US: Illinois Soybean Association focuses on feeding tuna in hatchery project

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/bbevren
© GettyImages/bbevren

Related tags: tuna, Soy, hatchery

Following years of feed development, the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) is partnering to establish a Pacific Bluefin tuna hatchery in the San Diego Bay area.

The soybean organization announced the plans for the hatchery on Monday [March 11]. The project is being carried out in partnership with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and US company, Ichthus Unlimited.

Ichthus Unlimited will construct what will be the first tuna hatchery in North America, and only the third in the world, in the San Diego Bay. It will cultivate Pacific Bluefin tuna eggs, grow them to juvenile fish which can then be distributed to tuna farms to mature.

Grant funding from FFAR to the tune of $945,000 along with matching funds from the ISA checkoff program are supporting the work.

For the past three years, Ichthus Unlimited has led ISA-funded research to develop sustainable soy-based diets for tuna.  

That R&D effort has resulted in a range of tuna feeds aimed at all the different stages of tuna development, starting from about two weeks post-hatch until tuna reach their full market size, Mark Albertson, director of strategic marketing development, ISA, told FeedNavigator.

“We feel like we’ve accomplished something that will help change the world for the better,”​ he said. “We live in an era right now where the future for our children is uncertain at best, and at times scary, and we feel like … we’re doing something positive to make a difference, but we’re nervous because we haven’t actually hatched eggs yet.”

It has taken several years of research to get to this stage, said Albertson.

It has been a multi-year project, a type of public-private partnership, which has also involved several universities including the University of Miami, Texas A&M and Kansas State University along with a raft of ingredient suppliers, he added.

Researchers in Japan and Spain have also been successful in ‘closing the life cycle​ or hatching tuna and raising them to the egg-laying stage, then successfully hatching new tuna through to a grandchild generation, he said. Experts from both projects will be collaborating with the facility in California.

A tuna revolution 

The development of successful tuna hatcheries and soy-based feeds were necessary to improve tuna production and protect the species, said Albertson. The work will ease pressure on threatened wild tuna populations.

We think we’re starting a tuna revolution by being a part of both projects,”​ he added.

The first batch of tuna eggs is anticipated to hatch at the California facility during the summer, said Albertson. When they reach a set size, the fish will be moved to grow-out facilities in Mexico.

The hatchery has been designed to be able to expand in the future based on market demand, he said.

There also are feeding advantages to feeding fish from a hatchery: "It will be easier to get these fish adapted to our feeds – it’s what they’re used to."

Tuna feed development and production

Before starting work on developing tuna feeds in 2016, ISA had worked on creating soy-based feeds for other aquaculture species, including other carnivorous fish, said Albertson. There has long been an understanding that tuna feeds would be hard to develop.

“A lot of experts said we would never be successful in developing a soy-based feed that was palatable for tuna, and we’re just thrilled that we proved them wrong,”​ he added.         

The researchers tested various soy-based diets for larval Atlantic Bluefin tuna in Spain, with improvement in survival rates seen. They also tested them in juvenile yellowfin tuna in land-based facilities in Panama as well as in ranched Pacific Bluefin tuna in ocean net pens off the northwest coast of Mexico. Bluefin are normally fed wild-caught sardines, with a measured feed conversion ratio (FCR) of 28:1. The new formulated diet decreases the FCR to 4:1, and decreases the amount of fishmeal and fish oil in feed by tenfold.

The new diet is also significantly better for the environment, as the floating feed can be better monitored and uneaten feed can be retrieved. It's nutritionally dense, requiring less volume, and is projected to be almost twice as economical as baitfish. The diet is avidly consumed by the tuna and made from sustainable, renewable ingredients, said the ISA.

Feeds for the different stages of tuna production are expected to see continual development, said Albertson. There will need to be some work done to support the transitional stages of feeding as fish move from one type of feed to another.

“We’ve fed small fish, we’ve fed big fish but … we haven’t done the entire transition yet.”

The ISA is licensing the formulation for its feeds to a company that will manufacture the feed in California, he said. 

 “We have the relationships in place with the manufacturers and suppliers, but there’s still work that’s being done to optimize the feed formula [and] to have the best feed conversion possible.”

Currently, Pacific Bluefin Tuna (PBFT) farming production relies on catching wild juvenile tuna and raising them to maturity before distributing the fish to markets. This practice is unsustainable, as it increases fishing pressure on the wild population, said FFAR.

“Today 98% of tuna ranching relies on wild-captured fish for the stocking of net pens. This adds to the already massive fishing pressure on wild bluefin tuna populations,” s​aid Alejandro Buentello, president of Ichthus Unlimited, in a release. “Hatchery-reared tuna will not only make it possible to stock cages without fishing, but it can also be used as a stock enhancement strategy to empower wild tuna populations to rebound more rapidly. It is a proactive rather than reactive strategy.”

It is estimated that Atlantic Bluefin tuna species products generate approximately $2-2.5bn in value worldwide each year. Increases in tuna production would also create jobs and economic gains, particularly for coastal communities in California and the Gulf of Mexico.

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