Sustainable World Fish Supplies

China's booming aquaculture industry relies increasingly on fishmeal made from wild-caught fish. This practice depletes wild fish stocks and strains fragile ocean ecosystems, but a new study led by Stanford University, working together with researchers from Leiden University (CML, Patrik Henriksson) , University of Wollongong, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Stockholm University and Shanghai Ocean University, offers a more sustainable path.

In a new article in Science (January 9, 2015), the research team offers the clearest picture to date of China's enormous impact on wild fisheries. The study also presents a more sustainable alternative to the current practice of using wild-caught fish to feed farm-raised fish.

Mixed fish unloaded at dock, aimed for reduction to fishmeal and later aquaculture feed

Mixed fish unloaded at dock, aimed for reduction to fishmeal and later aquaculture feed

Chinese Fish Production

China is the world's leading producer, consumer and processor of fish, contributing one-third of the global supply. China's fish production has tripled in the past 20 years, and about three-quarters of its supply now comes from fish farms. Yet the industry still places huge pressure on wild fisheries through its demand for fishmeal and fish oil made from wild-caught species. How China develops its aquaculture and aquafeeds sector can thus tip the balance of global seafood availability.

"There is a clear opportunity for positive change, but the economic and regulatory incentives for such change are not yet in place," said Naylor, the William Wrigley Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford.

Trash Fish

Fishing in the coastal waters of China is poorly regulated and often indiscriminate. The result is large volumes of assorted "trash fish" – species that are deemed unfit for human consumption – that end up in animal feeds, including in fishmeal that is fed to farm-raised fish. Many of the species of wild fish used for feeds have been fully exploited or overexploited, and reducing the demand for them can help protect fragile ocean ecosystems.

One promising solution is to recycle the waste by-products from fish filleting and other processing (including heads, guts, etc.) across China. This waste, which can be 30 to 70 percent of the incoming volume of fish, is often discarded or discharged into nearby waters.

Sustainable Fish Quota

The team's analysis shows that these processing wastes could satisfy between half and two-thirds of the current volume of fishmeal used by Chinese fish farmers, replacing much of the wild fish currently used in feeds.

Quality and food safety are two potential barriers to replacing wild-caught fish with fish processing wastes. The waste is lower in protein that wild-caught fish, but this can be overcome by adding plant-based protein sources to the fishmeal, like algae or ethanol yeast.

Patrik Henriksson

Patrik Henriksson

The use of processing waste also raises concerns about contamination and disease transmission, which the researchers say can be addressed through better research on the safety risks and through tighter regulations.

"Patrik Henriksson (PhD-researcher at CML, Leiden University) was part of collecting data supporting the research and outlining of the article. "My research is focussed on European imports of Asian fish products. As part of this, I have spent a lot of time in China, visiting fish farmers and fish processing plants." The research was done as part of the EU FP7 funded SEAT project

Last Modified: 13-01-2015