How many kilos of feed fish does it take to produce one kilo of farmed fish, via fishmeal and fish oil in feed?

Key Points

  1. The correct FIFO (Fish in: Fish out) for the conversion of wild feed fish to farmed salmon is 1.4:1*, not 5:1 as has been widely asserted in both publications and in the media *2010 ratio
  2. For all fed aquaculture, the FIFO is 0.3:1 (2010). In short more than three tonnes of farmed seafood is produced for each tonne of fish used in aquafeeds.
  3. The often quoted '5:1' ratio has created an unjustified a priori case against the use of fishmeal and fish oil in aquaculture feed.

It has been asserted, and widely disseminated in the media and conference platforms, that five, or even more, kilos of wild feed/industrial fish are harvested to produce, via fishmeal and fish oil in aquafeed, just one kilo of farmed salmon. This is often expressed as a Fish In: Fish Out (FIFO) ratio of 5:1.

This ratio probably entered common parlance from academic papers, notably those of Tacon and Metian (2008)i  - which put forward a FIFO of 4.9:1 for farmed salmon, and Naylor et al. (2009)ii  - who used 5:1.

Against a background of concern about overfishing and how to feed a growing world population, using five kilos of fish to produce one kilo of fish seems obviously wasteful and inefficient. Critics usually go on to insist that fishing to produce fishmeal and oil for aquaculture or land animal feed is simply not acceptable in terms of resource use and should be banned or severely curtailed.

In short, this 5 to 1 assertion damages the public, commercial and political acceptance of the use of fishmeal and fish oil in aquafeed. How can their use be responsible and sustainable if that is the ratio?

Q. Are these 5:1 FIFO figures correct?
No. In fact the FIFO for salmon for 2010 (using the data of Tacon and Metian), but recalculated by Dr Andrew Jackson, Technical Director of IFFO, was 1.4. In other words, only 1.4 (NOT five) kilos of feed fish were used to produce each kilo of farmed salmon.

Salmon is just one farmed species. Looking at the whole of fed aquacultureiii the accurate FIFO is 0.3:1, which means that global aquaculture used just 300g of wild fish for each kilo of farmed fish and crustaceans - mainly shrimp -  produced. Aquaculture globally is actually producing three times as much farmed seafood as it uses feed fish, via fishmeal and fish oil.

Q. These lower FIFOs give a much more positive picture of the efficiency of using fishmeal and fish oil in aquaculture feed. How were they calculated?
Andrew Jackson of IFFO took the same data as used by Tacon and Metian and studied the method by which they had calculated a salmon FIFO of 4.9:1.  He found two important errors:

  1. Both fishmeal and fish oil are used in aquaculture feed, in varying amount according to species and growth stage. The previous calculations addressed how much wild fish was needed to produce the fish OIL required to produce a kilo of salmon. As use of oil is comparatively high in salmon feed, this approach inflated the FIFO, and a significant quantity of meal was ignored or ‘thrown away’ in this method. Dr Jackson developed a new equation for calculating FIFO which reflected the real world situation where all the fishmeal and all the fish oil produced is actually used, with some species like salmon using higher proportions of oil and some like shrimp using higher proportions of meal.  Dr Jackson cross checked his calculation by using both his own FIFO and that of Tacon and Metian to work out how much wild feed fish was used annually and compared that against the best available actual catch and usage figures, from FAO data. The Jackson FIFO was a much better match.
  2. Second, previous calculations had assumed that all the raw material used in fishmeal production was whole wild caught fish. In fact an IFFO survey of 2010 showed that 25% of production was derived from by-products of fish processing – heads, guts, frame and other filleting waste. So the wild fish represented just 75% of raw material. Dr Jackson corrected the FIFO calculation to reflect this and the FIFOs fell further – as the same amount of farmed fish was being produced from 25% less feed/industrial fish. The details of Dr Jackson’s calculations can were presented in a paper in Aquaculture Europe in 2009iv.

The summary table below shows that FIFOs are not only lower than have been asserted but are falling steadily and substantially. Taking the example of salmon, in 2010 the was 1.4, compared with 2.6 in 2000. Indeed on some salmon farms a 1:1 FIFO ratio is being currently being achieved. The same trend applies to other species.

FIFOs are falling and will continue to fall  as a result of:

  1. Increasing volumes of by-product waste being used to make fishmeal and fish oil
  2. better conversion of feed into live weight gain on the fish farm
  3. the falling percentages of fishmeal and fish oil now being used in typical fish feeds. Fishmeal and fish oil are being used more strategically in farmed seafood diets to make the best use of their nutritional qualities and healthy omega-3 content

FIFOs for farmed seafood 2000 and 2010 (Source IFFO)

Q.  Are Jackson’s FIFOs accepted by scientists, the value chain and NGOs?
From 2009, when Jackson first recalculated FIFOs, to date, the revised FIFOs and the method of calculation have been presented at more than 20 conferences  and meetings with key players in the value chain. They were the topic of a major article in the journal of the European Aquaculture Society, Aquaculture Europe, in September 2009vi and they were published again by OECDvii  in 2010.

Following the publication in Aquaculture Europe Naylor et al (2009) criticised this method and said: "Alternatively, if one assumes no excess requirement for fish oil and both ingredients are treated equally in the calculation, then FI/FO would be lower. The latter assumption allows one to add up all species to reach a grand total, because excess fishmeal or fish oil from the diet of any given species will be consumed ultimately by other fish or livestock species, or even by humans in the case of residual fish oil. However, such a calculation obscures the fact that rising demand for species high in fish oil could lead to continued increases in the amount of forage fish used in feeds".

However, given that the economic value of the fish oil and fishmeal per tonne produced are the same this argument does not have much logic.

The over-sight committee of the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s "Best Aquacultural Practice" (BAP) has just adopted FIFO, as calculated by IFFO, as a measure in their BAP standards.

Q. But could the fish used for fishmeal and fish oil production not contribute more to feed the world if they went directly for human consumption?
That is not the case, and this question is answered in detail in another Positional Statement from IFFO. This quotes work by Ulf N. Wijkström which focused on whether there was a real human consumption demand for the various species used to producer fishmeal. For example, he classified menhaden and sand eel as forage species, not in demand at all as food; and all the main anchovy stocks, including those from the massive South American fishery, as having only small or niche markets for human consumption, with the bulk going for fishmeal.

Overall Wijkström concluded that there were not human consumption markets for most feed/industrial fish. He also concluded that feeding fishmeal and fish oil to farmed fish and shrimp expanded the effective supply of fish for human consumption by 7-8 million tonnes a year.

Q. Are FIFOs really the best measure of efficiency?
Frankly it is not, but it is one most widely quoted - so it needs to be addressed.

Neither the FIFO, nor the feed conversion ratio (FCR), are true measures of nutritional efficiency – that would need to be based on Protein in: Protein out and Energy in: Energy out. Nor is it a useful measure of environmental efficiency – to do that would require full life cycle analysis.

It should also be remembered that fish are much more efficient converters of feed to flesh than any other animal including pigs and poultry.

Much more important than the FIFO ratio is the need to ensure that the fisheries and factories which supply the fishmeal and fish oil to the industry are responsibly managed in environmental and safety terms. IFFO has introduced its Global Standard for the Responsible Supply for fishmeal and fish oil (known as IFFO RS) which is a tool which can be used by a factory to demonstrate its raw material buying policy and its good manufacturing practices. More information on the RS Standard can be found here.

The document can also be downloaded as a PDF at the bottom of this page.

i Albert G J Tacon and Marc Metian: Global overview of the use of fish meal and fish oil in industrially compounded aquafeeds: Trends and Future Prospects. Aquaculture, 285:146–158. 2008

ii Rosamond L. Naylor, Ronald W. Hardy, Dominique P. Bureau, Alice Chiu, Matthew Elliott, Anthony P. Farrell, Ian Forster, Delbert M. Gatlin, Rebecca J. Goldburg, Katheline Hua, and Peter D. Nichols: Feeding aquaculture in an era of finite resources. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 106, no. 36, 2009

iii The expression ‘fed aquaculture’ refers to farmed fish and crustaceans (shrimp) fed with factory compounded feed, often including fishmeal and fish oil.

iv Andrew Jackson: Fish In- Fish Out, Ratios Explained. Aquaculture Europe, Volume 34 (3) 2009.

v C.J. Shepherd & A.J. Jackson, Global fishmeal and fish oil supply - inputs, outputs, and markets 6th World Fisheries Congress, Edinburgh 2012.  Andrew Jackson: Fish In- Fish Out, Ratios Explained. Aquaculture Europe, Volume 34 (3) 2009

vii Andrew Jackson and C J Shepherd (2010), Proceedings of Workshop on Advancing the Aquaculture 15-16 April, 2010, OECD