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TriplePundit Sponsored Series

Sustainable Seafood

Inside Aquaculture: All About the Feed

By Mary Mazzoni

"We see one of the important components of our business as fish nutrition," Norman McCowan, CEO of Bell Aquaculture, told us on a recent visit to the company's fish farm in Redkey, Indiana.

Out of all animal proteins, fish has the most favorable feed conversion ratio (FCR). Sometimes called feed to weight ratio, this figure refers to the amount of feed (in kilograms) it takes an animal to convert to weight. Beef, for example, requires 7 kilograms of feed to gain 1 kilogram of weight, while fish can be closer to a one-to-one ratio.

However, when it comes to aquaculture, the topic of feed is a bit more controversial--especially when it comes to farming carnivorous species. In earlier, less sustainable aquaculture endeavors, carnivorous fish were often given feed containing high proportions of fish protein, often derived from wild caught fish--which, as one may guess, kind of defeats the purpose of using aquaculture to combat overfishing while meeting the world's growing demand for fish.

But Bell, as we were happy to discover, is not one of those fish farms. The company devotes a good chunk of its time and resources to developing the most nutritious and sustainable feed possible. Taking things a step further, Bell acquired Integral Fish Foods out of Grand Junction, Colorado in 2013, allowing the company to directly control the feed it uses.

By utilizing locally sourced, plant-based proteins, such as soy, algae and wheat, Bell is able to feed its fish a mostly vegetarian diet. Its feed does not contain controversial fish meal (often made from wild caught fish) and is made up of only about 6 percent fish oil--giving the company a fish-in, fish-out ratio that's less than one-to-one. Additionally, creating their own feed recipes allows Bell's fish pros to tailor the ingredients to fit every stage in a fish's life.

"We concentrate on nutritionally profiling [our fish's] diet after the species, looking at what that fish needs in each lifecycle of its life," McCowan explained.

With so much research going into finding the right plant-based feed, Bell realized it could offer its knowledge and product to other fish farms as well. To expand its feed production, Bell will open an on-site feed mill at its fish farm in Redkey, Indiana this summer, producing as much as 2.2 million pounds of plant-based fish feed every month. Since the company only uses about 2.5 million pounds of feed annually, sales of the remaining feed–made mostly from locally-farmed ingredients–is expected to comprise another 20 percent of the company’s revenue stream, if not more, predicts Becky Priebe, marketing director for Bell.

This move brings the company one step closer to its vertically integrated model and transforms the Bell fish farm into something akin to an all-American manufacturer: Locally sourced ingredients come in, and local food comes out in the form of sustainably farmed seafood. The company's expertise with fish feed formulation--and aquaculture in the macro sense--also helps other fledgling aquaculture ventures around the country produce a more sustainable product.

"If you come to me and say, 'I'm raising trout' ... I can custom make your feed for your farm and your fish," explained Lucas Porter, feedmill manager for Bell. "That's the whole philosophy and the goal behind what we want to do with Bell Aquaculture feed."

Stay tuned for more coverage from our trip–including an inside look at Bell’s fish–coming soon on TriplePundit.

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni