Aquaculture Industry Casts Wider Net in Food and Consumer Markets

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Water covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but the oceans’ capacity for meeting the growing consumer demand for seafood is limited—the seas are simply overfished.

Some new business opportunities are emerging to produce more fish amid dwindling fish resources. Global seafood consumption reached 143 million metric tons in 2009, an increase of more than 20 million tons over a decade, according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization. The organization has concluded that the global fishing industry has likely tapped out as much wild catch as it can get from the oceans. Given projections for growth in population and seafood consumption, the FAO calculates that the world must produce an additional 40 million tons of fish annually to meet demand by 2030.

“Even in well-managed fisheries, there’s no more to be had,” said Ronald Stotish, CEO of biotechnology startup AquaBounty. “We can stay where we are but we’re not likely to improve the wild stocks.”

Stotish spoke this week at the North Carolina Marine Biotechnology & Seafood Symposium in Research Triangle Park, NC. His was among the voices making the case for aquaculture. This farming of aquatic life accounts for about half of the fish on the market, according to UN figures. As more consumers fill their plates with fish, technology is angling for a greater role in filling the demand gap that wild-caught fish can’t meet. In some cases, technology is also spawning entirely new products derived from the ocean for health and consumer applications.

AquaBounty aims to meet growing demand for salmon, which is second only to shrimp as the world’s most consumed seafood, according to UN figures. The Maynard, MA-based company has developed a way to produce faster-growing salmon through genetic engineering. Using the growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon enables AquaBounty fish to use nutrients more efficiently as they grow, and they reach market weight faster, Stotish explained. The FDA approved AquaBounty’s salmon last year, concluding that the company’s farmed fish was as safe to eat as conventional Atlantic salmon.

The United States imports far more salmon than it produces, flying in farmed fish from places like Chile and Norway. Stotish says AquaBounty’s salmon can offset that carbon footprint with domestic production.

AquaBounty operates a hatchery in Panama, farming the fish in an entirely enclosed, land-based system that Stotish says guards against the mixing of AquaBounty salmon with wild stocks of fish. He says the technology will enable domestic salmon production to supplement wild-caught salmon from Alaska, as well as salmon farmed in pens off the coasts of Maine and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The top states for marine aquaculture are 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.