Aquaculture has an oil problem. A fish oil problem.

With health-conscious consumers increasingly embracing seafood, securing supplies of fish oil, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, has been a challenge at a time when supply availability has been volatile.

A key source ofessential fats, which keeps the body healthy, has mainly been anchovies caught in the South American seas. Warming waters because of climate change and weather events such as El Niño threaten catches, challenging the future growth of the aquaculture industry.

“There will be issues about [the industry’s] growth. When you produce more salmon you need more feed,” says Marine Harvest, the leading salmon producer.

Efforts to replace proteins from fish meal with grains and oilseeds, such as soyabean and sunflower seeds, started about 20 years ago. Finding alternative sources of omega-3 has been a headache for the industry.

“You can plant more soyabeans but you can’t fish more for the oil,” says Michael Liberty, analyst at commodity data group Mintec.

Formally known as long chain omega-3 fatty acids, it includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which come mainly from fish, including mackerel, herring and salmon. They help foetal and infant growth and have been shown to prevent heart disease and stroke.

But the rise in prices to more than $2,500 a tonne at its recent peak has meant fish producers and feed companies have cut the use of fish oil. According to Marine Harvest, the proportion of fish oil in the diet of commercial salmon in Norway has dropped to 9 per cent, down from 24 per cent in 1990.

This has affected the long chain omega-3 fatty acid content in farmed salmon. A study from Stirling University revealed that average levels of DHA and EPA in UK farmed salmon in 2015 halved in 10 years to 1.36 grammes.

While a portion of farmed salmon still offers levels of omega-3 fatty acids that far exceed daily recommended intake from health officials, industry executives worry about the future.

Nick Bradbury, commercial manager at the UK unit of BioMar, an international fish feed group, says: “The aquaculture feed industry has been very much aware of the limited supply of long chain omega-3 supplies.”

Now animal feed groups, agricultural traders and seed makers are scrambling to introduce alternatives to fish oil, turning to algae and genetically modified oilseeds such as soyabeans and canola.

TerraVia, a California-based nutrition and specialty ingredients company, has teamed up with the New York headquartered trader Bunge, launching an algae-based omega-3 ingredient for fish diets last year, distributed through BioMar.

Archer Daniels Midland, the agricultural trader, has also introduced a marine fatty acids product sourced from algae. Meanwhile Dutch nutrition group DSM and Evonik, a German chemical company last month created a joint venture to manufacture an omega-3 product for aquaculture and pets, also algae based.

Companies including Cargill, Monsanto and Dow Chemical are developing genetically engineered oilseeds, such as soyabeans and canola, as sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids.

“You can bring those omega-3 levels in the fish up without taking fish out of the ocean,” says TerraVia’s Walt Rakitsky.

By reducing the aquaculture industry’s dependency on wild fish, fish producers are seeking to improve the sector’s sustainability credentials.

Enrico Bachis, market research director at IFFO, the marine ingredients trade organisation, argues that about a third of all raw materials for fish meal and oil come from fish trimmings and offal, while almost half of the global catch of small fish used for meal and oil is certified.

The boost to sustainability credentials is an attraction to the aquaculture sector at a time when marine products are seen as a finite resource and overfishing of oceans is a growing issue.

The problem for feed users is that the algae-based products cost twice as much as that of fish oil. For example, TerraVia and Bunge’s AlgaPrime currently only accounts for about 2 per cent of the total fish oil usage in the salmon feed, according to Mr Bradbury.

For the algae-based producers, which are a step ahead of groups developing GM crops, the costs could come down over the next few years as production increases. Gorjan Nikolik, seafood analyst at Rabobank, expects costs for the companies to start coming down in about two years time.

The issue for genetically engineered products is that fish feed used in Europe are free from GM materials, primarily as a result from demands from large retailers in the region. Feed makers buy non-GM soyabeans at a premium for use in their fish food for the European market, say analysts.

Although other regions are growing quickly, Europe remains one of the big markets for farmed salmon. “The companies want to offer premium and natural, products. They don’t want to jeopardise that by using GM products,” says Mr Nikolik.

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