Special Edition: Omega-3s

While omega-3 industry tries to hold line on sustainability, consumers seem unconcerned

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags: Ismail, Overfishing

Industry experts maintain that the marine sources of omega-3s continue to be well managed and supplies remain adequate, despite questions that are raised periodically by some observers. But whatever direction the sustainability tug of war might take, the issue seems not to a pressing concern for consumers.

We do continuing consumer research on an international basis,” ​said Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization of EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). Consistently we dont see noticeable changes from year to year in any country in terms of how consumers view this issue.

Ismail, in speaking with NutraIngredients-USA, cautioned that the questions GOED asks in these surveys inform what kind of results the organization gets.  GOED is seeking specifically to see what motivates buying decisions.  Some consumers might actually be concerned about the health of the oceans and the marine life within them, but those concerns don’t seem to bubble up during the buying decision at the shelf’s edge, at least where supplements are concerned.

We are asking if sustainability is an important attribute in purchasing the product. The answer seems to be no,​ Ismail said.

Sustainability in foods vs supplements

GOED’s findings seem to fly in the face of what some nutrition experts said recently when interviewed by Ketchum Global Research and Analytics.  The consultancy pooled the views of 114 nutrition industry experts who said that sustainability will be one of the top trends to watch for 2017​.  But that report focused on food, and the divergent views may speak to how consumers view foods and supplements differently.  Dietary supplements are regulated as a subcategory of food in the U.S., but consumers may associate them more with the products they more closely resemble, pharmaceuticals.  A whole fish in the seafood case might induce questions of where the fish was caught or farmed and how sustainably that was done.  Once the ingredients within that source have been extracted, those concerns recede, or so GOED’s findings might indicate.

While consumers might not raise too many questions about the sustainability of marine omega-3 ingredients, the same can’t be said for the experts intimately involved in the research in the field.  Ismail said overall the picture is one of responsibly managed fisheries, while reports from some NGOs hotly dispute that assessment.

“From an overall sustainability perspective, like the consumer concerns, I would also say that things havent changed too much.  By and large the vast majority of fisheries that supply omega-3s are managed sustainability and responsibly,​ Ismail said.

By far the largest source of omega-3 ingredients continues to come from the Peruvian anchovy fishery. This teeming resource off the coasts of Peru and to a lesser extent northern Chile continues to supply as much as 70% of the world’s servings of omega-3 ingredients.  That why the closure of the fishery in 2014 caused such shock waves throughout the industry.  The closure did not cause a supply bottleneck, as it turned out that there were adequate stocks of oil on hand to cover the gap.  But it did serve notice about the potential frailty of the resource. Still, in the long run it turned out to be a good thing, Ismail said.  Taking such a drastic step bolsters the notion that Peruvian authorities are willing to do what’s necessary to protect the long term health of the fishery.

When the El Niño came in they essentially closed the fishery entirely for a season and that was an unprecedented step. Now that El Niño has passed, we have seem much more robust biomass,​Ismail said.

Needs of dependent species

Ismail said part of the controversy about the sustainability of fisheries has to do with the evolving view of the subject, in which fisheries are properly seen as parts of oceanic food webs.  While the yearly harvest might be managed so as not to drive the target species toward extinction, what about all the other species that feed on that resource?  Might humans in effect be out competing them for access to the resource?

Questions along these lines have been raised about the depressed populations of sea birds in Peru. Is it too hard for them to find the dense stocks of anchovies they need to feed on when so many are taken by trawlers? Then there is the issue of the steep and as yet poorly understood decline in the population of Stellar’s Sea Lions, the fourth biggest type of pinniped after walruses and the two elephant seal species. The population of the western stock, resident in the Aleutian Islands, plunged from about 227,000 in 1960 to about 45,000 in 2000​, though it since has started to rebound slightly.  Research seemed to indicate that nutritional stress was contributing to less healthy young animals. Could the intense harvest of Alaskan pollock in the Bering Sea, another omega-3s fishery judged to be responsibly managed, have contributed to this collapse?

Criticisms along this line have surfaced in recent years in two widely circulated reports.  One, published  in 2014 by Lenfest Ocean Program and the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science, and titled “Little Fish, Big Impact”essentially called for the harvest of forage fish species like anchovies and menhaden to be cut in hal​f.  The report argued that the role these species played in the health of predator species was not given enough weight when harvest targets were set.  Another report published in 2015 by the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership maintained that one third of omega-3 fisheries were “poorly managed.”

There is more work on how much biomass is required for dependent species to rely on,​Ismail said.The original view for setting quotes was to look at how many fish of the target species are in the ocean and how fast do they reproduce.  But Ray Hilborn ​(a fisheries researcher at the University of Washington) has argued that the method used  by the Lenfest report in assessing dependent species wasnt robust.  So there is a controversy in the science community and well have to see how that plays out.

Relying on certifications

In the meantime, suppliers are left to rely  on the several certifiers that work in the field.  It is an approach that has worked for ingredient supplier BASF when it looks for omega-3s.

BASF addresses sustainability by choosing fish oil suppliers that live up to our principles, and actively engaging with them to ensure our environmental and social standards are met. To ensure a thorough understanding of the supply chain, we assess suppliers continuously and foster dialogue and cooperation,​ said Perry Goldschein, applied sustainability manager for BASF Nutrition & Health, North America.

We set criteria for our sustainable sourcing that combine environmental and social aspects based on the FAO Code of Conduct.  Every BASF supplier has to fill out our Omega 3 questionnaire. We also have defined a purchasing decision structure, using a decision tree for supplier evaluation and selections.  Certifications are tools that we use, in order to help get confirmation on the practice of our suppliers, but we also look beyond labels and certificates. We closely cooperate with different sustainability schemes, such as the International Fish Meal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO), Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and/or Friends of the Sea (FOS), to jointly address existing challenges,” ​he said.

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