If you are a social media animal, you could not have missed the obituary to the Great Barrier Reef, which went viral in October 2016. Since then, scientists have confirmed that a large part of it is dead from two consecutive world-level coral bleaching events.
What was most striking about the extinction event is that it is not caused by any direct human intervention. Instead, one can think of the reef as a sensor to the health of Earth’s oceans. The reef is dying not because someone is killing it, but because oceans are chronically andperhaps terminally ill.
What ails our oceans? Many things, including the almost intractable problem of global warming, but one practice does stick out: the practice of destructive ocean fishing.
Since our inception, we have captured fish and aquatic life mostly from the wild. But with the population explosion and growing demand, the ocean and the rivers cannot satiate our hunger any more. Since the mid-1980s, the share of wild capture in global fish supply has been steadily decreasing, being supplemented by exponential growth in aquaculture. Ironically, this growth of aquaculture has proved catastrophic for marine life.
There is a name to this catastrophe: omega-3 fatty acid. We all know how beneficial this fatty acid is to the human body, and that we get most of our omega-3 fatty acids from fishes. But what we do not know is that fish do not actually produce omega-3 fatty acid. Instead, they gather it by consuming the microalgae that produce it, or by preying upon microalgae-eating fishes. This, for the longest time, posed a challenge to aqua-culturists: farmed fishes always had lesser nutrients than the wild ones. To counter this ‘malnutrition’, aqua feed companies started to use fish oil and fish meal as the main ingredients in aqua feeds. Where did this fish oil and meal come from? Foraged the sea, of course. Although weare not eating ocean fish that much anymore, the farmed fishes have been consuming them more than ever before.
How bad has that been? A report by Mordor Intelligence, a market research firm, states, ‘The current dependence on fish meal and fish oil, as primary ingredients of aqua feed, is expensive and environmentally unsustainable’. Not only is the marine life fast-depleting, catching and processing them has become equally expensive.
And here is the good news: the aqua feed industry is committed to break out of this problem, and is pushing to get worldwide governments’ ratifications for their innovative solutions. Over the last few years, the industry has become convinced that it must engineer sustainable alternatives to the use of fish oil and meals.
There are two difficulties that they face in doing so. First, to find alternatives to the fish meal and oil that can have the requisite amount of omega-3. However, the second issue is knottier: how to make the fish digest that source of omega-3? Much of aquaculture is focused on carnivorous fish, for example, salmon. Their intestines are not engineered to digest plant-source foods, like algae, which otherwise does contain a large amount of omega-3.
The solutions come in two forms. The first is the concept of ‘functional feed’, which operates on the basic two-fold principle of developing aqua feed that utilizes agricultural by-products while improving the overall health of the fish. The challenge is to make them self-sustained in a manner that would not require addition of fish-derived products. The aqua feed industry has recently come up with a feed additive, sodium butyrate, which may prove to be that miracle catalyst to achieve this.
The second solution is from an unexpected, but abundant source: insects. While insects are already in the use for making protein supplements, the abundant fat extracted from these sources were going waste. Until researchers, like Daylan Tzompa Sosa of Wageningen University, proved that they are rich in omega-3. In December 2016, the EU member states had endorsed a European Commission proposal for the use of insects as fish feed. This is serious development, because the abundance and inexpensive nature of insects make them a viable commercial alternative source for aqua feed.
There is finally a possibility that marine life will no longer be ‘foraged’ for aquaculture. We need to thank companies like BioMar, who recently came out with an ambitious report on sustainability, for pushing the research, as well as government approval for these alternatives. Their far-reaching vision may have serious benefits for the earth.
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