Aquaculture Industry Casts Wider Net in Food and Consumer Markets

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Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Washington, and Virginia, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Mississippi and Idaho are the top freshwater aquaculture states. But in the big picture, U.S. aquaculture is small potatoes. North and South America combined account for just 4.5 percent of the world’s farmed seafood, according to UN figures. China produced roughly 62 percent of the world’s farmed seafood; the rest of Asia accounted for 26 percent. At 4.5 percent, European aquaculture production was on par with the Americas.

Though Europe’s share of global aquaculture and fishing production is small, developments there suggest “bioeconomy” opportunities that the United States can emulate. In 1981, Iceland’s fishing catch was 460,000 tons, representing $340 million in value, said Hordur Kristinsson, chief science and innovation officer at Matis, a Reykjavik, Iceland-based biotech research firm. Iceland’s 2011 catch was considerably smaller at 180,000 tons, but that catch was worth $680 million. The difference, Kristinsson said, was the development of processes yielding higher-value products.

Decades ago, the seas were so productive that Iceland’s fishing industry caught more fish than it could store, Kristinsson recalled. Fish were left to spoil or were turned into fertilizer. In recent years, the industry has improved its fisheries management, catching less fish but making more money from what is caught. Parts of the fish that aren’t eaten can be developed into products such as cold-pressed extra virgin fish oil, skin creams, and eye drops, Kristinsson said. Another application is leather made from fish skin.

“Moving to finished consumer products—that’s where you can create higher value,” Kristinsson said.

Matis is also researching medical applications for products derived from fish. Fish skin and shrimp shells are now developed into bandages and wound dressings. Kristinsson said material in shrimp shells has antimicrobial properties favored by customers that include the U.S. Army. Other fish-derived products are used in applications such as weight loss, wound healing, and acne treatment, though Kristinsson cautioned that these products don’t yet have the clinical testing data required for FDA approval.

In North Carolina, scientists are also pursuing higher-value applications from ocean discoveries, but in healthcare, not consumer goods. Biomedical engineers at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are developing a nanotechnology approach to drug delivery based on material from shrimp and seaweed. Raleigh, NC-based Agile Sciences, a startup spun out of NC State, has developed antibacterial compounds sourced from sea sponges. But these technologies will require extensive clinical testing before they can be used for patients. The nearer-term market for seafood and ocean technologies will likely be with consumers through products such as AquaBounty’s salmon.

Tyre Lanier, a professor of food science at NC State, drew a comparison with the petroleum industry, where oil is primarily viewed as a source of fuel, though it can also be made into higher-value products such as plastics. Likewise, fish farmed for food is the more immediate market that consumers and even industry see.

“Byproducts might be the higher value,” Lanier said. “But we don’t see it that way—yet.”

Photo of Atlantic salmon courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under a Creative Commons license.

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