For aquafeed, it seems, there is nowhere to go but up.
Global aquaculture production continues to grow about 4% each year. Growth has slowed somewhat in recent years, but with consumer demand increasing, industry leaders remain optimistic about the industry’s prospects — global population growth, coupled with finite natural resources, mean aquaculture, and aquafeed in particular, are likely to expand further.
“There is a lot of ocean space … to actually go out and farm marine species,” said Neil Auchterlonie, technical director for the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization. “If you compare that to terrestrial environments — there is not too much more land mass available.”
This isn’t to suggest that aquafeed is free from its own natural limits. Global production of fishmeal — arguably the most critical component of aquafeed — has remained steady at about 5 million tons for years, Auchterlonie said. Similarly, fish oil production is sitting at 1 million tons, and Auchterlonie said he doesn’t expect those numbers to change dramatically in the future, either. The harvest of wild fish continues to account for about two-thirds of the production of both ingredients, and natural fisheries simply don’t have any more fish to offer. The remaining one-third of raw material comes from trimmings and byproduct of fish processing.
If aquaculture is going to continue to grow, it must make more efficient use of these two ingredients, Auchterlonie said.
The good news, he and other industry leaders agree, is that aquafeed has become a hotbed of innovation. The use of terrestrial substitutes such as soymeal is long established, but more novel feed ingredients, especially algae-derived oils, single-cell bacterial proteins, and insect meal, are on the rise.
The economics of these new ingredients remains a challenge, Auchterlonie said. Many remain too costly for use at scale. Furthermore, a single ingredient capable of completely replacing fishmeal has yet to be identified. Thus, the inclusion of these new ingredients is more about reducing, rather than removing, fishmeal in aquafeed.
“I think that a ‘whole basket of ingredients approach’ is really important for the future success of aquaculture,” Auchterlonie said, “and I see the new ingredients as complementary to fishmeal and fish oil, rather than competitor ingredients.”
The current inability to wholesale replace fishmeal means innovation in another area — resource recapture — also remains important. About one-third of today’s fishmeal is derived from off-cuts and other waste products of fish processing. But Auchterlonie believes there is opportunity to collect even more of these discarded materials to produce fishmeal in greater volumes.
Technical innovation may also diversify the species that are farmed en mass, Auchterlonie said. The growing adoption of closed farms that recirculate system water supplies has opened inland opportunities, and engineers are developing farm technologies capable of withstanding the extreme and harsh environments of the deep sea, which could dramatically increase the production of marine species.