Special edition: Omega-3s

Carrot vs. stick: What’s the key to securing a sustainable omega-3 supply?

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acid

With around 20-25% of global wild caught fish used for fish meal and fish oil production, environmental certification schemes like Friend of the Sea (FoS) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have been putting increasing pressure on the omega-3 sector to improve stock management. The incentive? Brand value and appealing eco-labels. Yet with the majority of omega-3 still non-certified, some have asked whether this soft incentivisation approach is enough to secure real market change.  

Back in 2012 FoS announced its push to certify more marine-sourced omega-3 sources.

Since then the number of fish oil, meal, feed and omega-3 supplements companies it certifies jumped from 32 companies from 11 different countries to 76 from 23 countries by 2015.

Equally the MSC has had an increasing presence at nutraceutical industry events like Vitafoods.

The pitch at such events is simple: sustainability is not just good for the environment it’s good for business too.

From sustainability to sales 

For MSC European director Camiel Derichs this process of incentivisation is key to changing the market tide.

Speaking with us at Vitafoods Europe in Geneva this month he said MSC hoped stock management would improve through good state-set quotas and long-term management plans to protect ecosystems.

“If that is the case then we hope that can be verified and certified against our standard and as it becomes certified that can be communicated in an effective way with the blue eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council. And so we incentive that good management to be put in place so more omega-3 resources will ultimately become sustainable and well managed.”

Norwegian omega-3 supplier Aker BioMarine, the first company in the sector to be certified by the MSC, agreed.

Sustainability director Cilia Holmes Indahl told us the market needed a “critical mass”​ of certified sustainable suppliers to trigger change.

But the figures show this critical mass is yet to be achieved.

FoS calculates about 35% of worldwide production of omega-3 from wild catch and trimmings is certified by its scheme, with an estimated 20% of products on shelves carrying its logo.

Meanwhile just 4% of the world’s omega-3 supply is certified with the MSC. 

fish oil producers
Data from the MSC. 

So with over fishing a problem on some 30% of total global stocks, is it time to consider not just the carrot of incentivisation but the hard stick of policy changes?

'It’s a matter of will and character to do it'

Michel Timperio, senior vice president of global sales for Canadian supplier Neptune Technologies & Bioressources, said true market movement would not be seen until this happened.

“I think the challenge is to convince fisheries that are strictly B2B, that in others words don’t sell to a brand. I believe that’s a bit more difficult.”

He urged governments to act before stock depletion became so grave that it was too late to recover, even suggesting that countries could block entry of products without credible sustainable certification.

“You can control it. It’s a matter of will and character to do it, which I don’t expect our governments to have this kind of stamina to do.”

Not that simple 

Yet Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organisation for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), warned action would not come until market demand was there.

“If you look at the seafood industry, where these certification schemes have really been successful, it’s because there has been demand from the consumer and retail level and that has driven governments, industry and these NGOs to cooperate.

“And I think that will be the same in the omega-3 market as retailers and consumers start to demand this more."

He said pushing toward certified sustainable was a “long, complex process”, ​which involved the alignment of different interests of different parties. 

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With reintroduction of Cannabis hemp agriculture, the world's best available source of Omega 3 and 6 is becoming available. This is the best way to reduce pressure on the global fish population.

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