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COMMENTARY & ANALYSIS
 

September 13, 2017

Post fishmeal salmon farming: Health issues, aqua feed problems percolate up the supply chain

Fishmeal's elimination from salmon feed creates serious farm-to-fork nutritional implications -and requires a brutally transparent, de-commoditized marketing strategy.

An eFeedLink Hot Topic

By ERIC J. BROOKS

 
Declining fishmeal production has long cast a shadow over booming global aquaculture, calling into question its sustainability. Until now, the industry has coped with this situation better than expected by substituting plant-based feed materials in place of wild-catch based meals. We now have arrived at a point where aqua feed quality is impacting fish farming sustainability while creating human health concerns and marketing issues.
 
According to France-based fishmeal market analyst Jean-Francois Mittaine, from the 1.5 to 2.0 million tonne levels once taken for granted, Peru's fishmeal output fell 27%, from 864,400 tonnes in 2015 to an estimated 631,000 tonnes in 2016. This has made world fishmeal output permanently fall back to mid-1970s levels. By comparison, aquaculture production, which was 6 million tonnes in 1975, now totals 80 million tonnes a year.
 
With supplies going in the opposite direction from aquaculture production, fishmeal's price rose from approximately US$450/tonne in the year 2000 into the US$1,500 to US$2,000/tonne range since 2010. While fishmeal's price has since fallen sharply to near US$1,100/tonne, it remains very high by historical standards.
 
Moreover, no one is buying more fishmeal despite the price drop: Everyone knows that it is scarce, that its production will never rise beyond peaks set nearly three decades ago. The decision to keep fishmeal out of salmon feed no matter what its price has already been made.

With this irreversible, secular fall in fishmeal inclusion rates comes partly successful attempts to augment the digestibility of plant-based feed sources. This problem is especially true for carnivorous fish species such as salmon, whose digestive systems are not adapted to absorbing nutrients from plant-based inputs.
 
From its 60% rate in the 1980s, fishmeal comprised 42% of salmon feed by 2000 and 35% by 2005. Salmon feed's fishmeal inclusion rates subsequently plunged to 27% by 2010 and 15% by 2015, with some feed suppliers lowering its inclusion into the 10% to 12% range.
 

 
Aside from having difficulty digesting plant-based feeds, their fatty acid profiles do not match salmon's nutritional requirements, particularly younger fish. Instead of being rich in EPA and DHA like fishmeal, the omega 3 fat in rapeseed meal for example, is mostly in the form of alpha linoleic acid (ALA). Not only is soymeal's omega 3 in ALA form but it is overwhelmed by far higher levels of omega 6 fats.
 
Salmonids are incapable of converting ALA into the EPA and DHA that is ubiquitous in fishmeal. Nor are they used to tolerating the high omega 6 fat levels of many plant-based meals.
 
According to Alltech aquaculture nutrition consultant Ionnis Nengas, the substation of plant inputs in place of fishmeal resulted in "High fiber and high anti-nutritional ingredient challenges, along with fatty acid deficiencies and indigestible plant based feed components." Problems created by the substitution of plant-based inputs in place of fishmeal includes "Impairment of the fish gut structure, skeletal deformation, and lower flesh quality."
 
Once past the smolt stage, can the high enteritis incidence and weaker immune systems of salmon raised on mostly plant-based feed ingredients could account for an escalating number of disease-induced losses? Anant S. Bharadwaj, nutrition director at Integrated Aquaculture International USA notes that salmonids undergo, "Changes in [gut] bacterial communities with high levels of soybean meal."
 
Poor gut health and compromised immunes system can leave salmon vulnerable to diseases. They may also prevent vaccines from working properly, especially if plant based feed ingredients are contaminated with mycotoxins.
 
Moreover, while we can minimize the impact of plant-based feeds on salmon growth, salmon flesh's own nutritional characteristics are being altered. According to a study headed by Stirling University, researcher Dr. Douglas Tocher ("Impact of sustainable feeds on omega-3 long-chain fatty acid levels in farmed Atlantic salmon, 2006–2015", M. Sprague, J.R. Dick and D.R. Tocher, 22 Feb 2016), the amount of omega 3 fat per 100g in Scottish farmed salmon has fallen by 50% in five years.
 
From 2.9g /100g of omega fat (1.5g DHA +1.4EPA) in 2000, the omega 3 fat level in farmed salmon fell to 2.8g/100g (1.4gDHA+1.4gEPA) by 2006. It then fell slightly to 2.6g/100g (1.4gDHA+1.2gEPA) by 2010. This coincides with fishmeal's price setting new price records around US$1,200/tonne in the late 2000s.
 
After 2010, fishmeal's price repeatedly equaled (and sometimes even exceeded) US$2,000/tonne as Peruvian anchovy catches plunged to 50% below peak levels. Thereafter, salmon feed fishmeal inclusion rates plunged –and with it, salmon's omega 3 fat content.
 
Stirling University's study found that by 2015, Scottish farmed salmon's omega 3 fat levels had plunged to 1.3g/100g (0.7DHA+0.6EPA), approximately half the level of five years earlier and at least 60% lower than the level seen in farmed salmon in the early 1990s. When interviewed by BBC News ("Omega-3 oils in farmed salmon 'halve in five years' ", 16 Oct. 2016), Dr. Tocher stated, "Five years ago, a portion of Atlantic salmon of 130g was able to deliver … our weekly recommended intake. Now, the level of omega-3 has halved."

Moreover, with Norwegian salmon making up most of the world market, their lower fishmeal inclusion rates imply that most farmed salmon may have even lower omega 3 fat levels than what the Scottish study estimated.
 
Moreover, ongoing efforts to minimize salmon feed's fishmeal content means that there is great uncertainty about exactly how much omega 3 fat consumers are receiving: A 2015 study by America's National Institute of Health determined that surveyed farmed salmon's omega 3 fat levels varied from 0.72g/100g to 1.53mg/100 grams, a difference of over 100%. Growing public awareness of this issue creates a salmon marketing problem, particularly among educated, well informed, higher income consumers.
 
Furthermore, while farmed salmon's omega 3 content is falling and uncertain, their omega 3: omega 6 fat ratio is rapidly becoming skewed in favor of the latter. A 1990 study by van Vliet and Katan (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 51:1-2) found that wild caught salmon had an omega 3: omega 6 fat ratio of 11:1, whereas farmed salmon had a markedly lower 6:1 ratio. This was in the days when salmon feed fishmeal inclusion rates were above 50% and before today's steep decline in fishmeal inclusion rates commenced.
 
After staying above 6:1 through the year 2000, farmed salmon's omega 3: omega 6 ratio fell to near 5:1 by 2006. After 2010, even as omega 3 fat levels plunged, the amount of omega 6 fat in salmon doubled over five years. Based on the Stirling University study's results, as of 2015, farmed salmon's omega 3: omega 6 fat ratio had plunged to 1.3:1. This is barely a tenth of the omega 3: omega 6 ratio of wild caught salmon.

As human health depends not only on the absolute level of omega 3 intake but the ratio of omega 3: omega 6 consumed, the inclusion of plant-based feeds creates a serious long-term marketing problem for salmon growers. In the future, will it be scientifically accurate to call farmed salmon or other plant-raised seafood 'healthier' than livestock derived proteins? This question is increasingly on the mind of upmarket, educated consumers –and the answer could kick seafood's 'healthy' reputation out from under it.
 
One person who understands the marketing implications is Einar Wathne, President of Cargill Aqua Nutrition Norway. At The Aquaculture Roundtable Series (TARS 2017) event held in Bali, Indonesia, Wathne shared that according to a survey conducted by his company, 88% of US consumers are more likely to buy seafood that is certified and sustainable –but 50% of those same consumers still preferring wild caught seafood.
 
In this situation, a coincident removal of marine aqua feed ingredients and rising consumer awareness of changing seafood nutritional profiles is a public relations disaster waiting-to-happen.
 
Wathne opined that if the industry is to escape mounting, seafood marketing dilemmas, "Transparency is a prerequisite from feed to plate." For Wathne, transparency is about "How our feed is made and what are the standards in our supply chain. We have to go to our partners in the supply chain and address issues they may not want to talk about." –and Wathne specifically mentioned feed ingredient quality as a key concern.
 
All this is part of the larger, emerging challenge called "reputation management", which he considers, "A critical skill in a transparent market with speed and borderless information."
 
Wathne clearly understands that in the age of internet and world spanning social media, trying to deny the above-mentioned impact of altering feed ingredients on human nutrition is futile. One day, we will develop fishmeal alternatives that restore farmed salmon's nutritional characteristics to the levels taken for granted in the 1990s.
 
Until that day comes, an honest, transparent consumer marketing strategy implicitly leads to new branding and product differentiation strategies: One hand, until a substitute input that is nutritionally equivalent to fishmeal is invented, it is impossible to grow several million tonnes of salmon on 50% fishmeal diets. On the other hand, we can grow a minority of salmon on high fishmeal inclusion diets, creating a very profitable market niche in the process.
 
For no matter how one feels about these issues, one thing cannot be denied: The 'reputation management' and feed-to-plate transparency advocated by Wathne advocates implicitly leads to the de-commoditizing salmon into regular cuts and more premium fillets that have been fed omega 3 rich feed.
 
Salmon farming's aqua feed woes have already impacted product quality and consumer awareness of such matters is clearly growing. Fortunately, they do have history on their side: Just like Norwegian salmon growers pioneered global aquaculture, they must now invent new ways of marketing farmed seafood. The sooner they do so, the better.
 


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