There are two good reasons to proceed

First, because we have to find new food resources :

For the soon to be 9 billion individuals, our food production needs to increase drastically. It is easily understandable that broad spare areas and quality water in quantity is the least we will need. On the contrary, as desertification and urbanization progresses, available arable lands shrink dramatically. Remaining forests and wild lands are either highly coveted or already acquired. Fresh water is hit by scarcity or pollution, and most of the coastal seas are not even free for new exploitations anymore.
So where are there still enough space and water? On High Seas!

Secondly, we need to keep the oceans resources (and us) healthy:

Oceans fish resources are overexploited. For several years now, despite the fisheries' technical efforts, going always further and deeper, the wild capture production stagnates. Nevertheless, total production is increasing thanks to aquaculture, which grows so rapidly, that it is going to overtake capture production.

 

World capture fisheries and aquaculture production
(Source: FAO, The state of world fisheries and aquaculture 2018)

The inland farming of herbivorous fish (carps, tilapias) is still able to increase as long as appropriate locations can be found on land, but the marine farming of carnivorous fish (salmon, bass, cobia) or shrimp is on the wrong track. In the context of its global expansion, this food system bites its own tail, as wild forage fish is necessary for feeding, and is unfortunately lacking more and more. Therefore, the fish farming industry tries to reduce and substitute its contribution in their feed. The ongoing attempts to feed farmed carnivorous marine fish with terrestrial agricultural resources, instead of fish meal and fish oil, may work technically, but make us actually lose all the benefits of a healthy fish, and so, healthy food for us.

Indeed, marine proteins are healthy because, set apart their good amino-acid profile, vitamins, minerals and trace elements, they present high levels of long chain omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), well known to develop our brain and protect our heart and eyesight. Fishes, as all aquatic organisms, need a very large amount of these omega 3 in their diet, as they are the fundamental component of all their cell membranes. These essential LC-PUFA are nearly exclusively produced by phytoplankton, the first marine trophic level, which is assimilated by zooplankton, which is assimilated by forage fish, and so on. Without an appropriate amount of LC-PUFA, fishes are much more sensitive to stress, undergo diseases, and have more difficulties to bear with parasites like sea lice. In most aquaculture plants, in order to grow fish properly despite those issues, feed has to be complemented with antibiotics and the water treated with pesticides, which are both ultimately ingested by us. After some relevant scandals, the fish farming industry seeks to improve its methods with vaccines instead of antibiotics and lumpfish (sea lice eating fish) or mechanical treatments, instead of pesticides. Other ways of ongoing improvements are to go further offshore, where the stronger currents can sweep the pollution away, or to filter the water in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) on land. But the main problem remains the low LC-PUFA level in aquafeed. With a long chain omega 3 rich diet, farmed fishes are much healthier for themselves of course, but also for us. For our part, as all terrestrial organisms, only our eyes and brain cells have their membrane constituted from LC-PUFA. Nevertheless, this is important enough to seek to ingest these LC-PUFA in sufficient quantities in order to grow and keep healthy. It thus becomes quite critical to us to preserve farmed fish as a good LC-PUFA omega 3 source!

Cobia being fed in netpen
(Picture: Philip Chou/SeaWeb/Marine Photobank)

I am not alone in coming to this conclusion. Two kinds of attempts are today in progress to take over from non-extensible reduction fisheries and supply more LC-PUFA to aquaculture in the context of its global expansion.

  • Aerobic fermentation of a heterotrophic microalgae discovered in muddy marine waters and fed with cane molasses in tanks. AlgaPrime DHA is produced by Corbion for BioMar. Veramatis, a joint venture of DSM and Evonik, produces a similar omega 3 algal oil with corn derived sugar. Compared to forage fish reduction, it is a costlier process reserved for high-end markets. And what about the natural well balanced diet profile with a production based only on one single compound?
  • Genetically modified canola, with an added gene of a microalgae, has started to be planted in 2019 in Australia (Nuseed's Aquaterra) and is forecast in 2020 in the USA (Cargill's Latitude). This technology is able to flood the market with its cheap alternative, but without any ethical consideration (just try to find any reference to genetic manipulation on their respective home pages), a highly efficient behavior especially in weak and sometimes corrupted developing nations. The natural well balanced diet profile is also missing.
  • Insect meal is often presented as a third alternative, but this breeding produces only proteins of interest and saturated oils, not the bottlenecking LC-PUFA.

Anyway, all these compounds are only suitable to "modern" agri-food industries which are fond of cracking technologies. Thanks to mechanical (heat, freezing, pressure) or chemical (organic solvent, surfactant, acid or alkali) denaturation processes, each constituent of a natural food is separated in several low-cost nutrifunctional compounds, whose sum brings in more money than the original food could have brought. A catalog lists and allows then to combine different components in any wanted food, with the needed biochemical composition, aspect, flavor and palatability. This is the origin of junk-food, "la malbouffe" as we call it in France, ready to eat meals strongly suspected to develop diabetes, cardiovascular failures and hormonal dysfunctions with their related chronic diseases. The same occurs in feed industry's pellet manufacturing. We are not only what we eat, we are also what we feed. Biochemists should use their knowledge to enhance food production in accordance with nature's laws and not against them. This comes from the heart. Let it be said, I believe in organic farming with some biodynamic precepts, permaculture, agroforestry and multi-trophic aquaculture to feed the world, not in GMOs or the present industrialization of farming and animal husbandry.

My ambition is to develop a natural and healthy animal protein source in the high sea desert, far enough to supply some long chain omega 3 rich feed to fish farms around the world (first to family pons and small scale plants in developing countries). Thus, fish farming would be able to provide a healthy food for us, and forage fish will remain at sea to nourish penguins, seals, dolphins, whales, sharks, seabirds... and wild fish from upper trophic levels we also want to catch and to eat. Rather than just looking down on how fisheries and aquaculture are managed nowadays, I suggest the whole process to be re-thought in a pragmatic way to the benefit of all, as well to fish farms, as to marine ecosystems and artisanal fisheries. The main thread of my reflection is based upon an implacable logic:

"The better we aquaculture, the less we fish, and let the oceans live"

Follow me on So how are we going to achieve all that ?