What do a Web 1.0 pioneer, a Russian-born fisherman, and a scientist who shoots lasers into poop for a living have in common? America’s first 100 percent vegetarian trout.
Bill Foss, Kenny Belov, and Rick Barrows have spent years weaning their farmed fish off of industrial fish food. You see, even though commercial fish farms can be more sustainable than ocean fishing, the food that fattens up those aquatic livestock—made from things like soy, corn, chicken meal, blood meal, and fish meal—is less virtuous. Humans have to hunt fish in the ocean and grind them up into food pellets so that fish in tanks might live.
Last year, Foss and Belov, who own a trout farm together, and Barrows, their diet formulation expert, entered an international competition designed to accelerate the development of fish diets made with novel ingredients. The F3 (fish-free-feed) challenge is a race to sell 100,000 metric tons of fish food, without the fish. Earlier this month, start-ups from places like Pakistan, China, and Belgium joined their American competition at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA, showing off feed made from seaweed extracts, yeast, and algae grown in bioreactors.
The timing of the competition is no accident. People eat 150 million tons of seafood every year, and as of 2014, more than half of all those fish, shrimp, and bivalves are raised on farms. But aquaculture is still a very young science, especially when it comes to what farmers feed their fish. “The availability of fish meal has made for really lazy nutritionists,” says Barrows, who recently retired from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, where he spent decades evaluating ingredients and formulating hundreds of fish diets. “You can pretty much put in 50 percent fish meal and you’re set.”
Fish meal—dried and ground up fish bits—and its more lubricious counterpart, fish oil, are made from cheap species that humans don’t eat that much: sardines, herring, anchovies, krill. But lots of other ocean animals do eat them; they’re kind of the linchpin of marine ecosystems. Lose the forage fish, lose a lot more. And as those forage fish catches are getting smaller, fish meal and oil-based diets are getting more expensive. Since 2012, prices have risen more than 80 percent. “Aquaculture is growing so fast that it can’t possibly continue to use any more,” says Kevin Fitzsimmons, a biologist at the University of Arizona and former president of the World Aquaculture Society. “Forage fish are just maxed out.”
So Silicon Valley investors—some of whom are observing at the F3 challenge—are finally ready to double down on sustainable aquaculture. “All these early adopters see the writing on the wall,” says Foss, who co-founded a little company called Netscape before he became a trout farmer and sustainable seafood distributor. “The competition just gets them into the same room to help each other see that yes, there is a way forward.” Still, finding the right combination of these alternative ingredients is no easy feat. Lucky for Foss and Belov, Rick Barrows isn’t your average lazy nutritionist.
Up Bridger Creek
Outside the Bozeman Fish Technology Center in Montana, a layer of freshly-fallen snow covers the long rows of outdoor fish ponds, drained now for the winter. Inside, it’s a light dusting of finely powdered wheat and corn and soy particles that covers the heavy machinery. Commercial extruders heat up the feed mixture and squeeze it out of tiny holes, making pellets anywhere from 250 microns to 9 millimeters across. There are pulverizers and roll grinders and even something called a spheronizer, that, you guessed it, makes tiny, perfectly uniform spheres. It’s not standard equipment for most feed makers. Barrows got it from a pharmaceutical company in Japan.
When everything is running at once, it gets really loud in here. And hot. This sweltering building is where Barrows makes all the feeds he’s come up with over the years. To test them, he heads over to a nearby warehouse lined with dozens of big blue plastic tubs for raising fish, all snaked together with hundreds of feet of PVC pipe. Spring water from Bridger Creek flows through on command.
The first step is to gauge hatchling approval. For six weeks they feed some baby trout the new diet, while others get a control diet. If it performs well, they test how well the fish take in the nutrients and if they like the taste. To do that, they hand-feed older fish until they get full, monitoring how much they eat, how the fish grow, and how healthy their poops are. That’s where the lasers come in. Barrows uses them to measure a metric he calls “feces durability.” A lot of plant-based diets give trout diarrhea.
“Fish, like other animals, require nutrients, not any specific ingredient,” he says. “People say I’m turning a lion into a vegetarian. But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re turning soybeans into meat.” The latest feed Barrows has formulated for Foss and Belov uses omega-3 fatty acids from algae grown in Brazilian bioreactors. They estimate that they save about 40 metric tons of wild-caught fish for every ton of algae-derived omega-3s they use.
The feed also contains ingredients like flax oil and a meal made from the ground-up rejects of the California pistachio industry. (About a quarter of the nuts are too broken or off-colored to make the cut.) Together it provides a balanced, nutritious meal for Belov and Foss’s rainbow trout, which are raised on a farm they own in Susanville, CA. But they’re always looking at new ingredients—like barley proteins and black soldier fly larvae. The goal is to have an arsenal of regionally-produced proteins, so that if one commodity spikes, they can just switch over to a different one.
At the moment, Foss and Belov are their own best customers. They make about 325,000 pounds of feed a year, which all goes to feeding the trout at their farm. At that rate, they know don’t have a hope of winning the F3 challenge. But they also never set out to be feed manufacturers in the first place. They just did it because no one else was. And whether they wanted to or not, they’re now in the business. Last week they sent their first shipment to a trout farm outside of Mexico City. If all goes well with the trials, they’ll officially have their first feed client. It might be a small step. But Foss says the market will do the rest.
“You can see these two trajectories, where our feed prices are coming down and fish oil and fish meal are going up,” he says. “Where those two meet is when we stop being a niche project and start being a mainstream solution to a global problem.”
His best guess for when that happens? About two years from now. So set your sights on 2019 for vegetarian fish suppers—but don’t be surprised if the Google cafeteria beats you to it.