Fish consumption globally has doubled in the last 40 years, making aquaculture the fastest-growing sector of food production. With increasing demand, sustainable growth and feed improvements are continual priorities for the industry.

Farming seafood has many challenges. Managing the high input cost of feed is a key concern. Historically, the primary protein source in aquafeeds was fishmeal, made from small fish like sardines and anchovies dried and ground into a meal ingredient. Because this process takes a lot of time, money and diminishing wild resources, soybean meal has emerged as a much more sustainable protein source. 

Soy-optimized, Sustainable Feed

Soybean meal is an ideal protein source for aquafeeds — it is rich in protein, essential fatty acids, unsaturated fats and contains a favorable amino acid profile that meets the dietary requirements of fish. 

Replacing large portions of fishmeal with advanced soy proteins provides a feed that is not only easier to source and cost-effective but also environmentally friendly. To ensure U.S. Soy’s quality and sustainability, the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) and other members of the U.S. soybean value chain created the U.S. Soybean Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP) in 2013, verifying soybeans that meet a variety of sustainability requirements. Currently, 90 percent of the soybeans produced in the U.S. meet SSAP standards. 

The SSAP has been recognized as an acceptable sustainable verification by the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) sustainability certification program. To further encourage sustainable practices, the BAP has updated their feed mill standards to include the requirement that 50 percent of soy ingredients must come from a verified sustainable source like SSAP. International customers can be sure that the U.S. Soy they are using in their feed is not only a nutritionally superior product, but also good for the environment and their bottom line, as soybean meal is a cheaper alternative to other fishmeal. 

“Soybean meal has been proven to be an ideal alternative to fishmeal. It is a standard protein source used in commercial aquafeeds today which was not the case 20 years ago,” says Colby Sutter, USSEC Marketing Director, Aquaculture. “Through USSEC’s efforts, we are educating feed mills and nutritionists on the many values of increasing the inclusion of U.S. soybean meal in diets.” 

Innovation in aquaculture feed continues within the United States through the work of other groups like the Soy Aquaculture Alliance (SAA). Currently, SAA is researching intensive aquaculture systems that will support the expansion of U.S. Soy in aquaculture diets. SAA uses offshore aquaculture cages on the West Coast of the United States to explore cultivation of fish farms and how feeding a soy-optimized formulated diet in a closed cycle can keep species thriving. 

International Aquaculture

In 2009, USSEC’s International Soy in Aquaculture Program funded an initiative to help marine fish hatcheries in Southeast Asia expand production. The program identified eight target hatcheries throughout Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand and worked with them on issues that were limiting their production, such as biosecurity and operations. This program established a basis for soy in aquaculture in Southeast Asia. Since its creation, the program has increased the requirement for quality, stable feed made with U.S. Soy.

China is the top user of soy in aquaculture at about 408 million bushels per year, and soy-fed aquaculture innovation in China has progressed quickly. In a partnership with USSEC and the soy industry, projects in China promote the In Pond Raceway System (IPRS), which has proven successful in growing more fish with less environmental impact. The IPRS takes an existing pond and, with some minor construction of raceways, simulates a river flow with constant water movement. Mimicking the river flow gives fish a healthy environment, protects water quality by removing waste and recycling it for other uses, such as biofuel and fertilizer. Unlike traditional pond aquaculture, after harvest, the pond can be restocked almost immediately. Without the IPRS, ponds must be emptied, dried, and then filled with new water — an extremely limited resource in China and much of the world — before restocking.

Paul Burke, USSEC Regional Director, North Asia says, “The expansion of soy-fed aquaculture and improvements of facilities throughout China is helping to strengthen the demand for U.S. soybeans. With the industry evolving and modernizing, they are looking for the best, most effective way to feed fish and get them to market, whether it be through soy-fed fish meal or through other technological partnerships with USSEC.”

The IPRS is spreading to other parts of the globe. Recently, a tilapia farm in Campeche, Mexico started utilizing IPRS, the first in Latin America to try the sustainable technology. In a 12-month test run, the technology produced 50 percent more yield while using less water, electricity and labor.

To learn more about USSEC aquaculture efforts, click here.