Would the 17* million tonnes of whole fish used globally for producing fishmeal and fish oil be better used for direct human consumption? (*2011)

Key Points

  • Only 10% of feed fish has a market for human consumption.
  • The higher price of fish for direct human consumption rather than for feed purposes, ensures that wherever possible fish go for that purpose.
  • The tonnage of whole fish  used in fishmeal production is reducing. Twenty-five per cent, and rising, of raw material for fishmeal production is recycled fish trimmings
  • Globally fed aquaculture is producing more than three times as much fish and other seafood fish as it uses in aquafeed.
  • Feeding fishmeal and fish oil to farmed fish and crustaceans (primarily shrimps) increases the effective global supply of fish for human consumption.
  • Production of fishmeal does not usually divert fish from human consumption – it is an efficient method to transform unwanted fish into fish or shrimp acceptable as human food.

In 2011 around 17 million tonnes of whole fish out of a total world catch of over 90 million tonnes of fish were used to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Of this 17 million tonnes, around 12 million tonnes were used to produce the fishmeal and fish oil used in aquaculture feed for fish and shrimps, the remainder going to feed other farmed animals such as pigs and poultry, as well as fish oil for direct human consumption in products such as fish oil capsules.

Some people are concerned that  the practice of producing fishmeal and fish oil for aquafeed is ethically wrong because they believe it reduces the amount of fish available to feed mankind, especially in a world where many are already undernourished and the population is forecast to increase by 2 billion by 2050. As such, they say, the industry should be severely curtailed.

Q. Why do some people take this view?
A. They may do so because they are not aware of all the facts required to make a balanced judgement on the industry's contribution to food security.

  1. First they assume that all the raw material used to produce fishmeal and fish oil is fresh whole fish in human consumption condition.
  2. Second they assume that every tonne of the feed catch is edible and palatable and could find a ready and viable alternative market for human consumption.
  3. Third, they have been told that it takes 5 kilograms of wild feed forage fish to produce 1 kilo of the often highest- profile farmed fish, salmoni. That does not sound an efficient way of maximising marine protein available to feed the world.

Q. So, what is the raw material for fishmeal and fish oil (point 1 above)?
A. IFFO calculates that the total raw material going into fishmeal and fish oil production is around  22 million tonnes per annum. However, about 25% of that total, or 5.5 million tonnes, and rising, is the recycled waste or trimmings from fish processed for human consumption, both caught and farmed. Only around  half of each fish is usually eaten while the remainder - the head, frame, fins, guts, skin etc (collectively by-products), increasingly go for fishmeal and fish oil production. For this 25% of the raw material there is therefore no suggestion of waste or inefficiency. Quite the opposite, production of fishmeal and fish oil is adding to the world’s food resources and avoiding the environmental and financial costs of disposal of the waste by recycling it into food production.

Q. What about the palatability and alternative human consumption markets for the other 75% which is mostly whole fish from dedicated feed fisheries (point 2)?
A. The fishermen and processors would obviously prefer to sell fish for human consumption, as that would normally give them a higher price for the fish. There are several reasons why this does not always happen.

  1. Some species, including menhaden and sand eel, are unacceptable for human consumption. For others there is very limited, localised or niche demand - often because they are small, bony or not very palatable or logistically difficult to move to markets in prime condition (most notably anchovy).
  2. Fish are caught in seasons, with high peaks in fishing volumes, often not synchronised with market needs. This applies both to feed species and those normally caught for human consumption. Excess volumes of fish, which find no buyers for direct human consumption, are then used for fishmeal production. Given the enormous quantities that are landed over a short period of time in countries such as Peru, other preservation methods such as freezing or canning are not an alternative due to limited capacity.

Ulf N. Wijkströmii said that the assumption that the anchoveta (which is a small, delicate fish with a short shelf life) or the menhaden which are supplied to the fishmeal and fish oil plant could have been supplied to a local fish market and sold to waiting consumers is quite wrong: "Ninety-nine times out of 100 this is not the case. There is no market which could absorb as food the millions of tonnes of fish concerned. To put it another way: if there were no demand for fish as raw material for fishmeal and oil, the fishery for most forage species would stop".

If the concern is to supply fish to the poor, there must be a viable route by which it can reach them and they must have the means to pay the price for the fish.

That said, the fisheries industry and governments continue to invest in processing capacity and marketing activity to maximise the proportion of the catch which can achieve a human consumption marketiii. Equally there are social and economic studies and research taking place and proposed with the objective of identifying policies which maximise human consumption of these fishiv.

However, freezing or canning followed by shipping add considerable cost and the resulting products cannot be considered a cheap source of protein by the time they arrive in distant markets. In contrast the production of fishmeal removes most of the water which comprises around 70% of the harvest weight and produces a stable product which can be economically shipped to distant markets where it can be used to produce local food including fish, chicken and pigs. Add to this that many consumers prefer not to eat bones, heads and guts even on smaller fish, the edible part of the fish species used in fishmeal production can be as low as 40%. In fishmeal production 100% of the fish is utilised.

Q. What independent opinion is there on availability of alternative human consumption markets?
A. In a 2009 report for FAOv  and in a paper given to the 2010 Global Conference on Aquaculture (Ibid ii) , Wijkström classified forage fish landed for fishmeal and fish oil production into three groups according to their degree of acceptability as human food. He went on to state that based on 2001-2006 catch data the three groups were:

  • 1.2 million tonnes of sandeel, menhaden and Norway pout landed annually for fishmeal and fish oil production as 'industrial grade forage fish not eaten as food'. Through the fishmeal/fish oil and aquaculture feed route, these add 0.7Mt to the annual supply of food fish.
  • 11.8 million tonnes of anchovy, blue whiting, capelin, sprat and some sardines as 'Food grade forage fish which people eat but demand is small and often localised'. Through aquaculture feed these produce a minimum 7Mt per annum of food fish.
  • A proportion of nine species of 'prime food fish for which there are well-established food fish markets' such as mackerel, sardines and herring ends up as raw material for fishmeal and fish oil production. Often this is because the place of landing is not near markets or because there are seasonal surpluses. There were no precise statistics on this proportion.

Within the first two grades, which he described as forage fish, only around 10% had found a market for human consumption. This percentage has probably increased slightly since then as the fishing industries are putting strenuous efforts into extending the human consumption market through product and market development.

Wijkström was seeking an answer to the question at the top of this paper - Would the 17 million tonnes of fish used globally for producing fishmeal and fish oil be better used for direct human consumption?

He concluded that feeding fishmeal and fish oil to farmed fish and crustaceans "increases the effective supply of fish for human consumption by 7-8 million tonnes per year". He added: “Halting industrial fishing would lead to an immediate loss of fish for food.” He continued:

"Given that overall:

  1. the amount of fish available as food is larger than when fish is used as feed than when it is not;
  2. that the price of fish globally is reduced because of aquaculture;
  3. that employment is larger with the practice than without it;
  4. and that reduction fisheries can be, and increasingly are, managed effectively -

the practice of using fish as feed is viable, that is, is capable of surviving as a practice within the coming decades."

Q. What is the true conversion ratio from wild forage fish to farmed fish (point 3)?
A. The too often quoted 5:1 conversion rate from whole wild forage fish to whole farmed salmon is drastically wrong. In 2010 the actual conversion rate (known as the FIFO - fish in: fish out) for salmon was 1.4:1 and falling. In other words, only 1.4vi kilos of forage fish were used to produce each kilo of farmed salmon.

Salmon is just one farmed species and, being carnivorous, has a relatively high proportion of fishmeal and fish oil in its feed. For the whole of fed aquaculture the ratio is 0.3:1vii. Global fed aquaculture is therefore producing three times as much farmed fish and crustaceans as it uses whole fish, via fishmeal and fish oil. This is a FIFTEEN FOLD better actual ratio of fish used to fish produced than the often quoted 5:1.

Q. What other factors should be considered in making a balanced assessment?

Within the wider picture on food security there is need for the population to have sufficient protein. Farmed fish are much better converters of feed into animal protein (measured using the Feed Conversion Ratio or FCR that is the kilos of feed given to produce 1 kilo of animal). For salmon the FCR is 1.2:1 or lower and for tilapia 1.6 - 1.8:1, compared with pigs at about 3-4:1 and poultry at about 2:1 and cattle at 5 – 20:1viii.

Concern has been expressed that the growing pressure for fish as feed will lead to overexploitation of forage species and threatens the future supply of fish. This issue is being addressed in a separate paper in this series from IFFO.

There is also an argument that forage fish should be left in the water as prey for other fish which consumers will want to eat. It might be possible to catch a larger amount of the predators if industrial fishing ceased for key species. This argument is detailed in the Lenfest Report of 2012ix. However as Wijkström (Ibid ii) points out "as the conversion ratio in the wild is of the order of 10kg of prey to 1kg of food fish, the aquaculture alternative is much more productive".

Farm made feeds from by-catch, including juveniles & trash fish used as feed, and whole fish used as feed for  tuna fattening. These are believed to amount to something like 6Mt per annum (mostly used in Asia) and do probably both reduce the supply of fish for food, according to Wijkstrom (Ibid ii). These sectors are not addressed by this paper which concentrates on the production of fishmeal and fish oil.

This document can also be downloaded at the bottom of this page.


i Other values from 'several':1, through 4:1 and up to 10:1 have also been quoted on platforms and papers. The probable main source of the most widely mentioned 5:1 ratio is the work of Albert Tacon and Marc Metian - including Global overview on the use of fish meal and fish oil in industrially compounded aquafeeds: Trends and future prospects published in Aquaculture No 285, 2008, where they quote a ration of 4.9:1 for salmon in 2006.

ii Wijkström, U. N. 2012. Is Feeding Fish with Fish a Viable Practice,  in R. P. Subasinghe, J.R. Arthur, D. M. Hartley, S.. S. Da Silva. M. Halwart, N. Hishamuna, C. V. Mohan & P Sorgeloos, eds'. Farming in Waters for People and Food. Proceedings of the Global Conference on Aquaculture 2010, Phuket, Thailand. 22-25 September 2010. pp33-55. FAO Rome and NACA, Bangkok.

iii For example:

  • Norway and Denmark – for Herring and Blue Whiting
  • Denmark – for Capelin, Herring and Blue Whiting
  • Chile – for Jack Mackerel & Horse Mackerel
  • Peru – in 2009 approximately 190,000 tonnes of anchovy went for human consumption (3% of the catch)

iv1 Bren 2012 – 2013 Group Project Proposal: Project title: Fishmeal v Food: Evaluating current and alternative management approaches to increase the human consumption of Peruvian anchovet

v Wijkström, U.N. 2009. The use of wild fish as aquaculture feed and its effects on income and food for the poor and the undernourished. In M.R.Hasan and M. Halwart (Eds). Fish as feed inputs for aquaculture: practices, sustainability and implications. Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper. No. 518. Rome, FAO. pp. 371–407.

vi IFFO calculated ratios based on UN FAO and IFFO data. A. Jackson & J. Shepherd (2010), "Connections between farmed and wild fish: Fishmeal and fish oil as feed ingredients in sustainable aquaculture", in OECD, Advancing the Aquaculture Agenda: Workshop Proceedings, OECD Publishing.

vii A. Jackson & J. Shepherd (2010), "Connections between farmed and wild fish: Fishmeal and fish oil as feed ingredients in sustainable aquaculture", in OECD, Advancing the Aquaculture Agenda: Workshop Proceedings, OECD Publishing, or for more details of this calculation - see the IFFO Positional Statement on FIFO.

viii FCRs can be defined in a number of ways and many values are quoted. These figures from Wikipedia should be regarded as indicative.

ix Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force released Little Fish, Big Impact. www.lenfestocean.org/foragefish