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Frits Berkers: Feed innovations in aquaculture

September 3, 2019

Feed can affect the flavor, taste and texture of farmed fish. 

With finite fish meal supplies and fish oil resources, can aquaculture still produce a high-quality product? Frits Berkers, manager of the Alltech Coppens Aqua Centre details why quality won’t be compromised thanks to innovations to feed in aquaculture.

The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin’s interview with Frits Berkers, manager of the Alltech Coppens Aqua Centre. Click below to hear the full audio. 


Tom:              Here with us to discuss innovative ideas in feed development is Frits Berkers, manager of the Alltech Coppens Aqua Centre (ACAC) in the Netherlands. In vivo trials are conducted at this Alltech bioscience center to study the performance of new aquafeed formulas and to study the digestibility of new raw materials. Thanks for joining us, Frits.


Frits:               Thank you, Tom.


Tom:              Tell us, if you will, first, about the role of the Alltech Coppens Aqua Centre.


Frits:               The role of the Alltech Coppens Aqua Centre actually lies in the fact that we support the formulation, feed formulation, in Alltech Coppens with experimental data that we create. We are actually the department that performs the R&D.


Tom:              It may seem obvious, because it's for fish, but what makes fish feed special?


Frits:               Fish feed is special. In a sense, it's a compound feed, so this is the only thing that the fish eats. Every different pellet should exactly match the nutrition that a fish needs that's unique for fish. Furthermore, fish live in water, so that means the feed also needs specific physical characteristics that make it possible to feed it to animals that are in water.


Tom:              Okay. As the aquaculture industry is striving to manage finite fish meal supplies and fish oil resources, can we still produce a high-quality product?


Frits:               Yeah, we still can. Yeah, it's true what you say; the fish meal resources and fish oil, they're not endless, although some sources are sustainable, so I think, in the future, we can still maintain using those sources in the best way, the most efficient way. Some fish meals originate from fish offal, so maybe carcasses that are left after processing marine fish that is caught for human consumption, so about 50%, in general, from the fish is left. It's also a good source that will remain available, I think, in the future.


Tom:              Besides Neogreen, which is a revolutionary trout diet from Alltech Coppens, what alternatives are out there?


Frits:               There are many alternatives, actually, in the ingredients. Neogreen is actually a very extreme example in the sense that we completely replace fish meal in this diet. We use microalgae to do so, amongst other things, but there are a lot of alternatives that can also partially replace fish meal, and that's what we're doing, actually, in all our fish feeds that we're producing.


Tom:              What about marine phytoplankton and seaweed? Can these be used instead of fish meal and marine fish feed?


Frits:               Yeah, definitely, but it's a bit dependent on scale at the moment, since these ingredients are not available in great abundance and, usually, at a price that is pretty high and, at the moment, not price-competitive with fish feed, but I think we can. A high potential of these ingredients lies in the fact that the fatty acids that we think are really healthy from fish, like DPA and DHA, they originate actually from marine phytoplankton, so it's really smart to look in that corner to see if we can take sources straightaway, from one trophic level down.


Tom:              What is the importance of enzymes in fish feed development?


Frits:               It's very important. The reason for that is that there's a lot of carnivorous fish — most farmed fish are carnivorous fish — so they used to feed on animal-originating materials. Part of the ingredients that we use as replacements are plant-originating materials, so the fish that are used to digesting animal feeds, they're not always used to digesting plant-originating materials, and that's where the enzymes come in.


Tom:              Is it possible to manipulate the flavor, the taste and the texture of salmon and other finfish by determining what the ingredients will do in those areas?


Frits:               Yeah.


Tom:              Flavor and texture?


Frits:               Yeah, definitely — especially the flavor, because a fish can take flavor from those ingredients, so it's really important. It's also something we test at the ACAC if we test for novel ingredients. We also test if it doesn’t change the flavor of the product, which is essential because you're making a product that is, in the end, for the customer.


Tom:              What's the best and the cheapest way of achieving the correct vitamin, of mineral additives, in fish feeds?


Frits:               They can go through premixes, for example — premixes that Alltech supplies, especially in minerals. It's really important to look at the bioavailability of these products. You can have straight mineral supplements for certain minerals, as salt itself, but it might be not as bioavailable as you wish.


                        The smart thing for some Alltech products is that they make the trace minerals very bioavailable, so you know exactly how much of the stuff you put in is available to the animal. You don’t have to over-supplement them, because over-supplementing has more costs and it might pollute your environment more than you wish and more than what would be necessary.


Tom:              I'd like to talk about biomagnification, if we could, which is responsible for the risk of poisoning — like mercury poisoning, in particular — by human consumption of large fish. Can the magnitude of biomagnification of mercury levels be quantified so that it might be possible to know before consumption which fish will have detrimental effects on human health?


Frits:               Yeah, definitely, and it's also something that is continuously monitored. It is a subject that plays a major role in wild-capture fisheries, especially, like you said, of the big species, like swordfish, tunas. That's an advantage, actually, from farmed fish, because in farmed fish, you know exactly what is going into the animal beforehand, if you're having too high levels of mercury, for example. It can be other things, because we continuously check on the suppliers, on the raw materials that we get in — if they met the standards, for example, on increasing levels of mercury, or it could be any other pollutants.


Tom:              Has the capacity for the development of global aquaculture reached a point of saturation, or is there still much room for growth?


Frits:               I think that there's a lot of room to grow, and I think it has to grow — but how it grows, I think that is something that should change and is already changing. So, you see a shift towards more land-based farms, so that's RAS farms, recirculating aquaculture systems, and they allow a more efficient use of natural resources without polluting or putting a higher pressure on the nature where you're working.


Tom:              There's a lot more control by land-based fish farming, correct?


Frits:               Yeah, there's a lot more control, so that's pollution escapees, fish disease —


Tom:              Escapees has been a big problem.


Frits:               Yeah, definitely.


Tom:              With sea lice and so forth.


Frits:               Yeah, with sea lice. Also, diluting genetics of wild stock fishes — like, if they get in contact with farmed fish, they might be also genetically selected for a certain purpose. You don’t want them to mix because, again, that will have an influence on your natural populations.


Tom:              Has there been a significant shift for land-based farming of salmon?


Frits:               Yeah. In some industries, it's something you see because of the effects of pollution getting higher, so the places where the fish were traditionally farmed in cages. For example, in the fjords in Norway or Chile, they're saturated, so you can find this amount of fish but not do more, I think. That's pollution-wise. There are more and more problems with sea lice — so, parasitic infestation on a salmon, which comes from the wild. So, when you're farming in cages, it's more vulnerable. In land-based, you can control it, so it's not a problem. Moreover, in Chile, there are detrimental effects of diseases on the salmon population, like the farm salmon population. That's also a reason that you see a bigger shift towards land-based farming of salmon. There's a lot of investment going on, since one or two years.


Tom:              From a consumer perspective, is it possible to tell the difference between wild-caught and farmed?


Frits:               I think, in taste, it isn't. If you've always consumed wild salmon, for example, or always consumed farm salmon, I think you'll notice the difference, especially in wild-caught fish, which also is of real high quality, but the quality is not always the same. The fish feed that is done on this fish might result in catching them a little bit out of season and out of condition, depending on the weather and behavior and that kind of stuff. So, you have a product that is both of real high quality, but in farmed fish, it's easier to maintain a constant high quality.


Tom:              What sort of trends and innovation and technology are you really watching right now, keeping an eye on?


Frits:               My work, especially with alternative protein sources, that's, I think, really important.


Tom:              Frits Berkers is the manager of the Alltech Coppens Aqua Centre in the Netherlands. Thank you so much, Frits.


Frits:               Thank you, Tom.


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