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Special edition: Omega-3s

Marine omega-3 sources are clearing sustainability bar—so far

By Hank Schultz , 21-Feb-2013
Last updated on 22-Feb-2013 at 22:34 GMT2013-02-22T22:34:31Z

Fish oil, an ingredient with a 150-year plus history as a nutraceutical, continues to be the mainstay of the world’s supply of omega-3s.  But, with all of the questions hovering over the health of the oceans, how much longer can suppliers and manufacturers rely on this huge, though not inexhaustible source?

Omega-3 fatty acids sit atop the pyramid of science-backed ingredients and have wide acceptance in the general marketplace. Sustainability activists don’t question the sourcing of these ingredients based on whether they believe the ingredient confers a true health benefit, as they might question the trade in bear paws, for example.  But they do tangle with officials over projections of the health of the world’s major fisheries, where most of the supply of omega-3s originates.

How much do we know?

Recent quota reductions and closures in major fisheries bring up the question of whether fisheries scientists know as much as they think they do.  At the end of January, fishery managers cut the US quotas for cod from the Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine by more than 50%, to a level that is 6% of the amount of fish caught in 1981.  As recently as 2008 federal managers believed that these cod stocks were on their way to achieving recovery targets after years overfishing and decline, but more recent population data showed a renewed (or perhaps persistent) collapse.

“We are at the beginning of understanding ocean ecosystems and everything that goes into managing them safely,” Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega 3s (GOED) told NutraIngredients-USA.

Although oceans dominate the surface of the planet, the fisheries that yield large quantities of omega-3s are found in only a few nooks of this vast expanse. As has been true for many years, the lion’s share, 70% or more, of the global supply of omega-3s comes from the Peruvian anchoveta fishery.  This astoundingly productive fishery is based on a rich source of food; upwellings of the cold Humboldt Current bring nutrients to the surface nourishing a rich assortment of unicellular organisms, which synthesize EPA, DHA and other fatty acids from sunlight.  Anchovies, which are filter feeders, scoop up these organisms and concentrate the omega-3s in their oily flesh.  The anchovies, which are short-lived and reproduce rapidly, are plentiful and easy to catch, making for a source of omega-3s whose cost effectiveness simply can’t be rivaled.

The fishery is actively managed by an arm of the Peruvian government known as IMARPE. In general, observers laud IMARPE’s management, though some call for more transparency.  The fishery is not certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, however, nor is it in assessment, according the group’s website.

 Even with years of data and decades of reliably huge (though fluctuating) catches, questions about this fishery persist. Last year,  a report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force called Little Fish, Big Impact noted the impact the intense fishing pressure had had on the relative abundance of birds and marine mammals that rely on the anchovies as a food source.  Sea birds that once deposited so much guano on the shores as to give birth to an entire fertilizer industry are now relatively scarce.

“The Humboldt Current ecosystem is greatly impoverished in comparison to its state prior to the onset of the anchoveta fishery: bird populations are extremely reduced and marine mammals, notably sea lions (Otaria flavescens) and fur seals (Arctocephalus australis), have not recovered from direct hunting early in the 20th century and the devastating El Niño of 1983,” the report states.

Oscillations, big and small

And the fishery does lie in the eye of the storm for El Niño events, which occur on a three- to seven-year cycle and can lead to significant variations in water temperatures in the eastern Pacific and in the year-to-year total anchovy biomass.  Concerns over the low number of fish found in a recent survey led IMARPE to cut the catch quota by 68% late last year to the lowest level in 25 years.

In addition, anchovy abundance seems to be tied to an even longer cycle oceanographic phenomenon, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.  The notorious 1950s crash in anchovy stocks is now thought to possibly have been partly caused by this phenomenon and not by overfishing alone. Warmer overall water conditions less favorable to anchovies prevailed again from the mid 1970s until the mid 1990s. It’s an imprecise science, but PDO cycles are generally thought to be about 20 to 30 years long, meaning a long-term shift could be in the offing.

This fishery is important for the omega-3s supply today, but it is also vital for the future.  The Lenfest report refers to it as one of the fisheries least likely to be negatively affected by rising sea temperatures as a result of global climate change.

Over the long haul, Ismail said, the anchovy fishery has been stable since IMARPE started implementing stricter controls.  The recent quota reduction is expected to be temporary, Ismail said.

“The Peruvian fishery continues to be sustainable, with the fact that they are actively managing it,” he said.

“Basically what they are staying it they want to reinforce the sustainability even further. They want to raise the biomass that needs to be in the ocean even further.”

With the Peruvian fishery nearing its limits as an omega-3s source, other sources of marine omega-3s will come to the fore to meet the growing demand, Ismail said, whether it is from other finfish stocks or invertebrate sources like krill or squid.

“We can definitely get a lot more.  It’s going to require development of some other fisheries,” he said.

“The figure they always quote is there is about one million tons of fish oil produced every year around the world, but only about 300,000 tons of it is high in omega-3s. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of it is not valuable for the omega-3s space; with concentration technologies you could take some of that and make omega-3s out of it,” he said.

Niche providers

Other fish oil stocks that are providing omega-3 include Norwegian salmon and smaller amounts of oil from Alaskan salmon, various tuna fisheries, sand eels and herring roe.  These all have differing chemistries, some of which are not as easy to work with as anchovy oil, at least in terms of boosting the EPA and DHA content.

The Scoular Company is one such supplier, with a line of wild Alaskan salmon oil for nutraceutical applications, said Danielle Black, food ingredient sales manager for Scoular.  Salmon oils are a niche market; the EPA and DHA levels in the oil can vary but in general are lower than for anchovy oil, but the product has other attributes that can be important to customers, Black said.

“Salmon oil has a high content of other types of omega fatty acids.  Salmon oil has a lot of omega 9 and omega 11.  Those are starting to gain ground in the omega industry, especially for customers that are looking for a full spectrum of fatty acids,” she said.

Sustainably caught in US waters

Another one of the newer sources of omega-3s comes from one of the crown jewels of US sustainable fisheries management.  Organic Technologies, based in Coshocton, Ohio, has developed an omega-3 ingredient called AlaskOmega based on the harvest of livers from Alaskan pollock, a fishery certified as sustainable by the MSC.

“We have a niche product that comes out of a fishery with a great story. It is a sustainable certified fishery, but we can’t satisfy the needs of the omega-3s market,” said Dan Wiley, vice president of nutrition and health for Organic Technologies.

Part of the story of marine omega-3s supply is analogous to what has happened in petroleum markets. The Peruvian fishery was like the cheap oil in Texas or Saudi Arabia;  easy to identify and easy to get (although unlike petroleum it regrows each year).  The smaller niche sources depend more on price, Wiley said.

“There are a lot of other wild-catch fisheries around the world where viscera is not being converted into oil,” he said. “Part of that is logistics, part of that is because of the cost of installing fish oil plants at these various fisheries.

“If oil is $500 ton, nobody cares. If oil is $5,000 a ton, then everybody cares a lot and more sources of oil will become available,” Wiley said.

Getting it right at the outset

One of the marine omega-3s sources that has a strong sustainability story to tell is the krill fishery.  An issue in overall marine ecosystem management is the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” i.e. resources in extraterritorial waters that are not subject to sovereign control easily fall victim to overexploitation, leading to a grab what you can, while you can mentality. The Antarctic krill fishery is managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an organization cited by fisheries expert Ray Hilbron of the University of Washington in his recent book Overfishing as one of the rare international fisheries management success stories. CCAMLR, he said, “is generally credited with much success in implementing an ecosystems approach to fisheries management and finding ways to reduce illegal fishing.”

The krill fishery is fairly young as world fisheries go and CCAMLR seems to be making a big push to make sure that managers have a lot of data before any decision on possible higher catch limits. In particular, CCAMLR takes care to try to make sure that the needs of krill predators—birds, seals and whales—are met. According to krill oil supplier Aker BioMarine, which is also the world’s largest krill harvester with two of its own boats that bring in more than half of the total catch and which is also is the only krill harvester with MSC certification, the overall harvest last season was 157,000 tons, below the cautionary trigger level of 640,000 tons and far below the theoretical quota of 5.6 million tons. 

Krill oil supplements are relatively speaking very expensive, and so they trade on other attributes, much as the wild salmon oil does.  In the case of krill, its phospholipid chemistry leads to claims of better bioavailability and digestibility, helping it to avoid (so far) the commoditization that has affected the fish oil sector.

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