Fish – making a meal of it

8 minutes read

There is something circular about the idea of catching fish to use as feed for farmed fish, livestock, poultry and our pets. And with about one third of the global fish catch going in this direction, most of it destined for aquaculture, you might well ask whether growing the farmed fish to put in your supermarket has deprived a hungry or malnourished person of food.

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"27 millions tonnes of fish are used each year to feed animals - can we use these fish better?"

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There is something circular about the idea of catching fish to use as feed for farmed fish, livestock, poultry and our pets. And with about one third of the global fish catch going in this direction, most of it destined for aquaculture, you might well ask whether growing the farmed fish to put in your supermarket has deprived a hungry or malnourished person of food.

For this to be true, we would have to show that fish used for animal feeds would be both an available and affordable food for direct consumption by the poor. For at least part (about 6%) of the world's fish catch used for animal feed this is not true - there are some fish that are simply not nice to eat. No-one so far, for example, has overcome the technical barriers to economically process sandeel caught in northern Europe, or menhaden in the USA, into an acceptable food for humans. This is not to say that it might not happen, but it hasn't yet.

But then there are the fish destined for animal feed that we can eat. These comprise about 64% of the global supply of fish for the fishmeal and oil used in feeds. In principle at least, these fish represent an affordable food source; if you look at the price animal feed producers pay for the fish they use, it is low compared to the price even poor consumers pay for their fish. And in some places many of these fish are indeed consumed directly. Recent studies in Africa, for example, show that marine pelagic fish species caught on the continent that elsewhere go to produce fishmeal and oil, contribute about 46% of total food fish calories and 43% of protein supply [1].

So why is the rest of the global catch of these fish - the vast majority - reduced to fishmeal and fish rather than eaten directly? Most of the answer lies in the distance between where the fish are landed and suitable markets. Where this distance is large, as it is in most cases, market forces and consumer preferences weaken the economic rationale for diverting fish destined for fishmeal into direct human food. Put simply, the required storage and transport costs that are passed on to consumers currently puts the price beyond their willingness and ability to pay.

There are some cases, however, where high storage and distribution costs cannot explain diversion to fishmeal. Politically powerful fishmeal producers may, for example, use their influence to secure access to the catch to continue making fishmeal despite a ready market for fish in local markets that would meet poor consumers needs. This is a situation that appears to obtain in several African states [2].

These, and other market distortions that deny access to affordable fish for the poor, require policy intervention to fix. Several countries, for example, support domestic food supply by prohibiting use of food grade fish for animal feeds. Even Peru, whose anchoveta fishery provides about 6 million metric tonnes per year for fish meal and fish oil, requires several other species to be used solely for direct consumption [1].

But even when a local market for direct purchase does exist, it is still sometimes of greater benefit to the poor if these fish are diverted into fishmeal. In areas where this fishmeal helps support a large shrimp or finfish aquaculture sector, for example, the benefits of the local employment and other economic opportunities for the poor can outweigh the benefits of the additional fish supply. In poor regions where there are no such industries, however, analysis suggest that diverting the catch into food markets could substantially increase supplies of affordable fish, employment and other economic opportunities for the poor and improve overall well-being [3].

A final category of fish destined for animal feeds are the juveniles of the target species, or others species caught inadvertently - the so-called "trash fish". Here, again evidence does suggest that, in some coastal areas of developing countries, especially in Asia, diverting these fish to aquaculture feeds is reducing access of the poor to cheap fish in the local markets of the region where the by-catch is landed [3]. But using by-catch can be complicated; although there may be potential to increase food and nutrition security in some regions by diverting it directly to local consumer markets, this must be balanced against the fisheries management imperative to reduce the by-catch of juveniles of commercially harvested species or of those that are endangered. For this reason, public policy should probably often favour by-catch reduction rather than diversion into either aquaculture feeds or direct human consumption. Still, for the by-catch that is landed, establishing policies that favour direct use by humans over diversion to aquaculture could yield substantial benefits for the poor.

So, looking at the whole picture, does using fish to feed fish deprive the poor of food? In some circumstances the answer is clearly yes, but from an overall global perspective no. On the contrary, a recent global estimate suggests that including fishmeal and fish oil in feeds for aquaculture products actually increases the overall global supply of fish for human consumption by 7- 8 Mt per year [3]. Admittedly, much of this fish comprises salmon and shrimp that are beyond the purchasing power of poor consumers, but this is not always so; in Egypt, for example, the local aquaculture industry currently produces fish at market prices that are lower than red meat or poultry. Many other countries also use commercially produced fish feeds to grow lower value fish for local consumers. As mentioned earlier, one must also bear in mind that the aquaculture and fishmeal industry can often provide greater economic benefits to the poor than direct consumption because of the jobs, and the multiplier effects that increased trade and economic activity that the industry brings.

And if further comfort is needed, it is worth noting that, since 2004, fishmeal and fish oil use has remained static while aquaculture has continued to grow. This trend has occurred because new feeds have proportionally more soya and other plant-source components in them, and more plant-eating fish and shellfish species are being farmed. This decoupling of aquaculture growth from wild fish supply is comforting because efforts to increase catches to supply animal feeds could compromise the sustainability of these fisheries. In fact, recent modelling studies are showing just how important the fisheries that supply animal feeds are for also sustaining populations of larger predators; further efforts to limit or perhaps even reduce catches may be needed to ensure they continue to do so [4].

With little prospect that fishmeal and fish oil supplies can be increased, the limits to supply and price pressures will continue to drive efforts to further improve feed use efficiency and substitution both with crop-based alternatives and more innovative substitutes from algae and other sources.

We are also seeing feed producers make better use of aquaculture co-products (the parts of the fish that have some value but are often under- utilized) and by-products (the parts which cannot currently be used). About 25% of fishmeal is now produced from these sources. Further research investment to process these products and address value chain disconnects and legislation barriers to using animal by products in feeds could provide, not only further substantial quantities of fishmeal and fish oil, but also a range of human foods (e.g. fish sauces and pastes, mousses, etc).

So when you are next at the supermarket wondering about the farmed fish in front of you, take comfort. It is unlikely to have deprived someone less well fed than you of a meal. That said, there is no room for complacency; the fisher will need to further improve management practices to ensure sustainability of fish meal and fish oil supply, the fish farmer will need to become more efficient, the researcher will need to find feed substitutes, and the policy analyst will need to continually ask whether incentives are aligned to ensure that we make the most of what nature provides. Unless these steps are taken, we will not meet the world's growing need and demand for fish and sustain the systems that supply them.


[1] Tacon, A.G. and Metian, M. (2009). Fishing for feed or fishing for food: Increasing global competition for small pelagic forage fish. Ambio 38,  294 - 302.

[2] Hecht, T. And Jones, M. (2009). Use of wild fish and other aquatic organisms as feed in aquaculture – a review of practices and implications in Africa and the Near East. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper. 518, 129 - 158.

[3] Wijkström, U.N. (2009). The use of wild fish as aquaculture feed and its effects on income and food for the poor and the undernourished. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper. 518,  371 - 407.

[4] Smith A.D.M and others (2010). Impacts of fishing low-tropic level species on marine ecosystems. Science, 333, 1147 - 1150.