The question has to be asked - is the aquaculture industry managing its research resources in the most efficient manner? With researchers driven to be the discoverer of the 'next big thing' in aquaculture, is the industry being shortchanged when it comes to the less glamorous research into nutrient efficiency for the species that are already being farmed? And for that matter, for the new species being brought on line?
With limited resources, which in these times of the financial crisis, and that doesn’t stand for golden fried chicken, it becomes even more imperative that industry and research scientists maximize the use of facilities and manpower. Feed is by far the biggest single cost item on the Profit & Loss statement. You’d think it would make perfect sense to spend as much on research as it took, to reduce expenditure and improve efficiency in this area wouldn’t you? But when I look at where the research dollar is being spent it seems to be going into developing ‘exciting’ new species. This suits the minister because he can make an announcement and look good before his colleagues. That in turn gives researchers leverage for more funds to be directed, after peer group review of course, to more research into new announcements. Oops, I mean into new species.
Hard core commercial aquaculturists would be excused for questioning the wisdom of this policy on several grounds to do with nutrition, or more to the point nutritional efficiency. At the moment, because of the healthy growth of the industry, feed manufacturing capacity is stretched to the limit. There is little economic inclination for feed millers to dabble in the research work required for nutritional efficiency on species that they are not going to be able to supply. Growers of mainstream species, such as rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon, benefit from research driven by the scramble for feed market share. Commercial FCRs of 1:1 are close to the industry norm.
In many cases, growers of the new species have no option but to accept compromise diets. In Australia for instance, Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii peelii) growers have a choice between barramundi (Lates calcarifer) diets and salmonioid diets. It was found that salmonoiod diets were too fatty and barramundi diets weren’t the best nutrient profile fit. Feed efficiency in re-circulation systems falls between 1.2:1 and 1.4:1. In trials where species-specific diets were used food efficiency was less than 1:1, with a best cohort figure of 0.87:1. This raises the question: is the absence of species-specific diets blocking the entry of new species to the industry? True, investors are drawn to new species, usually by their market appeal. But equally true, investors are conservative by nature, and when they work out that they could have been making more from their investment in fish production space by growing established species, their interest in pioneering fades and another promising new species is crossed off the list. Of course there may be other factors other than efficient nutrition involved in the failure of the new species to establish a foothold, but without economically viable diets, the cost of production is going to doom the new species to the novelty niche end of the market.
Asking the same question another way would be to suggest that the proliferation of new species is diluting the nutritional efficiency of the whole industry. You only have to look at the pig and poultry industries to see an intensive animal protein producing industry at its most efficient. In a world of shrinking resources, both sectors rely on a limited number of strains of the one species to maximize nutritional efficiency to the max. How long is it going to be before the aquaculture industry realizes that to launch a new species, it has to be the full package? The current trend of just closing the breeding cycle and passing the technology on to the industry isn’t working. Without the right fuel the rocket is not going to reach the moon, let alone the stars.
Nutritional efficiency isn’t just about lower FCRs. Improved FCRs are only the yardstick by which other production efficiencies are measured. If FCRs are coming down, growers should be seeing an increase in growth rates as essential amino acid profiles match the species’ requirements. Cost of production and slow growth rates have been given as the cause for the faltering of the Atlantic cod sector that was heralded as the ‘new world order’ for cold water aquaulture. Now industry leaders are suggesting they started off with an incomplete package.
Finding the middle way
The opportunity exists for the nutrition industry to work with the research sector to develop new diets for the new species, but this isn’t always the case. Where an industry exists, the market for improved diets exists. When it comes to new diets for new species, the interest of the feed industry is governed by responsibility to employees and shareholders. Altruism can only go so far. Finding the middle way is not always easy.