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Could Algae Save the World’s Fisheries?

By Leon Kaye
Could Algae Save the World’s Fisheries?

While the world's fisheries are edging towards collapse, many continue to question the long-term viability of aquaculture. One company says its algae-based fish feed product could make the farmed fish supply chain much more sustainable. 

The news about the world’s oceans is not getting any better. Various studies continue to suggest that the effects of climate change will continue to have a negative impact on fisheries worldwide and could even lead to an eventual collapse.

Proponents of aquaculture insist they can be part of the solution and relieve the stress on the oceans’ fisheries—whether they are boosting supplies of perch in the Great Lakes region or contributing to the transformation of shrimp farms in Southeast Asia.

However, there is one stubborn challenge aquaculture continues to face: Questions fester around whether the amount of fish used to feed farmed fish (you’ve seen the diagrams at school—fish eat fish, as a gentle reminder) at aquaculture sites is also part of the problem, especially if fish meal continues to be used in many pork and poultry supply chains. This challenge, which the industry calls the fish-in, fish-out ratio, is the formula measuring the volume of fish-based feed necessary to harvest a fish or crustacean. The numbers are improving, but considering the precarious state of the world’s fisheries, many scientists and entrepreneurs are searching for a more sustainable and responsible alternative.  

The search is on for a solution. Meanwhile, the aquaculture industry claims that its supply chain is still far more efficient compared to other animal proteins, such as beef. Then again, some aquaculture installations use soy and grain as a supplement to feed their fish—and those choices could also lead to a long-term sustainability Pandora’s Box. In any event, the race is on to continue to find ways to make aquaculture more sustainable—especially as the world’s population continues to soar.

Now there is increased talk about using algae as an option to feed fish at aquaculture sites.

Algae, of course, was touted as the next great source of sustainable fuel, and while there are still ongoing projects, for the most part such talk has been muted.

These photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms (the scientific term for algae) are also being considered as a building block for synthetic, plant-based fish alternatives. That niche industry is still far beyond the land-based fake meat food products such as Gardein, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Nevertheless, a plant-based canned tuna alternative may soon be at a store near you—one example being Good Catch, which scored almost $9 million in investor largess last year.

But if consumers will still be skittish for a long, long while about eating something associated with that mucky pond in the local park (even though it is full of nutrients), the aquaculture industry may soon turn their heads at the thought of fish feed that is renewable with less of an ecological footprint.

One company that sees potential in fish feed made from algae is Corbion. The Dutch food and biochemicals company, which also has an office in the Bay Area’s biotech hub, South San Francisco, is touting its AlgaPrime product. Corbion says this algae-based feed can supply those long-chain omega-3s necessary to cultivate healthy fish. In a recent press release, Corbion said one of its salmon-producing clients boasted a fish-in, fish-out ratio of 0.5 to 1—impressive when considering one global trade group estimated the worldwide fish-in, fish-out ratio for fish and salmon in 2000 was 2.75 to 1. Furthermore, Corbion claims its algae-derived feed can be ready in a matter of days instead of weeks or months.

As aquaculture continues to grow, watch for more fish-free feed sources to emerge on the scene—from carbon dioxide to insects and even canola. But considering algae can grow anywhere and everywhere, Corbion and its competitors may be closing in on the best possible solution to keep fish in our oceans—and on our plates.

Image credit: Aditya Siva/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye