- The aquaculture industry is growing faster than the human population, at about eight percent each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
- About 20 percent of the world’s fish goes to aquaculture, depleting wild-caught forage fish such as anchovies and krill to provide essential oils and protein for the development and growth of these cultivated foods.
- The first team to sell 100,000 metric tons of fish-free feed or, if that threshold isn’t reached, that sells the most feed by the end of the contest, on September 15, 2017, will be named the winner of the F3 challenge.
When the world is staring down a population that’s pushing quickly toward nine billion people, aquaculture offers an efficient way to produce high-protein food for the hungry masses. But there’s a catch: While fish are feeding the multitudes of people, there may not be enough left for other fish to eat. As the farming of fish, shrimp, and mollusks expands, the old adage about “plenty of fish in the sea” may no longer ring true.
The aquaculture industry is growing faster than the human population, at about eight percent each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. About 20 percent of the world’s fish goes to aquaculture, depleting wild-caught forage fish such as anchovies and krill to provide essential oils and protein for the development and growth of these cultivated foods.
“Even if the industry gets to a sustainable maximum yield, that just means we’ll take the same amount of fish out of the sea without affecting how much we want next year,” says Kevin Fitzsimmons, an aquaculture expert and environmental sciences professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Nobody interviewed the whales and dolphins and seabirds as to whether they’re getting enough anchovies, menhaden and other forage fish.”
The Fish-Free Feed (F3) challenge was created to accelerate the development of aquaculture diets made without fish or fish oil. Eight teams of innovators from around the world were attracted to the sustainable premise and the promise of a $200,000 (USD) prize, raised through crowdfunding and sponsorship from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the New England Aquarium, the University of Arizona, and the World Bank. The first team to sell 100,000 metric tons of fish-free feed or, if that threshold isn’t reached, that sells the most feed by the end of the contest, on September 15, 2017, will be named the winner.
“There’s a lot of research going on out there, the problem is getting the word out in the industry and getting people to recognize that all kinds of ingredients — single-cell proteins, algal extracts or insect meals — could be used instead of fish,” says Fitzsimmons, chair of the contest committee. Beyond generating new feed formulations, he also hopes the contest will connect alternative ingredient manufacturers with feed companies and investors who can help smaller companies scale up production.
One of those smaller companies looking to ramp up production is TomAlgae, a Belgian-based manufacturer of microalgae that feeds shrimp during the earliest life stages. By growing a specific diatom under carefully controlled conditions, they take the guesswork out of nutrition and avoid contamination with pathogens that can reduce the nutritional value of this food source.
“We want to replace the live algae used in hatcheries,” says William van der Riet, the company’s cofounder. “There is an enormous technology gap in the early stages. They rely on a very artisanal way of producing their own feed when they should be relying on feed with quality that is consistent from day to day.”
This specialized feed can’t compete with the bigger companies on a tonnage level, notes van der Riet. Under ideal conditions, about 100 grams of the freeze-dried micro-algae (which is rehydrated before use) could feed one million shrimp larvae and produce about 15 tons of shrimp meat. The F3 challenge is a way to join with other companies producing fish-free products and create a complete chain of sustainable feeds for aquaculture, starting from the hatchery stage, he says.
On a larger scale, algae is harnessed by TerraVia, a California-based company, to produce docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) found in fish oil. Roughly 400,000 tons of fish oil go into feeds for farmed salmon and trout, making aquaculture the single biggest industry for consuming long-chain omega-3s like fish oil, notes Walter Rakitsky, TerraVia’s senior vice president of emerging business. Algae is the original source of the EFAs that bioaccumulate in fish.
Previously focused on extracting oils for biofuel production from algal fermentation, TerraVia uses its bioreactors in Brazil to produce DHA. With facilities capable of making tens of thousands of tons of AlgalPrimeDHA, Rakitsky estimates that every ton of their algae-derived DHA saves about 40 tons of wild-caught fish.
With a sustainable ingredient to offer, TerraVia teamed up for the F3 challenge with Star Milling, a Bay Area feed company, and TwoXSea, an environmentally motivated fish wholesaler headquartered in San Francisco. Their contest entry is a rainbow trout feed produced by Star Milling, and formulated for TwoXSea by USDA research physiologist Rick Barrows to include the TerraVia’s algae-made DHA as well as other healthy ingredients such as flax oil and pistachio meal.
The quest for healthier fish food wasn’t new to TwoXSea, a company cofounded by Bill Foss, a hi-tech expat who helped start a seafood restaurant — called Fish. — to serve sustainable seafood and educate consumers.
“We treat the ocean like a toilet with everything we dump in [the water], we don’t know what inventory is in there, we can’t control it, and yet we blindly depend on it for food. That’s stupid,” says Foss. “Every consumer needs to start making educated decisions and take some responsibility — not just on farmed fish.”
The obvious solution, for Foss, was to stop sourcing seafood from somewhere else and start farming freshwater trout on a plant-based diet. He calls the process “renewable” rather than sustainable. “We want to be involved in things that can be replicated, so that generations from now we’ll still have access to the same fish,” he says.
Similar to Foss’ restaurant patrons, more than one kind of meal needs to be on the aquaculture menu because each species has different nutrient requirements. For example, the plant-based foods formulated for omnivorous tilapia might not be suitable for carnivorous salmon.
The Ridley Corporation, a leading agri-feed producer based in Australia, focused on developing feed for prawns, a seafood for which experts estimate that global aquaculture production will grow by more than 5 percent in the coming years. With a novel ingredient called Novacq, their contest entry represents a long-term effort to develop more sustainable feeds that boost growth performance, enhance disease resistance, and reduce waste.
“We’ve been looking at sustainable feed strategies for many years, so the thinking behind the competition matches ours really well,” says Sunil Kadri, head of business development at Ridley. “Whether or not we win, we want to be part of this international movement and work with like-minded people and companies; this competition gives us that opportunity.”
Those kind of opportunities are lining up. Before the next competition milestone in mid-January — a first tally of sales receipts for the new feeds — the F3 contestants are invited to a round of meet-ups with fellow competitors, selected industry insiders, and investors.
“We didn’t set this up to pick winners or losers,” says Fitzsimmons of the F3 challenge. “Having all these companies talking to each other and using a fish-free diet — that’s a success unto itself.”
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