself supports change improvements in fisheries management, aquaculture production methods and seafood supply chain integrity, all of which make contributions to the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainability.

The fact that schemes such as IFFO Responsible Supply are generally independently accredited adds some rigour to the process, and along with other examples such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), GlobalGap and the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s (GAA) Best Aquaculture Practices, are achieving recognition for the changes that are being driven through seafood supply chains.

As may be expected, certified farmed seafood requirements have an effect up the supply chain to feed production and ingredient sourcing. The ASC is currently developing a feed standard that will require the provision of an increasing supply of certified feed ingredients to meet the growing demand for approved feed for ASC-certified farms. Marine ingredients are clearly important aquafeed ingredients and so they are on the list of materials that will be certified against compliance standards for the ASC. In this way, the ASC hopes to drive improvements in sustainability performance in the sources of raw material for the fishmeal that enters the aquaculture supply chain.

The GAA’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) administers a standard for feed mills which takes into account the sourcing of fishmeal and fish oil, and (after June 2015) specifically requests that - if the materials are derived from reduction fisheries - MSC-or IFFO RS-certified materials are at least 50% of the source.

A large volume of the current annual global supply of fishmeal is already certified. Estimates are that over 45% of production is certified to the IFFO Responsible Supply standard, and the trend is for that proportion to continue to rise with a combination of new applicants, the IFFO RS Improvers Programme (IP) and Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) likely to be featuring in that additional volume.

(The IFFO RS Improver Programme aims to encourage marine ingredient producing factories that, at present, would be unable to meet the IFFO RS Standard, either because of a lack of fisheries management, or factory infrastructure and operational issues, to implement improvements that would allow eventual compliance).

Such a volume of certified product is testimony to the successful progress of the standard from its inception. The IFFO RS standard is designed to cover responsible manufacture of fishmeal and fish oil, and is a business to business scheme, with the unit of certification being the fishmeal factory. The development of the IFFO RS is a case study in industry working closely with eNGOs to achieve change in the sector, and agreement on the standard was the result of extensive discussions with multiple stakeholders, starting in 2009, implemented in 2010, and with version 2.0 only very recently launched.

All this adds up to an increasing requirement for certified fishmeal product, and a trend of increasing production of fishmeal (and fish oil) over time. The establishment of new FIPs and new IFFO RS IPs will also help to drive change in fisheries management and raw material provision, supporting sustainability improvements in the marine environment and equally in the (mostly) rural economies that depend on the industry.

GAA and IFFO collaboration on S.E. Asian fishmeal supply project

Global fishmeal production is based predominantly on reduction fisheries for small pelagic fish (SPF) species, and these are generally comparatively well managed (and, there is also a significant contribution from byproduct at roughly 33% of the total supply).

Examples of good practice are many and the Peruvian anchovy fishery which provides a large proportion of global fishmeal supply (15-20% annually) may be specifically highlighted, showing that the size of the fishery may be no detriment to good management. In South East Asia, fishmeal supply is critical for meeting the needs of the large and developing aquaculture industry, but the industry is structured a little differently. There the majority of the raw material source for fishmeal production is bycatch rather than a targeted SPF stock, or byproduct. As well as providing a source for fishmeal production some of this material is also fed directly in aquaculture, and it is known that fisheries that generate bycatch are harmful commercially (Wijkström, 2009), even though the social and economic impacts may be less distinct.

As a raw material for fishmeal production there are also some drawbacks associated with collection and transport to the fishmeal plant, which has the potential to affect the quality of the end product. Quality is obviously an important issue when standardisation of production systems is a goal, particularly with the regional industry supplying into European and North American markets. The end market provided one of the drivers for setting up the Seafood Task Force, formerly the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force, a ‘multi-stakeholder alliance of European and American retailers, their suppliers, NGOs, shrimp processors and feed companies’ and has been a force for positive change for seafood supply from the region.

Also recognising the importance of the regional fishmeal and aquaculture industries, IFFO and the GAA have partnered on a project that aims to look at the issues, engage with the stakeholders, and develop recommendations for where changes may be made in raw material sourcing and fishmeal production.

The focus of effort will be on Thailand and Vietnam, and the work is an information gathering exercise in order to inform planning and identification of future projects. It is likely that some of those future projects will include FIPs that will support further progress on environmental performance.


The nutritional contribution of the marine ingredients is the foundation for global fed aquaculture and remains essential for aquafeeds, and their use will continue to support aquaculture development into the future. Additional crude protein and energy supply has been achieved via partial substitution in fish diets using vegetable-source ingredients, and there are several new developments in the animal feed industry that equally may support some of the basic nutritional needs of aquatic species. All are required to provide volume into a continually developing global aquaculture industry.

Each ingredient carries its own range of environmental impacts and these should not be regarded in isolation, nor should they seek to achieve a (morally) superior market position through the criticism of the environmental performance of the marine ingredients industry, an industry which has achieved a high proportion of certified production volume and provides the high performance ingredients that are essential for a sustainable and productive aquaculture industry.