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Making seafood more sustainable – could algae be the answer?

Salmon is the best-selling seafood in the UK, which is why the aquaculture industry needs to reduce the environmental impact of farming it. A Norwegian company is using a more eco-friendly way of producing the much-loved fish.

Harald Sveier doesn’t much like talking about himself, but when the conversation moves to improving the environmental impact of salmon farming, he becomes animated. The technical manager of Lerøy Seafood is passionate about doing everything he can to reduce the carbon footprint of the Norwegian company, which can trace its origins back to the end of the 19th century. Sveier has spent the past 33 years researching various ways of tackling aquaculture’s sustainability challenge.

“All human activities have an environmental impact,” he explains. “The question is: is this permanent or temporary? How can we influence that impact as much as possible so it’s temporary?”

Salmon is the best-selling seafood in the UK. Many of us purchase oily fish not just because it tastes good, but also because we’re more aware of the benefits of the omega-3 it contains. The NHS recommends we all eat at least one portion of oily fish (such as salmon or trout) a week for the heart-protecting effects of these fatty acids.

But in order for humans to benefit nutritionally from salmon, farmed fish themselves require an omega-3-rich diet. Aquaculture has traditionally relied on high volumes of wild fish that are fed to their farmed counterparts in the form of oil. Alternative feed, which does not place pressure on marine ecosystems, must be sought.

Sveier and his team have been researching exactly this issue, so Lerøy can reduce its reliance on fish oil.

“The fish farming industry must understand that we need alternatives to fish oil because it’s a limited resource,” Sveier explains.

 Lerøy Seafood is a key salmon supplier for Seachill, a longstanding supplier for Tesco. 

One of Lerøy Seafood’s answers to this problem is replacing a large portion of traditional fish oil with algal oil, a byproduct of algae, rich in omega-3 oils extracted from microalgae, which is farmed on land in huge vats. To improve supply chain sustainability, salmon farming is going flexitarian.

Customers might worry that algae-fed fish could be nutritionally deficient compared with traditionally farmed salmon. But Sveier explains that microalgae can even increase the levels of omega-3 in the seafood we buy.

“We include more algal oil than the fish need from a nutritional point of view. We’ve increased the total omega-3 fatty acids in the fish from 6% to 7.5%.”

Lerøy Seafood is a key salmon supplier for Seachill, itself a longstanding fish supplier of more than 20 years for supermarket Tesco. Last year, the retailer announced a four-year partnership with WWF to reduce the environmental impact of the average UK shopping basket by 50%. To help customers make more sustainable purchases, Tesco has supported Lerøy Seafood to scale up the use of its omega-3-rich algal fish oil.

Algal oil can be grown on an industrial scale, meaning large numbers of fish can be spared. One tonne of this oil provides the equivalent omega-3 as fish oil from 20 tonnes of wild fish.

“The good thing with Tesco is that we have a discussion partner who really knows the pros and cons of all the raw materials. We can always have a long wishlist for reducing our carbon footprint, but there’s a difference between having a wishlist and really producing something. Tesco and Seachill have been really understanding in helping us move from a wishlist to actually getting a more sustainable product on your plate,” Sveier reveals.

Harald Sveier: ‘The industry must understand that we need alternatives to fish oil’. 

“You have to look at what the fish are eating and how it’s transported,” says Sveier. “A fish fed on microalgae as part of the diet has a lower carbon footprint compared with a fish fed on traditional fish oils. If you want to choose fish, and that matters to you, you should choose the algae-fed fish.”

Tesco’s Little Helps Plan sets out its target to make affordable, healthy, sustainable food accessible for all. As part of this, Tesco and WWF are working together to halve the environmental impact of the average UK shopping basket, partnering with suppliers to drive innovation and tackle sustainability challenges across their supply chains, starting with some of the most popular products in the modern basket, like fish.

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