Renewable Matter # 3 / April

Marine Biomass: An Unconventional Wealth

by Ilaria Nardello

Possibly because the ocean covers just under three quarters of our planet’s surface and it remains a vastly unexplored environment, its resources may have been considered infinite. The seafood industry has been allowed to adopt unsustainable fishing methods for decades, in addition to routinely discard roughly half of the biological material of their fish and shellfish catches, creating a considerable waste stream from the evisceration, nobbing, filleting, peeling, deshelling, washing, defrosting and cooking of produces intended for human consumption. 

In fact, the ocean capacity is far from infinite and investigations in its ecosystems have shown the large impact of those man-made environmental condition changes, such as pollution, global warming and over-fishing. The consequences of those stressors have been sometimes extreme, and possibly irriversible, on the world population of some of the most commercially relevant fish varieties, such as cod and salmon, for example; and, more recently, sardines. Considering that, on the other hand, the world population is growing, to reach 9 billion people by 2050 and the demand for food, and especially proteins, is soaring, the planet’s biomass has become a most lucrative commodity to invest in. 

This is evident from an insight into the commercial disposition of industry and investors; as well as from the EU efforts to understand the blue growth opportunity associated with the bioeconomy. An easier way to detect this change, than calling up the CEO of a marine biorefinery start-up company, or your EU Commmission’s policy advisor, both likely beyond reach for the layman, is to observe the rapid trasformation of the terminology associated with this value chain.

Only less than ten years ago, the biological material discarded from the main value chain, which transforms the whole fish and shellfish into filleted flesh for ready human consumption, was referred to as a “food-waste stream” or, at best, “by-product”. Its utilisation was mainly in the manufacturing of low cost flours, oils, hydrolysate and fish mince to manufacture feed for our beef and diary industry or, in a smaller percentage, our pet-food industry. 

However, in the past twenty years, the industry has undergone major changes in their practices, which have in turn influenced the attitude toward the sensible utilization of all harvested fish. Those changes include the system of fishing quotas, for example, which controls allowable quantities of species-specific harvesting or the enormous fluctuations in wild fish stock availability and finally the impossibility to discard fish by-products at sea and the consequent costs associated with waste management practices. All of a sudden, both fishermen and processors have taken an interest in the circular economy principles and became more imaginative in trasnforming raw materials, previously used for fish meal or discarded as waste, into a marketable product. 

More recently, these industry needs have been finally met and powerfully conjugated with our advanced biological knowledge and technological capabilities. The EU Commission and nationally sponsored marine biotechnology and bioprospecting research programmes have mined those materials for bioactives and biomaterials of societal interest. What they have found is an endless series of them, including marine lecithins, fatty-acids, enzimes and peptides, with a plethora of highly profitable applications. This has forever changed the perceived value of those resources, which today we elegantly refer to as “Rest Raw Materials”, thanks to their proven potential to benefit our society even more than the precious meat of filleted fish and seafood they were parted from. A policy towards the management of the marine RRMs may be required to manage this new wealth we are just beginning to discover emerging from the blue.