Mapping the future of marine ingredients

A recent seminar to discuss the perspectives of the fishmeal and fish oil industry organised by the Nordic Marine Think Tank and EUFishmeal with support from the Nordic Council of Ministers showed that the sector faced both challenges and opportunities.

Today the environment in which fishmeal and oil manufacturers operate is in a state of flux. On the one hand aquaculture production is expanding globally, on the other fish feed manufacturers are using less and less fishmeal and fish oil in their products as alternatives become available. New markets for fish oil and fishmeal are opening up in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and other specialised industries, yet at the same time the supply and prices of fishmeal and fish oil fluctuate. The regulatory framework, issues of food security, climate change, technological development, and stakeholder views, none of which is static, contribute to the constantly changing circumstances which the industry must negotiate.

Trimmings and off-cuts increasingly used as raw material for fishmeal and fish oil

Fishmeal is used to produce fodder for terrestrial farmed animals such as pigs and chickens, but its main use is as an ingredient in fish feed. Over the last 10 years the use of fishmeal in poultry and pork feeds has declined as a proportion of the total production, while its use in fish feed has been steady. However, proportionately, the use of fishmeal and fish oil in fish feeds has been diminishing. They are still, however, important components of fish fodder, ultimately responsible for the presence of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in the fish itself and thus also in the final product. Europe is a significant producer of these ingredients accounting for 10% of the world’s fishmeal and 20% of its fish oil production, according to Johannes Palsson, President of EUfishmeal, an association of European producers. One source of the raw material is the trimmings and other waste products generated by the fish processing sector. Roughly 35% of the raw material used to produce fishmeal and fish oil in Europe is from the processing industry.  The remaining 65% of the raw material comes from catches of different species of small oily fish such as sandeel, Norway pout, capelin, sprat, sardines, anchovies, and blue whiting.

What makes these species particularly suitable for reduction? Primarily the price. According to Hans Lassen, a member of the Nordic Marine Think Tank and former head of science at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), fish that is easy to find and is available in large quantities and at high concentrations can be delivered at low cost. In addition, the use of manpower for catching and handling must be kept to a minimum. These species meet these criteria, but other factors also play a role. Some of these species are not suitable for direct human consumption because of their taste, the presence of bones or due to the lack of a culture of eating them, e.g. sandeel. Others are edible, but for reasons of logistics, or insufficient market value it is more efficient to use them for the production of fishmeal or fish oil. Yet others, such as sprats, anchovies, and sardines, for which there is a market, may be converted to fishmeal and fish oil, if the quality is poor or a temporary glut of fish has depressed prices to the point where it is more profitable to sell the fish to a fishmeal or oil factory.

Marine Ingredients Denmark
Europe produces 10% of the world’s fishmeal and 20% of its fish oil. Here, the production plant of FF Skagen in Denmark.

Small pelagics are a critical part of the food chain

Catching these fish can have a bearing on the environment because many of these species have an important role to play in the marine ecosystem. Sandeel, sprats, capelin, and Norway pout among others are known as forage fish. They feed on plankton and in turn are preyed on by larger fish, birds, and mammals thereby transferring energy from lower to higher trophic levels in marine ecosystems. According to Anna Rindorf, a researcher at DTU (Technical University of Denmark) Aqua, fishing for forage fish has of course the direct impact of removing them from the ecosystem, but there can also be more subtle effects, such as a change in behaviour by forage fish or predators in response to fishing. High fishing pressure can, particularly in conjunction with other factors such as climatic conditions, contribute to decreased stock productivity from which it may be difficult to recover. In general, says Ms Rindorf, forage fish are less resilient to high fishing pressure than other species. Even the sustainable exploitation of forage fish carries a higher risk to recruitment and to predators than is the case in other fisheries. Because many marine species are dependent on forage fish as a primary food source, management of these fisheries balances allowable catches with the needs of the ecosystem.

The biology of small pelagic fish, says Mr Lassen, also makes them vulnerable to changes in their surroundings. Characterised by small size, fast growth, early maturity, high fecundity, and short lifespan their populations are highly influenced by the environment, which can trigger changes in distribution, and rapid expansions and reductions in numbers. Forage fish stocks in the North Atlantic are managed within safe biological boundaries. However, yields from fisheries that supply the raw materials for the fishmeal and fish oil industry have been decreasing over the last decades. This decline is being compensated for by the increased use of waste from the processing industry.


Production of carnivorous fish species is growing most rapidly

The global production of fishmeal has declined in the decade to 2014 from roughly 7m tonnes to about 4.5m tonnes. This, according to Frank Asche from the University of Stavanger, is partly because fish from reduction fisheries started going for human consumption instead. Over this period the volume used in the production of fish feed has stayed more or less stable at about 3m tonnes. Production of fish oil has hovered around 1m tonnes over the ten years. The volume being used in fish feed shows a slightly declining trend, while the amount being used for direct human consumption, though small, has been steadily increasing. Fishmeal is used in aquaculture feeds for many different fish species, but it is feeds for crustaceans, marine fish and salmonids that are the biggest users, Tilapia, eel, cyprinid, and other species’ feeds use the rest. FAO reports that in the decade to 2014, globally, production of fed species increased from approximately 28m tonnes to about 50m tonnes. It is expected to remain one of the fastest growing sectors for animal food production although growth will slow from 5.4% to 3.0% in the decade to 2025.

Andrew Jackson from IFFO, the marine ingredients organisation, confirmed that growth is strongest in species requiring feed. Production is also becoming more intensive so there is less reliance on the natural productivity of the water and more on feed. Demand for feed is in turn increasing the demand for fishmeal and fish oil, as producers know that these ingredients have specific properties that make them particularly useful in aquatic feeds and they cannot freely be substituted by vegetable ingredients. However, feed manufacturers have gradually been reducing the amount of fishmeal and fish oil used in salmonid diets. On average, noted Mr Jackson, the proportion of marine ingredients in fish feed has declined from 43% to 24% in the decade to 2014. Odd Eliasen, COO of Havsbrun, a vertically integrated Faroese company farming high quality salmon, corroborated this, estimating that the marine ingredients content of a standard feed recipe in 2016 would be just 20%. Anders Aksnes from Ewos, a major producer of feeds for the salmon and trout farming industry, showed how the proportion of marine ingredients in salmonid feeds has declined from 69% in the 90s to 31% today and could fall to 10% in the future. This drop in the use of fishmeal as an ingredient in feed is possibly the only way to sustain the growing aquaculture production of carnivorous species.

That said, there may be a lower limit to the proportion of marine ingredients in fish feed as they play a vital role in the diet of the fish. Researchers at two Norwegian research institutions Nofima and Nifes showed in their intervention how low levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in salmon diets resulted in increased mortality as well as other negative physical and physiological changes. Declining proportions of marine ingredients in the feed is also reflected in the omega-3 fatty acid content of the fillet, which has fallen from 2.7 g in 2005 to 1.3 g in 2015 per 100 g according to Nifes’ seafood data surveillance programme. This suggests that for consumers the healthfulness of the fish measured in terms of omega-3 fatty acid content is reduced with lower levels of marine ingredients in the feed.


Fishmeal production will only increase slightly over the next decade

Fishmeal output in 2025, as presented by Stefania Vannuccini from FAO, is only expected to be around 0.7m tonnes more than in 2014, with the increase coming entirely from residues from the processing industry. But although the proportion of trimmings and cut-offs as raw materials in the production of fishmeal and fish oil has been increasing, there may be more lucrative uses for them in the future. Carl-Christian Schmidt from the Nordic Marine Think Tank suggested that markets for pet-food, surimi, and other processed products for human consumption may be prepared to offer higher prices for this material, which would limit availability for the fishmeal and fish oil industry. On the other hand, the ban on discards in the EU may result in a new source of raw material for the fishmeal and fish oil industry. In any event, prices of both fishmeal and fish oil are projected to rise in the decade to 2025, said Ms Vannuccini, with a peak in 2021 following El Niño.

There are however other factors that also influence global production of fishmeal. Changes in fisheries management regimes have shifted incentives so that it can be more profitable to treat the catches better and sell the fish on the higher-paying market for human consumption rather than on the market for fishmeal and fish oil. Aside from this, questions are being raised about the ethics of using fish, that could be used for human nourishment, for reduction to fishmeal and fish oil even though these ingredients are vital for the production of farmed fish for direct human consumption. In many developing countries fish contributes more than 50% to the overall intake of animal protein, reported Ms Vannuccini, and pelagic species form a large part of total fish consumption. At the same time, there is increasing demand for fish oil for direct human consumption – typically as nutritional supplements. This too demands higher quality fish and there is a substantial price premium for the raw material if it meets the requirements necessary to manufacture fish oil for human consumption.

On the other hand, raw material that is properly handled and stored also makes for better fish meal and thereby better feed. Mr Aksnes from Ewos pointed out that microbial growth in the raw material (suggesting poor handling) reduced the nutrient content of the fish meal, decreased digestibility, and potentially produced compounds that could retard growth in the fish. High quality raw material should therefore command a premium on the fish meal market too. There are thus different forces of demand and supply that are pulling the market in opposite directions, but the trend is definitely that producers are demanding a higher quality of raw material which can easily be met by modern fishing vessels.

Manfred Klinkhardt
Demand for marine ingredients including fish oil is increasing rapidly on the markets for nutraceuticals, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Here, at the Norwegian company Marine Ingredients, bottles of high grade fish oil are packaged for use in these and other sectors.


Mesopelagic species – a potential new source of raw material?

The increase in aquaculture production coupled with the decline in yields from reduction fisheries has prompted a search for new sources of raw material that can be used to produce fishmeal and fish oil. As mentioned above off-cuts, trimmings, and offal from the processing industry are already being used and today contribute about a third of all the raw material used in the production of fishmeal and fish oil. Another potential source, as presented by Michael St. John from DTU Aqua, is mesopelagic fish. These fish, which are distributed globally, typically live from 200 to 1,000 m down in the water column, but come each day to the upper 150 m to feed before returning to the depths they frequent. Recent studies suggest a biomass in the range of 10bn tonnes comprising fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. A rough calculation shows that less than 3% of the mesopelagic biomass would have supplied enough feed for global aquaculture production in 2014. However, Dr St. John cautions that harvesting these species bears several risks: among others they play a role in carbon sequestration and thereby climate regulation, and are also prey for many higher trophic level species and thus important for maintaining biodiversity. Much more detailed information is needed about the mesopelagic community before sustainable harvesting plans can be devised and they can be used to produce fishmeal and fish oil.

The symposium threw up several issues relevant to the fishmeal and fish oil sector. Among the tentative conclusions were that demand for marine ingredients will continue to grow as the global aquaculture industry expands. Increasingly fishmeal and fish oil will be substituted with other ingredients in fish feeds, as other industries such as nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals offer more attractive markets. Other sources of raw material for fishmeal and fish oil production will gradually come on stream. Forage fisheries will increasingly take measures to improve the quality of the catch to cash in on the premium it triggers, and the links between fish feed manufacturers, fishmeal and fish oil producers, and forage fishers may get closer.