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Australia’s aquaculture industry looks beyond fishmeal to improve sustainability

Australia’s growing aquaculture industry is trying to end its reliance on fishmeal in order to become more sustainable.

Fish farms have traditionally been reliant on fishmeal, a feed made from small fish such as anchovies which is often fished unsustainably in developing countries. The practice has jeopardised the industry’s environmental credentials, says Ian Urbania, a pulitzer prize-winning journalist and founder of the non-profit journalism organisation The Outlaw Ocean Project.

“The whole reason for aquaculture was to slow down ocean depletion. And then they got hooked on feeding and fattening the fish faster,” Urbina said.

“A lot of these fisheries use bottom trawlers with a lot of bycatch, and often smaller species and baby fish, which depletes the ocean more than the wild-catch fishing it was intended to replace.”

In Australia, where fish farms are steadily overtaking wild-caught fish as the predominant form of seafood production, the industry has worked to move away from the controversial feed product.

“Less than 15% of the total fish or total aquaculture feed production in Australia is fishmeal. And out of that about half comes from byproducts from processing fish. So it’s well under 10% of the total use of agriculture feeds in Australia,” Dr Leo Nankervis, aquaculture nutrition and feed development expert at James Cook University, said.

Nankervis said that a mixture of high prices and a push towards sustainability had resulted in the vast majority of feed in Australia being sourced from poultry byproducts and trimmings from the processing of fish such as tuna. The fishmeal that is imported comes from certified fisheries in Peru and Chile.

“We started out back in the 1960s, having a huge reliance on fish meal,” he said. “It was cheap, and it was abundant and provided all the nutrients. And so it was a really convenient way of getting the industry started.

“But as industries develop and grow, we do a lot of research to understand the nutrient requirements and the value that the raw materials bring. Therefore we are able to use a wider variety of raw materials to meet those requirements.”

This was echoed by the fishmeal producer Biomar Australia, whose managing director, David Whyte, said the company only sources fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. Whyte said the company is using less and less wild-caught fish.

“Our factory is registered as an aqueous-approved premises, which means our process and our record keeping in our management systems have all met some of the highest Australian federal standards and are audited by the government to make sure that what we do is what we say we do,” he told Guardian Australia.

However, Urbina said it was difficult to determine exactly where wild-caught fish was coming from within a certain region. He also warned that regulators, including the Marine Stewardship Council, only looked at the environmental impact and did not assess potential labour and human rights concerns.

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“The fishmeal global market has a lot of trade commingling where things from different places and processing plants is getting mixed,” he said. “So it’s hard for the end buyer to actually know.

“Nevertheless, if most of the fish are coming into Australia is from [South America], then that’s probably good news.”

Dr Chris Carter, professor of aquaculture nutrition at University of Tasmania, said the industry had come a long way in the last 40 years. He was optimistic that new innovations would help the industry further distance itself from fishmeal.

“One of the big and important trends is to separate feed ingredients from human food,” he said.

“So that means that they want to use products which can’t be readily consumed by humans, but include things like microbial products and insects.”

Carter said many companies that supply Australian fish farms were “actively” developing products using ingredients that were outside of the human food chain.

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