Most anchovies and sardines don’t end up on pizzas. Instead, they go to processing plants where they are turned into pellets to feed farmed fish. Now scientists and entrepreneurs are finding ways to create vegetarian diets for species like trout, which may lessen the strain on over-fished oceans.
World demand for seafood is rising, but many of the world’s oceans are already overfished. As a result, fish farming is booming. By 2030 nearly two-thirds of seafood worldwide will be farm-raised, according to a World Bank report issued last month.
From the environmental perspective, that is creating a major problem: millions of tons of wild fish like anchovies, sardines and mackerel are being caught in the ocean to feed farm-raised fish like salmon. In many cases, it can take three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed fish.
“We’re depleting the world’s oceans to make a cheap protein,” said Kenny Belov, co-founder of TwoXsea, a sustainable sea food company in San Francisco. “The question is whether we’re catching fish that will be extinct in our lifetime.”
TwoXsea supplies rainbow trout to grocery stores and restaurants in the Bay Area and is the only seafood distributor in the country to raise carnivorous farmed fish on an entirely vegetarian diet.
Up to 90 percent of tiny harvested forage fish from the oceans go into pet food, poultry feed and fishmeal, never destined for human consumption.
Small, filter feeding fish were traditionally used because they were inexpensive. But as wild fish stocks diminish, the cost of these forage fish increases. Meanwhile, the price for plants like corn and soy has decreased.
To avoid using wild fish in farmed fish diets, the United States Department of Agriculture has spent the past ten years researching alternative diets that include plants, animal processing products, insects and single-cell organisms like yeast, bacteria, and algae.
The USDA has proven that eight species of carnivorous fish – white sea bass, walleye, rainbow trout, cobia, arctic char, yellowtail, Atlantic salmon and coho salmon – can get enough nutrients from these alternative sources without eating other fish.
If widely adopted by the aquaculture industry, this plant-based diet could significantly reduce the amount of wild fish that are harvested and turned into fish meal pellets.
The research comes at a pivotal time when a growing population will mean an increased demand for seafood. Americans consumed 4.5 billion pounds of seafood in 2012 and to meet that demand, 91 percent of it was imported.
Without increased aquaculture production, the world will face a seafood shortage of 50 to 80 million tons by 2030, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
But that production needs to be sustainable by decreasing the use of wild fish according to the USDA’s Rick Barrows.
“Fish don’t require fishmeal, in fact, it made fish nutritionists lazy,” said Barrows, a Research Physiologist for the USDA.
“Giving them fishmeal was easy and we didn’t have to understand the nutrient requirements.”
Infographic: Can farmed fish go vegetarian?
Barrows said that fish, like people, don’t need specific foods but rather specific nutrients in order to stay healthy. In fact, all animals essentially need the same forty nutrients—a combination of amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
Fish get omega-3 fatty acids from their diets, usually from fish oil in the pellets they eat. While fish oil is a source of heart health fatty acids, for both fish and humans, fish can get the same omega-3s from plants like algae.
With this in mind Belov started TwoxSea. He was approached by Netscape co-founder William Foss who was disturbed by the collapse of the sardine fishery off the California coast in the 1950s.
“The ocean has more or less been treated as an unlimited source of seafood and it’s not,” Foss said.
Foss wanted to see if farmed fish could be raised on a sustainable diet. He called Belov who was working for SalmonAid, a non-profit promoting wild salmon conservation.
They started TwoxSea after looking for aquaculture facilities that would replace fishmeal with alternative feeds like corn, soy and algae.
“I started cold calling people from the California aquaculture list and called literally every farm and no one was willing to say yes,” said Foss. People were uneasy with testing a new diet and didn’t see the benefit if the sustainable feed cost more than fishmeal.
“David McFarland was the only one who said yes,” he said.
McFarland runs McFarland Springs Trout farm, based in Susanville, California. He was raising trout to stock rivers and lakes. The idea piqued his interest and after two years of testing the diet on a small scale and tweaking the ingredients he started feeding it to the fish.
“I thought if we’re not doing it, who will?” McFarland said. He admits there are drawbacks to using an alternative diet, namely the cost. His pellets cost 90 cents more than traditional fishmeal, which can add up since feed is the largest fixed cost in aquaculture.
“We’re not losing money but we’re not in this to get rich,” said McFarland. The trout farmer said his company is breaking even since the algae for the feed is more expensive than forage fish.
He’d wanted to feed them spirulina, an algae often sold as a nutritional supplement at health food stores, but said that no company will sell it at a low price.
“We thought biofuel companies would want in on the action,” McFarland said.
Biofuels are fuels made from plants that can be used in place of petroleum-based fuels.
“It’s another way for [biofuel] companies to market their algae, but no one would take us up on it.”
There’s also the price to consumers. Belov says his fish costs more per pound than traditional farmed trout. It’s $1.50 more expensive than rainbow trout sold at grocery chains like Safeway.
While McFarland Farms Trout is the only commercial aquaculture facility in the country using an entirely vegetarian diet, Barrows said it’s the future of aquaculture.
“There is hope that we can have a growing aquaculture industry that is sustainable and we won’t have to rely on the ocean to get our fish” said Barrows.