Back in 2001, fish meal was about $480 per metric ton. This year it has exceeded $2,000 and there is absolutely no indication it will ever get any cheaper anytime soon. Indeed, an upward trend in fish meal prices was identified several years ago. This was based on the fact that the global aquaculture industry, which depends to a large degree on wild catch to feed farmed fish, continues to increase output while fish meal production is stagnant from over-exploitation of natural resources. 

Fish meal demand

Peru and Chile produce about 70 percent of global fish meal. These two countries can hardly meet the demand for China that uses up more than half of fish meal destined worldwide for aquaculture. This demand puts other species, such as piglets and broilers at a disadvantage as they cannot compete with farmed fish in terms of return on investment. In fact, even the aquaculture industry is looking for fish meal replacements, but without much success, despite continuing substantial investments in research and development.

Piglet, broiler feed

Piglet and broiler feeds no longer contain fish meal at levels previously viewed as optimal, which is between 5 percent and 10 percent. Today, the most expensive piglet feeds may contain a small amount of fish meal, perhaps 1 percent or 2 percent. Broiler pre-starters with any fish meal are rare, especially when it comes to using the high- quality type fish meal, with over 70 percent crude protein. 

To replace fish meal, other proteins are currently used with variable success, depending on original formulation and desired performance goals. Soybean protein is the basis for most commercial fish meal replacement products, often with the addition of a small amount of fish meal. Such products offer the quick solution of 1:1 substitution, but results remain unpredictable. Alternatively, other protein sources of animal or even plant origin, but of greater biological value than soy protein are used with more success. The best of which remains milk protein, but it also is quite expensive. Unfortunately, these proteins are now experiencing increasing demand from the aquaculture industry, as well.

Replacing fish meal 

In the end, it comes down to balancing two aspects when piglet or broiler pre-starters are formulated without fish meal. First, the protein quality of fish meal should be outmatched by the replacing ingredients, which is best achieved by using a blend of sources. Secondly, and most important is feed intake.

Several formulas continue to use fish meal as a feed intake enhancer. This effect is quite strong, especially with high-quality fish meal in simple corn-soy diets, and unfortunately it is the most difficult to replicate. Most likely candidates to counter-balance the appetite effect of fish meal are proteins of animal origin. Anything that improves gastrointestinal health also promotes feed intake. This indirect route can reduce the need for appetizing ingredients; a lesson learned by the need to replace antibiotics with other additives in Europe and elsewhere.

Fish oil benefits

Recent evidence indicates that fish oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids-indispensable in feeding farmed fish, may have beneficial for piglet and broiler immune system health. Although replacing these fatty acids with similar omega-3 sources of plant origin has largely failed in the case of farmed fish, results with terrestrial animals are more promising. If such effects are required in broiler and piglet feeds, they can be obtained from less expensive sources.

With dwindling production and rapidly increasing consumption from the aquaculture industry, and without a viable replacement for farmed-fish diets, prices of fish meal will remain prohibitively high for terrestrial animals, at least for the foreseeable future.