Omega-3 sustainability: Sustainable fishing practices incentivize markets.
Seafood: it’s the most traded food commodity in the world. But mismanagement of resources, and a growing population of hungry consumers, threatens the very existence of marine animals and the health ingredients we obtain from them.
From the Antarctic to the Pacific Ocean, suppliers of marine omega-3 oils implement best fishing practices to convince retailers and consumers that fishing the seas for oil-rich creatures can be done responsibly.
They’re doing this now more than ever.
Omega-3s: Third-Party Sustainability Certifiers
Fisheries are increasingly vying for independent certification, especially when it yields a consumer-friendly eco-label.
One such program is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), founded as a joint venture between Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund for the certification of wild-caught fish. Now certifying more than 16,000 product lines in 87 countries, the MSC enforces a broad spectrum of standards before and after any certification is granted.
The MSC’s core principles maintain that: exploited fish stocks must be sustainable and highly productive; the environmental impact of the fishery must be minimized; and the fishery must be responsibly managed (including responsibilities ranging from continuous data collection to use of proper fishing gear). To ensure that relevant data is collected responsibly, and that pertinent regional laws are abided, the MSC requires applicants to use GPS monitoring systems and independent observers onboard the fishing vessel. The frequency of independent observer use varies and largely depends on the vulnerability of the species being fished.
MSC criteria, when met, can make way for numerous achievements in fishing practice, including—but not limited to—reduced bycatch (the capture of non-target species, such as predators), reduced trawl times, and increased knowledge of the ecosystem being exploited.
While a fishery’s readiness for certification can vary, the MSC says its procedures accommodate most levels of preparedness. “There will be cases where the fishery is already sustainable and this is just a way to confirm that and demonstrate it to market,” says MSC regional director for the Americas, Kerry Coughlin. “On the other end, a fishery can do a confidential pre-assessment against the MSC standards to see where it stands. In this case, the certifier might say, ‘You have a lot of problems, and those will have to be fixed.’”
MSC-certified consumer products must also meet chain-of-custody standards, developed and enforced under a separate MSC program to ensure full traceability of the product, from fishing to packaging.
Another well-recognized certifier is Friend of the Sea (FOS), which approves wild-caught and farmed fish. (FOS founder Paolo Bray says farmed fish represents about 50% of the total seafood in the global marketplace.) Born out of the nonprofit organization the Earth Island Institute—which initiated the International Dolphin Safe Monitoring Program for tuna canneries—the FOS operates with similar intent to the MSC, but under its own set of criteria. FOS-certified products originate from nearly 50 countries worldwide, with mussels, shrimp, salmon, and trout among the most certified of species.
FOS mandates that its certified seafood and aquaculture meet the following basic requirements: the target stock is not overexploited (according to an official scientific assessment); the fishery does not impact the seabed (or the impact is at least brought to a negligible level); bycatch may not include endangered species; and the fishery’s discard cannot surpass 8%. “There are other fishing methods, such as long lines for tuna, which normally have discards that can be up to 20%,” says Bray. “Usually, these operations are not certified by us.”
FOS requires some use of independent onsite observers who monitor for legal compliance measures, such as making sure that only legal-size fish are caught and that fishing does not take place in marine-protected areas or other territories where fishing activity isn’t allowed.
To obtain FOS certification, fisheries must also demonstrate compliance with social accountability standards, including abstaining from illegal labor practices, such as sharkfinning, child labor, and overextending a fisherman’s stay on sea.
Said to be the largest single-species biomass in the world, Antarctic krill is increasingly exploited as an alternative omega-3 source to fish oil. But as vast as krill numbers are, some conservation groups still question the impact krill harvesting may be having on populations of krill and its predators, including various species of penguin and seal.
To demonstrate commitment to best fishing practices, some krill suppliers take to the path of certification. Neptune Technologies and Bioressources Inc. (Laval, QC, Canada), which supplies NKO brand krill oil, is FOS-certified, having responded to early nonconformities with FOS criteria by submitting a corrective action plan complete with a specified timeline.
Antarctic krill are lucky enough to also have steady monitoring by a regional authority—in this case, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Established primarily out of the interest of conserving local marine life, the 25-nation group is a decision-making body that recommends best practices for sustainable harvest of, among other animals, krill. CCAMLR assesses harvesting impacts on the ecosystem and its inhabitants, and even establishes krill catch quotas. Enzymotec (Migdal HaEmek, Israel), which supplies K•Real krill oil, says that it adheres to CCAMLR guidelines and will only use CCAMLR-approved fishing boats.
CCAMLR’s prescribed quota represents somewhere between 9 and 10% of the krill biomass believed to reside in Area 48 of the Antarctic Ocean, where harvesting activities occur. And yet, last year’s estimates indicate that roughly one-third of 1% was all that was caught. Aker BioMarine (Oslo, Norway), a harvester and supplier of its Superba brand krill oil, informed Nutritional Outlook of these catch statistics.
Extra due-diligence on the part of krill harvesters, however, seems to be further improving the situation for krill, krill predators, and other local marine life. MSC-certified Aker BioMarine points to a number of sustainability achievements enacted by its own fishing program, potentially for the betterment of the entire krill harvesting industry.
To mitigate the inadvertent capture of non-target species, Aker BioMarine has developed an intelligent krill harvesting technology solution called Eco-Harvesting (see illustration).
“Your normal fishery has a net, a trawl that you pull up on the deck and dump in the hole,” says Eric Anderson, Aker BioMarine vice president of global marketing. “When you pull that net up, you’re catching krill, but there’s a significant chance of catching pinnepeds, penguins, fish species, and other bycatch.” So Aker BioMarine has done two things. First, its net remains submerged at a depth where only mature krill feed, but it has a closed system that creates a suction to send krill up into the boat. Second, there’s a filter net on the front of the trawl, and it prevents non-target species from reaching the opening of the suction mechanism.
“If another fish were to swim into the net, it could just turn around and swim out,” says Anderson. “It’s not until these massive swarms of krill get pushed back into the filter net that they are actually pulled to the surface. So we just don’t have much bycatch. Last year, if you totaled the entire bycatch, it would fit in one residential freezer.”
Aker says CCAMLR has now recommended that other krill harvesters use a filter net. The impact krill fishing has on animals such as penguins and seals continues to be closely monitored, in part by Aker BioMarine (a condition required by the MSC).
Despite the threats to numerous fish species, intensive monitoring of fishing does take place in certain regions. For instance, AlaskOmega fish oil concentrates producer Organic Technologies (Coshocton, OH) says the pollock that primarily makes up its omega-3 concentrates are sourced from the Alaska Pollock Fishery. It’s the largest fishery in the United States and one where government monitoring takes place during the entire fishing season: on board vessels and at shore-side processing plants. Says Organic Technologies vice president of nutrition and wellness Daniel Wiley, all bycatch is logged and weighed to the individual fish.
The pollock population appears healthy enough that last year’s total allowable catch—about 10% of the total estimated biocatch—was a 55% increase over the 2010 limit. Wiley maintains that the U.S. government has enforced quotas on individual companies, total allowable catch, and maximum bycatch in the Alaska Pollock Fishery since 1978.
Setting a further standard, Organic Technologies is an MSC-certified processor, and both species used in all its AlaskOmega concentrates (Alaska pollock and Pacific whiting) are sourced from MSC-certified fisheries.
The extra certification can create a higher standard of fish oil for the end-consumer. “MSC has stringent chain-of-custody standards,” says Wiley. “Not mixing MSC-certified species with non-MSC–certified species is very important. When I put the MSC logo on a drum of our fish oil, I’m representing to the world that this fish oil is from a particular species of fish and not any others. A lot of vitamin companies choose to be ambiguous. Sometimes it’s good for their supply chain because they can pull from a lot of different sources. But there are salmon oils sold that might be 51% salmon oil and 49% something else. That’s not really salmon oil.”
Examples show that sustainability can and should be an all-inclusive process, influencing not just the fishing of oceans, but the overall vitality of other animals, humans, and the greater ecosystem.
EPAX AS (Oslo, Norway) is an FOS fish oil supplier aligned with an FOS harvester, Austral Group SAA (Lima, Peru), meaning that FOS approves its practices from harvest to processing. But EPAX doesn’t stop there. The company remains compliant with local regulations regarding pollutant emissions and holds other environmental certifications, to boot. EPAX reportedly runs a zero-waste system free from toxic runoff that would potentially disrupt marine or human health. A newly acquired facility in Seal Sands, United Kingdom, where EPAX will manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients from fish oil, will be based on a number of modern environmental standards.