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Sierra Sumner headshot

Lab Created Fish: Innovation That Could Help Save Our Oceans

By Sierra Sumner
lab created fish

Imagine you go out to eat and you order the salmon filet. The fish is tender, with a pan-seared crispy exterior, packed with umami and a hint of lemon. To your surprise, you may find out that this salmon, thanks to BlueNalu, was grown in a lab.

BlueNalu, a California-based company, is working to make lab-grown fish, or “cellular aquaculture,” a possibility. Challenges currently sidetracking the global seafood industry, such as overfishing, illegal fishing, rising ocean temperatures and contaminated fish, make it absolutely necessary to find ways to make seafood more sustainable - so alternatives to fish, such as what BlueNalu offers, could be next up on the menu.

Lab created fish to the rescue?

BlueNalu’s employees collect cells and tissue from a live fish and then grown them in a laboratory. The end result is similar to a naturally-caught fish, in that this product shares the same type of cells and tissues, but it does not have bones or scales. 

When announcing the company’s launch in 2018, Lou Cooperhouse, BlueNalu’s CEO said, “BlueNalu will disrupt and supplement the current industry practice, in which fish are farmed or wild-caught in our oceans and seas. Instead, we will produce real seafood products directly from fish cells, that are as delicious and nutritious as products that have been grown conventionally, in a way that is healthy for people, humane for animals, and sustainable for our planet.”

According to this industry’s supporters, lab-created fish, once it becomes cost-competitive, would not have toxins like mercury, microplastics, parasites or bacteria that can be found in wild-caught or farm-raised fish. Hence there’s an opportunity to appeal to consumers who avoid “natural” fish due to fear about these contaminants. Furthermore, by cultivating this alternative to fish near cities and other populated areas, there would also be both reduced transportation costs and emissions.

Less waste, cost and energy

Lab-created fish could also reduce waste by growing only the “valuable” part of the meat, therefore eliminating waste. According to Phys.org, fish cells can grow at room temperature, unlike animal cells – which could reduce temperature-related costs such as air conditioning and freezing, thus making the product more financially and environmentally-friendly. A pescatarian diet could also have less of an environmental impact than other meats since fish do not require as much space, food, or other costs as, say, beef does. 

However, there may be consumer pushback against lab-grown fish, due to unfamiliarity and a constant comparison to naturally-caught fish. The company states it uses real fish cells, with no genetic modification or change. Again, the cells are likened to that of live fish, except grown outside of the body of one.

“We are not any more 'lab-made' than ketchup or Oreos,” commented Chris Dammann, BlueNalu's chief technology officer. “They're all started in a lab.”

One challenge facing the company is ensuring the taste of the lab-created fish meets consumer expectations, so that people will be unable to differentiate between, and ideally prefer, lab-created meat over conventionally-caught fish.

In addition to meeting these consumer expectations and doubts, there are still scientific and financial roadblocks: determining how to mass produce enough lab-created fish to meet demand and how to lower the cost of these alternatives to conventionally-sourced fish. The price must be affordable for consumers and restaurants as well. The company, in an April press release, announced it would develop products from finfish, crustaceans and mollusks that currently are overfished, often imported into the U.S., and have been proven to be difficult to raise in aquaculture facilities.

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have opened the door

There is still much research and development to be done before this product will hit the markets, but if it the recent track record of meat alternative companies shows any indication, this nascent sector could experience future success. Just take a look at Impossible Foods, which has found success at chains such as Burger King. Another alternative meat company, Beyond Meat, is also disrupting the fast food industry, and scored plenty of buzz with its recent IPO.

So whether we’re talking about a quick meal of Beyond Meat Tacos at Del Taco, or a splurge on the Impossible Foods burger at Momofuku, we should see more protein options due to the efforts of companies like BlueNalu.

Could a lab-grown Filet-O-Fish be coming soon?

Image credit: Giovanna Gomes/Unsplash

Sierra Sumner headshot

Sierra Sumner is a senior at University of Massachusetts Amherst studying English and Legal Studies. She is a writer with interests spanning numerous topics, including sustainability and travel, consumer impacts, and legal policy. She is also a mentor and editor for other writers at the UMass Writing Center. Sierra is from Massachusetts, California, and Hawaii. 

Read more stories by Sierra Sumner