There is a lot of confusion in the market currently as it pertains to fish oil and sustainability. Since fish oil comes from fish, many assume that the sustainability of fisheries is in jeopardy because of the high consumer demand and growth in the fish oil market. What most people don’t understand is that fish are caught for a variety of reasons, such as for seafood, fishmeal or industrial purposes, and that the value of fish oil alone is not high enough to justify catching fish solely to produce fish oil from it.
The most valuable components of fish oil are the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, so the fish used in omega 3 fish oil production are generally the ones highest in these two fatty acids. However, the fish richest in EPA and DHA still only have approximately 30% EPA+DHA content. At levels that low, seemingly minor differences in omega 3 content amount to significantly higher barriers to consumer adoption. A fish oil with 15% EPA+DHA, for example, requires a consumer to take twice as many capsules to get the benefit of a 30% oil.
Supplements on the market today contain oils from sardines, anchovies, herring, tuna, cod, salmon, menhaden, hoki and other fish. In general, sardines and anchovies are highest in total EPA+DHA content, so it should not be a surprise that these fish account for the majority of oils on the market today. Anchovies and sardines are also important for fish oil concentrates, where the EPA and DHA content can go above 90%. Since anchovy and sardine oils have some of the highest EPA+DHA levels, they give concentrators the highest yields. Data from a recent Frost & Sullivan market research study commissioned by the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) show that more than 90% of the fish oil on the market, by volume, comes from anchovy and sardine fisheries.
The two next most important sources of EPA and DHA are cod liver and tuna oils, which fill unique niches in the market. While cod liver oil is considered one of the best sources of omega 3s, globally it is not generally consumed for its omega 3 content. Actually, it is primarily taken in Scandinavia and the U.K. for its vitamin content and its decades-old use in preventing rickets. Tuna, on the other hand, has a unique omega 3 profile, with levels of DHA ranging from 21-24%. This makes it a good source for brain and children’s health applications. GOED estimates that cod liver oil accounts for 7% of the fish oil on the market and tuna oil another 2%. Menhaden, hoki, salmon and other oils make up the balance.
There are simple, commonsense principles involved in managing fisheries to ensure sustainability: (1) understanding how much biomass is in the sea; (2) understanding the reproductive rate of each fishery; and (3) knowing the amount of fish being harvested each year. These guidelines allow governments to set targets for allowable catch limits and helps them understand how low a stock can go before it is considered “threatened.” These principles also help them lay out a plan for enforcing rules related to promoting a sustainable catch.
Because fisheries tend to cross national borders, or in some cases are completely outside of any country’s control, multinational treaty organizations are critical for managing fisheries on a global basis. Since anchovy, sardine, cod and tuna account for more than 99% of the fish oils consumed by humans, this article focuses on the organizations that influence these four fisheries most significantly: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF).
The fish supply used for most fish oils has remained constant due in part to the
FAO’s “Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.” The majority of the world’s fish oil originates from countries that are signatories to this code, which provides principles and standards applicable to the conservation, management and development of all fisheries. It systematically covers the capture, processing and trade of fish and fishery products, fishing operations, aquaculture, fisheries research and the integration of fisheries into coastal area management. Put simply, the “Code” provides a framework for national and international efforts to ensure sustainable harvesting of aquatic living resources in harmony with the environment.
As part of the Code, strict catch limits are introduced each year based on a sonar census of fish biomass in the ocean. Thus, the amount of fish allowed to be caught on an annual basis is determined by the amount of fish available, not by the demand for fish oil (or fishmeal). As a renewable natural resource, fish can be harvested year after year, provided appropriate policies are in place and responsible fishing and utilization practices are followed. Successful implementation of the Code will result in the availability of fish and fishery products for consumption by present and future generations.
Recently, the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO) developed and launched a Global Standard for Responsible Supply to allow fishmeal and fish oil producers to show that they are offering traceable, high quality marine products that are manufactured safely, using fish from responsibly managed fisheries. Compliance will be third party audited and raw material sourcing must take place in a country that complies with the FAO Code of Responsible Fishing.
The FAO Code and the IFFO standard are important for the anchovy and sardine fisheries that account for more than 90% of all fish oils. Nearly all of the recommended controls in the FAO Code are followed within these fisheries, which indicates that they are sustainably managed.
ICES coordinates the management of the North Atlantic fisheries, where most cod liver oils are produced. However, unlike the anchovy and sardine fisheries of Peru and Chile, the large number of countries involved in cod fisheries makes sustainable management more complicated. ICES has broken the North Atlantic cod fishery down into regional areas, including in the oceans off of Northern Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Georges Bank and Newfoundland. In addition, there are some coastal fisheries in Norway, Greenland and Canada.
Each area of the North Atlantic cod fishery is managed differently due to competing national interests, but the ICES management principles are in effect very similar to the FAO’s Code of Responsible Fisheries. ICES advises countries to adopt management plans that set total allowable catch limits on fisheries, and has divided its recommendations into regions that require their own management plans. Importantly, ICES develops precautionary limits for both reproduction and harvest to ensure stocks do not fall below critical levels, but also sets harvest targets for developing a fishery that has long-term high production potential and harvest targets based on agreements with governments to monitor compliance with a fishery management plan.
The Northeast Arctic cod fishery area is the most well managed, according to ICES evaluation, closely followed by the Eastern Baltic Sea. GOED estimates that conservatively at least 75% of the cod liver oil used in supplements comes from these stocks, as all of the top cod liver oil manufacturers source exclusively from these stocks.
Tuna oil for human consumption is produced in very small quantities relative to the available supply. In fact, even today most of the tuna oil produced is either discarded or burned as biodiesel. Unfortunately, it is often reported that tuna stocks are among the most overfished in the world. What most people don’t know is that there are several different species of tuna and the sustainability of each is different. Since tuna fisheries cover every major ocean in the world, there are multiple multinational commissions managing various regions of tuna fishing along the guidelines of the FAO Code of Responsible Fisheries. The ISSF is a not-for-profit cooperation between industry, NGOs, scientists and many of these governmental bodies governing tuna fisheries that attempts to monitor and lobby for management controls of these stocks.
According to the ISSF, skipjack tuna fisheries around the world are strong and healthy, and account for about 60% of global tuna catches. Nearly all tuna oil for human consumption comes from the Pacific tuna fisheries, which means that all tuna fisheries used in the production of oil for human consumption, except for the Eastern Pacific Bigeye Tuna Fishery, are not currently overfished. It is difficult to get estimates on the amount of tuna oil that comes from each stock, but it is believed that very little comes from overfished stocks since it is primarily a byproduct of tuna canneries.
Ultimately, fish oils are byproducts of other industries and their availability is subject to the responsible management of these fisheries. The anchovy, sardine, cod and tuna fisheries produce about 99% of the fish oils consumed by humans today. The anchovy and sardine fisheries are among the best managed in the world and are healthy and strong. While some cod and sardine fisheries are currently threatened or overfished, the fish oil from these species largely comes from sustainable fisheries. The inaccurate media reporting that has blamed the collapse of some seafood fisheries on the growth in the omega 3 industry does not dive deep enough into where fish oils come from and how those fisheries are managed.
About the authors: Adam Ismail is the executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) and can be reached at email@example.com. Harry Rice is the director of regulatory and scientific affairs for GOED and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Rome, Italy: FAO, 1995.
2. Frost & Sullivan Omega-3 Ingredient Market Overview report commissioned by GOED, 2009.
3. International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation. Global Standard for Responsible Supply: Requirements for Certification. St. Albans, United Kingdom: IFFO, 2009. Accessed 20 Jan 2010 http://www.iffo.net/intranet/content/archivos/145.pdf
4. International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. ICES Advice on Cod Fisheries. 2009 www.ices.dk/committe/ acom/comwork/report/asp/advice.asp?Region=-1&Advice=-1&Species=6& Period=262&titlesearch=&submit1=Submit+Query&mode=2
5. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation. Status of the World Fisheries for Tuna. 2009 www.iss-foundation.org/files/e71afd66-086a-41c7-a71c-c2935687dcef/ISSF_A-2%20Summary%20(3).pdf
6. Shepherd CJ Pike IH and Barlow SM (2005). Sustainable Feed Resources of Marine Origin. Spec Publ (Eur Aquac Soc) 35:59-66.