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Overfishing and Aquaculture: combination of microalgae to benefit the fish and their human consumers

Vega tuna and fish imitation. The Swedish-based start-up has come up with an idea to make a plant-based fish to tackle the issue of overfishing – Hooked Foods introduction

The fish are big business. The global seafood industry is projected to grow from US$160 billion in 2019 to almost US$194 billion by 2027. As fishing societies and businesses have learned in recent decades that the ocean cannot support the amount of fishing happening today, certain species are being removed from the ocean at a rate faster than the fish can replace themselves through natural reproduction. That is known as overfishing, and it has led to the collapse of some fisheries around the world, including Atlantic cod, orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, and bluefin tuna. If the demand for seafood increases as expected, the future of ocean fisheries – and consequently the health of the oceans and societies that rely on them – is more imperiled. Fishery collapse can cost people their livelihoods and an important source of nutrition; it can reduce biodiversity and endanger species. This state of affairs has led researchers and businesspeople to pursue alternatives intended to decrease the demand for fisheries around the world and to make the remaining fisheries more sustainable. Two of the recent innovations come from a business looking to offer humans a sustainable plant-based alternative to fish consumption, and researchers looking to provide farmed fish with something similar.

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Ain’t no fish here. Clear Creek Metro Park, Rockbridge, Ohio. Image Dan Keck

A plant-based fish alternative for humans

One way to lower the demand for fish is to supply a healthy, flavorful alternative that customers will want to buy. That is the theory behind Hooked Foods, founded by Tom Johansson and Emil Wasteson in Sweden. The company recently secured about 506,000 euros in capital and is preparing to launch its plant-based seafood alternative to major restaurant chains across Sweden in spring of 2021, and after that, to grocery stores and restaurants around Europe. The first flavor offered will be Toona, an alternative to tuna, one of the most-consumed fish in Europe. Key investors include Katapult Ocean, ProVeg, Wave Ventures, PlusCap, Kale United and Food Angels Germany. Two years ago, after researching the problem of overfishing and what it means for sea life, humans, and the planet, as well as the environmental impacts of farmed fish, or aquaculture, Johansson and Wasteson, together with co-founder Peter Liu, head of research and development, formed Hooked. Discovering the projected rate of increase in demand for seafood made it clear that a seafood alternative was needed, and spurred the pair to jump into business, Johansson says. «If we are going to eat 30 percent more seafood in the next 10 years, then our planet is going to suffer. We need an alternative urgently», he says. The research and development phase of the business culminated in May 2020, when the company had a product ready for large-scale testing. So far, restaurants have welcomed the fish alternative, saying the taste and texture are good. Johansson hopes that perception will help to drive sales and therefore the impact of the product on seafood sustainability. «We are impact-driven. We need to create a product that people like, that they want to buy and eat to motivate them to go to a more plant-based diet. We do not make an impact until someone buys our product», he says.

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Algae-based alternatives for fish

Achieving a desirable product meant focusing on taste and the nutritional profile of the alternative, making it comparable to fish to encourage people to move to a plant-based alternative. While restaurants have been accepting this idea, Johansson expects that the consumer market may pose a challenge. Along with the importance of taste and texture, ensuring widespread adoption of a fish alternative will depend somewhat on education and making sure that consumers know the reasons to consider trying a fish alternative. The product itself is made mainly from soy isolates, sunflower oil, and algae, with other ingredients included to ensure the taste and mouthfeel are correct. The soy isolates are put through a wet-extrusion process that turns the plant protein into the fibers, usually found in seafood. The sunflower oil is responsible for the mouthfeel of fish, and algae impart the sea flavor. Before the alternative is ready, more work is done to ensure the product will stay fresh and safe on shelves. Johansson noted that the plant-based category of foods is accelerating, but more needs to be done in terms of seafood alternatives. «Plant-based meat is at one percent of the total meat category, and plant-based seafood is around 0.06 percent. It is early -there is a lot of room to grow», he says.

Algae-based alternatives for fish

While Hooked focuses on plant-based seafood alternatives for humans, Pallab Sarker, an associate research professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the United States, is focusing on an algae-based food alternative for farmed fish. Aquaculture is the practice of raising fish for consumption on a fish farm, in contrast to wild-caught seafood, which is fished from the ocean. Aquaculture ensures that the sought-after fish for food, such as tilapia and salmon, are plentiful, but it relies on feeding these farmed fish with other fish, usually wild-caught sardines, anchovies, or other small fish. These fish are then processed into meal and oil and used as food for the larger fish destined for the human market. This, however, does not stop the problem of overfishing; it shifts from one species to another.  «Fish meal and oil come from wild-caught fish and terrestrial crops such as soy and corn are unsustainable financially, environmentally and socially. My research focuses on how we can reduce the reliance or eliminate wild-caught fish in aquaculture to make aquaculture more sustainable», states Sarker. To tackle this challenge, Sarker and his team combined different types of microalgae to generate an alternative fish feed that provided the same nutrition as fish meal and oil. One of the sources of the microalgae was industrial waste from the manufacture of oil capsules for human consumption. Once the oil is extracted from the algae, the biomass that is left over is treated as waste. But Sarker used it as a source of nutrients in the alternative fish feed, finding it rich in proteins and amino acids, and inserting a measure of circularity into the development of the alternative feed

The feed Sarker developed is geared toward tilapia, the second-largest aquaculture fish by volume in the world. Tilapia is important in developing nations in Asia and Africa, Sarker notes. The idea to use microalgae as a primary component in the alternative fish feed came from looking at the food chain and considering how to source the same nutrients differently. As a primary food product in the ocean, algae are a food source for many animals such as sardines, herring, and other small fish. These fish are then used as food for larger aquaculture fish such as tilapia and salmon. Sarker’s process removes the middle fish and uses the nutrients in microalgae to equip the larger fish with what they need to thrive and to still carry the health benefits that humans seek from these fish. «If similar nutrients are provided by other sources, for example, microalgae, then why not?» he asks.

The development of the feed has been six years in the making, as Sarker and his team spent years doing step-by-step research to determine what the tilapia would eat, whether it were able to digest and use the nutrients in the algae, and determining if and how much fish meal and oil could be replaced. The result was a fish-free alternative that produced tilapia with about a 50 percent higher weight gain than those on conventional feed, for a lower cost and provided the same health benefit to humans who eat the fish. In fact, the fish fed on the alternative feed had higher omega-3 fatty acids. «We are hopeful for industrial use or commercializing this sustainable solution to help expand economic opportunities for this industry», Sarker says. Sarker has grants to develop the same type of feed for trout and would like to expand it to salmon. Each will require their own step-by-step experiments, similar to those done for tilapia, to determine the best nutrient-rich combination of microalgae to benefit the fish and their human consumers. Sarker’s and Johansson’s efforts tackle the same challenge from two different viewpoints, but both look to the plant kingdom to address an issue in the animal kingdom, in an effort to make fish more sustainable and stem the tide of overfishing and its far-reaching impacts on the environment and humans.

IMAGE GALLERY

Hooked Foods
Plant Based Seafood Start-up
Stockholm, Sweden

Pallab Sarker, Ph.D.
Associate Research Professor
Environmental Studies Department
University of California, Santa Cruz, CA

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