Raw material sources for the long-chain omega-3 market:Trends and sustainability. Part 3.

By Anthony P. Bimbo

In This Section

May 2009


When you think you have successfully developed an oil with the correct omega-3 configuration, in a volume that meets your needs, you will then be faced with another up-and-coming barrier: sustainability of the raw materials. This ties in with the headlines mentioned in part 1 of this report (inform 20:178-181, 2009).

A simple definition of sustainability for the fishing industry might involve:

  • Ensuring that the living we make from the sea will be available to our children, grandchildren, and future generations;
  • Using 100% of the catch with no waste;
  • Making the maximum beneficial use of the resource;
  • Protecting the environment.

The big question, of course, is: Who decides, and who should regulate this? Self-appointed nongovernmental organizations (NGO)? Elected governments? The United Nations (UN)?

In the past, environmental groups (NGO) found it difficult, at best, to convert producers over to their philosophy about the catching, processing, and marketing of fish, and so have gone to the other end of the market chain, the consumer. Consumers have been slowly convinced (some would say indoctrinated) by the headlines mentioned in Part 1 of this series that, among other things, the raw materials are not sustainable and that they (the consumers) have the power to pressure the producers into following the guidelines and principles set up by the environmental groups as exercised by purchasing only certified products.

Recently many of these NGO groups have "adopted" the principles of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (FAO 1995); however, the financial incentives are no longer donations and government support, but rather "third party certification," licensing, and a "sustainability" seal. Unfortunately, the FAO principles are still subject to the interpretation of the NGO or its designated representative's interpretation, and this has caused confusion throughout the industry. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has certified New Zealand hoki, Alaska pollock, and Patagonian toothfish. The MSC, however, is having problems certifying Alaska pollock caught on the Russian side of the Bering Sea. Greenpeace has red-listed these species and demanded that they be removed from supermarkets immediately. Greenpeace has endorsed Friends of the Sea for closely following Greenpeace's criteria for certification. Friends of the Sea has certified Atlantic and Gulf menhaden. Greenpeace routinely targets Atlantic menhaden as being overfished and not sustainable. Greenpeace has also red-listed a number of tuna fisheries, including big eye tuna, south Atlantic albacore, yellow fin tuna, and blue fin tuna. Recently Friends of the Sea certified the Irish troll fishery for albacore tuna, skipjack tuna from the Azores, and yellow fin tuna from Sri Lanka; others are in the certification process. Friends of the Sea also distanced itself from a campaign designed by the World Wildlife Fund and the MSC entitled "Stinky Fish" ("Just look for the MSC label: everything else is stinky"). The stinky fish campaign was eventually dropped because of negative publicity.

Fisheries certification is also big business. For example, the certification of the Alaska wild salmon fishery cost the state of Alaska $545,000 in direct costs and $2.15 million in indirect costs and like-kind contributions (MSC, 2009).

The fishing industry, for its part, has always supported principles of responsible fishing with some variation from country to country. The industry, however, supports the primary principle that these guidelines should always be developed by the elected governments of the various countries either through the UN or individually using the UN guidelines, not via self-appointed environmental groups. FIN, the Fishmeal Information Network based in the United Kingdom, has produced a table showing the level of resource management in the various countries where fishmeal and oil are produced. Table 1 shows a portion of its data only for the omega-3 desirable fish (FIN, 2008). I have only included the primary species used to produce fishmeal and fish oil.

In mid-2008, the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO) announced that it was developing a Code of Responsible Practices (CORP) for the global fishmeal and oil industry. The CORP will be designed to show that the participants in the program are offering traceable, high-quality marine products that are manufactured safely using fish from responsibly managed fisheries. Compliance will be third-party audited in conjunction with established audits for existing quality systems-such as HACCP, FEMAS, PDV, and GMP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, Feed Material Assurance Scheme, Product Board Animal Feed (Productschap Diervoeder), and Good Manufacturing Practices, respectively] to ensure food safety. A company wishing to qualify for CORP accreditation will need to show that its facilities are managed to avoid the possibility of accidental or deliberate contamination of the products. Raw material sourcing must take place in a country that complies with the key elements of the FAO Code of Responsible Fishing, and the manufacturing company must also demonstrate that its source fisheries fully comply with all national laws on capture-for example, correct fishing gear, quotas, and seasonal closures.

Most IFFO member-produced fishmeal and fish oil come from facilities that are covered by the established quality control systems and come from managed fisheries where efforts are made to exclude illegal, unregulated, and unreported fish. CORP will enable IFFO's producer members to differentiate their products from those produced in facilities without the necessary control measures (IFFO, 2008).

Final Comments

As the world population grows there is an increasing demand for animal and fish proteins. Aquaculture is the only viable way to provide this fish protein, and fishmeal and oil will continue to be used in aquaculture diets but on a more selective basis.

High fishmeal and oil prices provide the incentive to look for alternative feed ingredients, but the high prices also serve as an incentive to convert currently discarded fish waste to fishmeal and oil, thus providing new sources. Sufficient fish oil will always be available; however it will become a matter of who can afford to pay the price.

One question that continually comes up is whether the additional sources of fish oil will have the desired level of omega-3 fatty acids or whether inexpensive new technology will be needed to concentrate the omega-3 in less desirable oils. If that technology can be developed, then perhaps other fish oil sources, not currently used, could supply the omega-3 market.

Other omega-3 sources either are being developed, such as krill, or are in the pipeline, such as genetically modified oilseeds. Single-cell oils (SCO) are currently on the market, but the prices are high, the production capacity is limited, and at present the main market is the niche infant formula market. Perhaps, in parallel, the biofuel industry will become a source of inexpensive SCO from the various technology research projects that are running globally.       

 the management and control of the fish stocks


Almost a year has elapsed since this paper was presented at the AOCS Annual Meeting & Expo in Seattle. Where possible, information has been updated to keep the theme in perspective. As the third segment of this paper is being reviewed and edited we are in the midst of Earth Day (week) 2009. Part one opened with a paragraph listing some of the headlines that appeared in the press at that time. It would be a gross error not to end part three with what is now appearing in the press.

"EU wants smaller fishing fleet to help stocks"

"Documentary examines role of man in killer whales' demise"

"Fish oil in cow's diet could help save planet"

"Concerns rise about the effect of fish farming on smaller ‘prey fish'"

"Fish oils reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farting cows"

"Predators starve as humans plunder oceans"

"Can commercial fisheries ever be sustainable?"

"We need to stop eating the oceans"

"Omega-3 may protect against Parkinson's"

"Omega-3 may help with post-surgery loss"

"Omega-3 helps maintain muscle in cancer patients"

"From fish oil to healthy gums"

"Eat fish for a healthy brain"

"Omega-3s may benefit newborns, menopausal women and obese individuals"

"Slowing Alzheimer's"


For further reading:

FAO, Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 1995. www.fao.org/DOCREP/005/v9878e/v9878e00.htm

Marine Stewardship Council, Questions and Answers on the Alaska

Salmon Certificate and the MSC Process, 2009. www.msc.org/track-a-fishery/certified/pacific/alaska-salmon/2009-02-Q-and-A-on-AK-salmon-FINAL.pdf .

Fishmeal Information Network, FIN Fishmeal Information Network Dossier 2008. Annual Review of the Feed Grade Fish Stocks Used to Produce Fishmeal and Fish Oil for the UK Market, 2008. www.gafta.com/fin/pdfs/publications/sustainability.pdf .

International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization, IFFO Code of Responsible Practice for Fishmeal and Fish Oil, 2008. www.iffo.net/default.asp?fname=3&url=162 .

Anthony P. Bimbo is a consultant on marine oils, working out of Kilmarnock, Virginia, USA. He may be contacted by e-mail at apbimbo@verizon.net .