Setember 23, 2015
Aquaculture's long boom ends amid rising resistance from man and nature
Pathogens, food safety concerns and resource shortages are limiting aquaculture's ability to expand. New frontier producers are required and sea food marketing strategies need to be revised.
By Eric J. BROOKS
An eFeedLink Hot Topic
For the world aquaculture sector, three decades of easy growth are over. Going forward, a protein line once touted as a healthy alternative to livestock production is now confronted by issues of finite resources, food safety and ecological sustainability. With nature itself constraining the industry, aquaculture may expand by far less than the 6.6% annual rate it has maintained since the late 2000s.
Nature, antibiotics, consumers fight back
It does not matter if we are dealing with shrimp or salmon, advanced ecologically sustainable Norwegian fish farms, or antibiotic dependent shrimp growers in China -all are finding that nature is defying the urge to further boost stocking densities. On one hand, countries like Norway employ a multitude of vaccines to prevent as many pathogenic outbreaks as possible. Even so, they find themselves limiting total allowable fish biomass and are forced to boost output incrementally, lest disease outbreaks lead to heavy losses.
On the other hand, Chilean salmon growers take advantage of Norway's restrained salmon production -only to find that the antibiotic levels used to boost stocking densities gets them banned from western supermarkets -and that such measures undermine seafood's reputation as a 'healthy' protein line.
Similarly, Thailand use of ever higher stocking densities to maintain its maintain its top shrimp exporter position ended disastrously, with EMS causing it to lose half its world market share in just two years. At this point, no one expects Thailand to grow 600,000 tonnes of shrimp again any time in the foreseeable future. In China and Vietnam, the overuse of antibiotics to boost stocking densities and production led both to banned exports and later to Thai-style EMS crashes in shrimp production.
Indeed, nature's strong resistance to ever higher stocking densities and growing consumer revulsion to meet in antibiotics makes one thing clear: Because each country only has a finite volume of water resources, the inability to boost stocking densities indefinitely implies that in the future, no one country will dominate an aquaculture line the way Thai shrimp did in the past, or the way Norwegian salmon does so at this time. The opening up of new frontier areas in places such as Oceana for salmon or Latin America for shrimp might be the only sustainable, natural way of boosting the aquaculture output of many species.
Fishmeal, human health, black markets
But nature is using more than stocking densities to make life difficult for aquaculture farmers. With its cost quadrupling since the turn of the century, the shadow fishmeal casts over aquaculture's bright future has darkened considerably of late.
In September, fishmeal supplier MSI Ceres stated up to 100 foreign fishing vessels licensed to catch fish for human consumption were found to be illegally catching and processing anchovy into fishmeal, then selling it in illegal, black market trading.
Behind such law breaking desperation is the following fact: From an undulating peak of 6.5 million to 7.5 million tonnes in the 1990s, fishmeal output totaled 4.3 million tonnes in 2014. As the accompanying chart shows, China's fishmeal demand leaves very little for the rest of the world market.
The IFFO states that world fishmeal production is 'trapped' in a 4 to 5 million tonne plateau. The FAO however, expects aqua feed output to double, from 43 million tonnes in 2013 to a UN FAO estimated 90 million tonnes in 2030.
Although a growing fishmeal shortage of fishmeal does not technically constrain aqua feed output or farmed fish production, it has serious consequences for the industry. While the impact of low fishmeal levels on fish growth and performance can be overcome, reducing fishmeal inclusion rates by 80% or more carries its own rising cost.
According to Ionnis Nengas, aquaculture nutrition expert at Alltech Europe, when aqua feed's fishmeal content is reduced from 49% to 5%, Atlantic salmon's EPA and DHA content in body fat fell from 15% to 6%. Their ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats fell from the 'healthy' 7.0 range to just 0.7. Raised at a 50% fishmeal feed inclusion rate, salmon flesh contains 2.3g of EPA and DHA per 100g. With fishmeal inclusion rates in salmon feed falling to 10% or lower, this falls to 1.0g of EPA and DHA per 100g or less.
Similarly, when fishmeal was removed from sea bream diets, the proportion of EPA and DHA in their body fat fell from 9.9% to 3.1% and 11.8% to 5.8% respectively. Their ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats similarly dropped from 7.0 to 2.0. The public is increasingly aware that adequate omega 3 fat intake is required for everything from heart disease prevention to maximizing the IQ of young children. Hence, falling fishmeal inclusion rates will have a detrimental impact on the marketing of fish to wealthy, educated consumers.
New, differentiated marketing strategies needed
An IFFO report titled, "Is Aquaculture production growth putting pressure on feed fish stocks?" (www.iffo.net/node/464) notes that using plant-based ingredients in place of fishmeal, "Is already resulting in lower omega-3 levels in some aquaculture products, such as salmon fillets." It concludes that, "The portion of salmon that meets international health authority guidelines on human omega-3 intake may not be achieved by all salmon products because there will be less fish oil in their diets."
The report goes on to predict that, "Some retailers will wish to differentiate their products by insisting that their salmon continues to have high levels of fish oil in the diet so that they can promote their products as 'the healthiest farmed salmon'. Meanwhile, other more price sensitive retailers will market their salmon as 'value salmon' and reduce the health claims, thereby allowing further reductions in the fish oil content of the diet."
-Squeezed between antibiotic use on one side and fishmeal shortages on the other, the days when seafood is seen as a 'healthy alternative' to land based meats are coming to an end. American and European retailers are already differentiating supermarket salmon on whether it is farmed or wild caught, raised with antibiotics or antibiotic free. Canned seafood already states omega 3 fat levels: It is only a matter of time before falling fishmeal inclusion rates turn this into a serious marketing problem.
With the retail end of the supply chain already responding to consumer demand, aquaculture producers must also adjust the way they grow fish. Fish destined for upmarket consumers will boost high fishmeal inclusion rates, low stocking densities, no antibiotics -and carry a very high price. 'Value seafood' destined for the mass market will have far less fishmeal inclusion in feed. The price of their lower cost will be low omega 3 fat levels and traces of the antibiotics that made it possible to raise them cheaply at high stocking densities.
In sum, we are witnessing a sharp trade-off between the quantity and quality of raising fish raised, the cost of their aqua feed -and rising consumer resistance to the consequences for human health. These issues will become increasingly important to aquaculture's future development.
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