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Dr. Philip Lyons: First-rate fillets: Opportunities in aquaculture

October 29, 2018

Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food-producing sector in the world. To provide a premium product to a growing global population, producers must consider the quality of their feed. 

The following is an edited transcript of Nicole Erwin's interview with Dr. Philip Lyons. Click below to hear the full audio:

Nicole:         When it comes to fillet quality, consumers want to ensure they're spending their money on a premium product. Dr. Philip Lyons is a research scientist at Alltech Coppens. He joins us to discuss the advancement of innovative aquafeed solutions that improve fish health and performance. Thanks for being here.


Philip:           Thank you very much. It's great to be here.


Nicole:         Dr. Lyons, before we get into the science of what makes a first-rate fish fillet, it's my understanding that, since you were very young, you have had a fascination for aquatics. Would you have ever imagined that your connection as an adult would be so direct and through fish nutrition?


Philip:           I think so. As a young boy, I was always very interested in fishing — all things outdoors and to do with fishing. I grew up in the west of Ireland where we did a lot of trout fishing. That was really where I kind of got my interest and my passion for fishing. Then, as you go through college, you have to figure out how to do that as a profession. Aquaculture really represented an opportunity for me to directly work with fish whilst also trying to make a difference in terms of sustainable feed solutions and these things. I think I'm really very fortunate and privileged that I'm able to do something I love every day with Alltech Coppens.


Nicole:         What is it like developing quality fish food? And if we say “quality,” that means there have to be some not-so-good varieties out there. What's the worst thing that you've seen fish being fed?


Philip:           Oh, good question. Well, in some areas of the aquaculture industry, they feed wet fish to fish — for some of the big carnivorous species like yellowtail. I think that's just so environmentally unfriendly and not sustainable at all. You are really damaging the food chain in those environments by feeding those. It makes absolutely no sense to feed such a huge volume of wet fish directly to large carnivorous species.


                    I think that's something that needs to be refined, and it really shows how young the aquaculture industry is when those practices are going on. But I think we've learned a huge amount from that, and you've seen how fish meal inclusion in aquafeeds is coming down and we're searching for alternatives. I think we're learning a lot, even though it's a young industry, and those practices are now kind of things of the past — or are becoming things of the past.


Nicole:         Speaking of some of the alternatives, what are some fish feed formulations that you're working on right now?


Philip:           We're looking at a lot of different alternatives, like everybody is — we've seen innovations in insect meal production for pet feed, for animal feed in general — but obviously also for fish food. I think that has a lot of potential given that, if you consider a trout growing up in a wild freshwater environment, its main dietary source is often insects. I think it makes a lot of sense that, instead of feeding so much fish to fish, we can actually substitute some of that fish with alternative protein sources like insect meal. That's an area we're really interested in. We will do some research on it and we already have done it in other species like catfish, et cetera. So that's one.


                    I think bacterial meal also has potential as an alternative protein source. There are various other alternatives to fish meal, but there are challenges associated with those in terms of the palatability of raw materials. The cost of production is still quite prohibitive for some of those technologies. When that begins to become competitive with fish meal, then I really do think that those raw materials will be widespread in aquafeeds.


Nicole:         We talked to the company yesterday that is taking fly larva. They're feeding off of spent grains and other food wastes and then turning it into a pellet, but that still seems fairly new. So how accessible is something like that now?


Philip:           If we were to put it into aquafeeds right now, I think there are still some challenges when it comes to fish performance because the amino acid profile has to meet the requirements of the fish. That's one thing. In terms of accessibility of the raw material, I think the companies now that are making these types of meals are only starting, and they're making very small volumes — so, really, test volumes that we can use in a select number of feeds or for research and development purposes. In short, they're not so accessible, but the industry is ready to test them and to look for alternatives to fish meal. We're ready to accept them, but the volume is not quite there at the moment.


Nicole:         What are some of the most sought-after fish fillets, and what kind of food does it take for them to obtain that kind of premium product stamp of approval?


Philip:           When it comes to salmon and trout, the coloration of fish fillets is usually one of the biggest things. That coloration in the wild comes from salmon and trout eating crustaceans that naturally synthesize the carotenoids like astaxanthin that then get directed to the flesh. But in farmed fish, we don't include a huge amount of those raw materials in feed, so we have to add the astaxanthin in. That has some advantages and disadvantages. Some people use a synthetic carotenoid or synthetic astaxanthin, and then there's a natural form, but the synthetic form is often more stable than the natural form. That being said, there's a demand again in the industry to adopt natural solutions, and it's certainly the direction we want to go in — into natural forms of that astaxanthin that we can include into the feed that will give that lovely red color.


                    Other parameters, then, for fillet quality would obviously be: the fish has to taste very, very nice, so the raw materials that go in have to be optimal. Fillet gaping — the actual structure of the fillet and the muscle strength — has to be good, has to be fresh, has to be firm, and the collagen structure of the flesh has to be good. So, yeah, all of those things combine how we would judge whether a fillet is of optimal quality for us.


Nicole:         You touched on this a little bit earlier: some fish meal labels include ingredients like cornmeal, fish meal, fish oil, poultry meal, poultry fat and grapeseed oil, among a number of other things. What percentage of the industry would you say are still using these ingredients?


Philip:           Still quite a large percent. I don't know how to put a number on it, but it depends on the countries as well. So, whether it's in Norway, whether it's in Europe, whether we're talking about aquaculture in Asia, et cetera, the raw materials are vastly different. In some markets — for instance, in Africa — they use a lot of locally-produced raw materials, and they can't get access to the quality raw materials that we use in aquafeeds in Europe, for instance. So, they're being used in a lot of markets still, but I think you're seeing that usage declining as aquafeed formulation is evolving so quickly because of the environmental challenges we're facing. Yeah, I think it's becoming less and less.


Nicole:         When you said that they lack access to the quality ingredients, is it due to financial access? What is it?


Philip:           Yes, and importation, I think, of certain raw materials — for instance, land animal proteins. There are restrictions, obviously, on importing those raw materials. It's a combination of both. If you can produce aquafeed locally in those markets, then, obviously, it gives you a very big edge and an ability to distribute your feed very efficiently to farmers, and they're readily willing to test it and to try it.


Nicole:         Getting it right every time and doing it sustainably — does that require a bit of an innovative approach? Are you looking at gene editing? Is it more nutrition? Is it holistic?


Philip:           At the research center where I work, at the Alltech Coppens Aqua Center in the Netherlands, we have a very applied research focus. The goals of the research are to make informed feed formulation and raw material purchasing decisions whilst also optimizing the health of the fish and making sure that the feeds we use are healthy for the fish feeds.


                    But in terms of the innovation side, we have, for instance, on the gut health side, a very big multi-partner project including Nofima, Marine Harvest, University of Glasgow, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the U.K. It's a huge multi-partner project with the sole goal to understand the structure and the function of the intestinal microbes within salmon. That area has been very widely covered in other species and in other areas of terrestrial agriculture, but in fish, we're still really lacking, so we've initiated this project. It's a Ph.D. project to understand the structure and the function of intestinal microbes and their sort of functional contribution to fish nutrition, and we're making big strides with that. It's only just over a year into the project now, and some of the work that's coming out of that is really like a new frontier, I would say, in fish nutrition — and it's bringing that area up to the same level as what we know about intestinal microbes and the health of dairy cattle and even humans. So that's one of the big innovations that we're working on right now.


Nicole:         Your eyes kind of lit up, actually, when you started talking about it.


Philip:           It's a really nice project.


Nicole:         So, are you looking at using probiotics? Or what kind of things are you seeing?


Philip:           Well, I think before we can start thinking about probiotics in fish feed — there's been a lot of work on probiotics and prebiotics in fish feed, and a lot of work that we've done with Bio-Mos® has really shown very nice results in terms of gut structure and gut health.


                    But I think, when it comes to the intestinal microbiome, we need to know what the actual structure looks like in a normal fish before we can start thinking about how we make new applications to target the functional potential of those bacteria. At the moment, we have characterized what the microbiome looks like, and now we're thinking about what feed additives to modulate that microbiome in order to harvest kind of that main functional potential that gives the best benefit to fish health and fish nutrition — whether that's breaking down different raw materials, whether that's providing short-chain fatty acids that we know help the intestinal cells of fish, thereby enhancing growth. But until we get that baseline data, then we can start thinking about application. But it's something that the industry as a whole has very little knowledge on, but I would say we're really at the forefront with this project.


Nicole:         Wild-caught fish are still considered premium. Why would you say that this message is still prevalent: that farm fish aren't as nutritional as a wild version? And is it kind of part of your mission to change that?


Philip:           Yeah, I think it's a complex one because I think the media has really put out some myths about farmed fish — about how they're produced. The overall welfare of farmed fish is another big area that's misunderstood by the public. I would say that a lot of that responsibility does kind of fall with the media and reporting incorrect facts about fish farming. I think, when you compare fish farming with other areas of agriculture, it's hugely sustainable. We have all the space in the world to do it. It has minimal environmental impact. We have hundreds, if not thousands, of fish species that we could farm sustainably, and we've only just concentrated on a few. So, it's really at the very beginning. It's really exciting that we have such potential at our fingertips for aquaculture.


                    I think the negative spin that has been put on it is really just a misunderstanding based on how things are reported about how aquaculture is conducted. If you go to a fish farm and you see how the fish are treated and you see how much the farmers care about the fish and you actually see how little environmental impact it causes, then I think that can change perceptions. So, it's really a perception thing, and we need to get the message out there that farmed fish are healthy and are perfect sources of omega-3 for human nutrition.


Nicole:         I think a lot of that also comes down to what fish are being fed. It goes back to that old adage, “You are what you eat.”


Philip:           Of course. What we're feeding our farmed fish, in many cases — such as with the algae that we produce here and the fish meal replacers that we're using — these types of things are highly sustainable, so I don't see the problem. If you eat a fish from the wild, that fish has also eaten fish, so it's a bit of a vicious circle in that way. But, like I say, if you go to a fish farm and you see how well the fish are treated and how much space they have in terms of the welfare in comparison to some poultry farms and things, it is one of the most responsibly conducted forms, I think, of food production.


Nicole:         What percentage of fish in, let's say, five years do you anticipate will wind up on someone's plate that will have been farmed?


Philip:           I think a couple of years ago, farm fish began to overtake wild catch. If it keeps stagnating the way it's going with wild catch, you're going to see, it's going to climb up 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent. At the moment, I think all prawns and shrimp that end up on people's plates are pretty much farmed, and they come from southeast Asia and south America. I think, the more species we learn about — there are so many developing species in aquaculture that could be farmed even more efficiently than salmon and bass and trout, et cetera. So that percentage is only going to climb because we have such potential there to research other species.


Nicole:         What are some of the more successful breeds of fish that you're seeing?


Philip:           Well, in Greece, there's a species called meagre, which is growing. In Greece and Turkey, traditionally, they have grown sea bass and Sea Bream, which are very tasty, very efficient fish. But in terms of aquaculture, the production cycle is quite long. I think some species like meagre may have the potential to be produced more quickly.


                    There are several strains of tilapia that can have a six-month timeframe to harvest — so that's extremely efficient. Farming very low on the food chain, the feed inputs are very environmentally sustainable. Cobia in Panama, I'd say, is another developing species. They're a carnivorous species, but they're farmed quite far offshore, with high omega-3 content in the fillets, and have a lot of potential for growth. Striped bass, I suppose, in America is another species that has a lot of potential. They would be some of the emerging ones that we've seen, certainly, around the world in the last few years.


Nicole:         And you were talking about how you think a large percentage of all the shrimp that ends up on the plate is farmed. How quickly is the aquaculture business moving along, and how competitive is it?


Philip:           It's quite competitive in that we have quite a small number of big players in terms of aquaculture feed. So, they control a lot of the market, let's say, so that there's three or four, mainly, of those. And then there's kind of a stock of sort of medium-range players in the market who are specialized in different particular species. It's very competitive, particularly in Norway, where they have had an established salmon industry for many, many years now. That's a difficult market to get into, but it's growing so fast that the opportunities are there to easily get into those markets. Especially within Alltech with Coppens, the flexibility we have to move into different markets and to make different feeds, and because we make feeds for so many different species, we have that potential.


                    How fast is it growing? I think the growth stagnated a little bit last year, according to the feed survey that Alltech conducts every year. I think we saw a little bit of stagnation in the aqua side. But it can only grow. It has to grow, because the world needs protein and, in my opinion, aqua is the most sustainable way to do that. It's only a matter of time before that growth picks up again and continues on.


Nicole:         Any idea why it's stagnated a bit?


Philip:           That's a good question. Yeah, I'm not really sure exactly why we saw this kind of stop or this stagnation. But, yeah, it could be markets contracting or something like that in some areas, and feed is not being produced in as much quantity. I think also there have been problems with sea lice and mortality in Norway. That also has maybe played a little bit of a role, and it's becoming an increasing problem. They're really still trying to figure out the best way to tackle that huge issue. Disease also plays a role more widely. White spot virus in shrimp and early mortality syndrome in shrimp has also played a role. So, yeah, I think diseases also played a part. That's one possibility.


Nicole:         Well, lastly, how do you feel that public demands for traceability will affect this industry in the future?


Philip:           I think it will. I think if you look at, for instance, supermarkets now, they will demand a product that's produced in a certain way. For instance, the issue of including land animal proteins is still controversial in some markets. I think you're seeing a more demanding consumer nowadays, especially when it comes to fish, because of the perceptions that are right there in the media, so it's going to become more and more important. But we see applications that are online now where, whether it's a wild caught fish or a farm fish, you can actually track where that fish was produced, what it was fed, et cetera. Traceability is going to become more and more important, I would say.


Nicole:         I'm really interested in the algae aspect. When consumers hear that the fish are being fed algae and some of this new insect technology, what kind of response are you getting?


Philip:           Really positive. With algae, we can completely replace fish oil with the algae meal and maintain the same amount of omega-3 left in the fillet. If you're providing such a sustainable product and you're eliminating fish oil from the diet and the consumer is getting the same  benefit, then yeah, it's so, so positive for the industry. We also have a fish meal-, fish oil-free trout feed on the market. It's the only one on the market now. So, we're getting a lot of very good responses from our customers and from consumers about that. People, like I say, are more open minded these days about how their fish are produced, so it can only be a positive.


Nicole:         I'm talking with Dr. Philip Lyons, a research scientist at Alltech Coppens. Thank you so much.


Philip:           Thank you very much, too. Thank you.



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