Market Alternatives: Wild Harvest

Synthetic Alternatives

Consultants: Patty Debenham & Kevin Webb

Industry Insight
Liz Specht, Good Food Institute (Report)
Chris Oakes, Novo Nutrients
Scott Schmidt, Primary Ocean Producers

Pictured Above: In the lab, living cells are isolated from fish tissue, placed into culture media for proliferation, and then assembled into seafood.



As the human population grows from 7.7 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050 and to 11 billion by 2100 (United Nations), the global consumption of seafood is likely to grow with it. Fish is a primary source of protein for roughly a billion people (World Health Organization), and in 2016, fish made up 17% of all animal protein consumed (UN FAO Report). It is unclear if the planet, has sufficient resources to support the demands of 11 billion seafood consumers. Since 1950, global seafood production has grown from approximately 20 million tons annually to roughly 170 million tons today. Wild-caught fish comprised most of this growth until the 1980s, when annual production topped out at 80-90 million tons. Nearly all growth since then has come from aquaculture (“farmed fish”), where farmers raise commercially viable, relatively hardy species such as carp and tilapia in controlled settings. In 2016, aquaculture accounted for 80 million tons of production, compared to 90.1 million tons of wild-caught “capture fisheries” (UN).

Fueling this growth are the twin forces of population growth, particularly in nations where seafood is a culturally important part of the diet, and changes in consumer preference. The United Nations projects the demand for seafood will increase by more than 47 million tons between the mid-2010s and the early-2020s, even though higher prices are expected (Cai 2017).

Compounding sustainability concerns in fisheries management is a simple biologic fact. Since most popular consumed fish are predators, and sit higher on marine food chains, fish are fundamentally less efficient as a protein source than beef or chicken. Where a cow eats photosynthesizing plants, most commercial fish are predatory, eating smaller fish that consumed photosynthetic plankton. A general rule is that for every one of these linkages, or trophic levels, roughly 90 percent of consumed energy is lost (Bonhommeau 2013). In order to feed Earth’s growing population most efficiently, lowering the trophic level of consumed food is critical.

Environmental challenges with capture production

Continual growth in wild-caught fisheries have had significant consequences for ocean health and biodiversity. One concerning impact is bycatch, or the accidental harvesting of non-target species. These can include marine mammals, turtles, or endangered fish that become ensnared in nets, and are easier to kill than to disentangle. By some estimates, as many as 43 billion pounds of bycatch are produced—and discarded—annually.

Additionally, the composition of fish capture has changed over time; as populations of slow-growing, top-predator species like bluefin tuna and marlin have shrunk due to overexploitation, fishers have caught and marketed smaller, previously unattractive species (Pauly 1997). While regulations have helped to stem overfishing, they are difficult in practice to enforce, and the UN estimates that 33.1% of all fishing stocks in 2015 were harvested at biologically unsustainable levels (UN FAO).

Due to fish population shrinkages, fishing boats must travel further to reach productive fishing areas, increasing their CO2 impacts. Another damaging practice is deep trawling, where long, typically plastic nets are cast and pulled against the ocean floor. Trawling damages the sensitive floor habitat and ensnares most life that comes in its path. Further, broken nets are a primary source of plastic pollution; in the infamous great Pacific garbage patch, a gyre of marine debris particles in the north central Pacific Ocean, 46% of all plastic waste came from broken or discarded nets (Lebreton 2018). In the ocean, plastics typically degrade into microplastics, which have been found in 100% of oceanic species studied, and which are likely to interfere with endocrine and reproductive systems (Thompson 2018).

Lastly, there is early evidence that fish may be more complex than previously thought, with examples of tool use, cross-species collaboration, and cultural transmission of knowledge (Bshary 2002). Through overfishing, we may risk permanently losing some of this complexity before we have the chance to fully understand it.

Global Trends in the World's Marine Fish Stocks: 1974–2015

Environmental challenges with aquaculture

Unfortunately, as practiced today, aquaculture is not yet a solution for addressing the expanding market for seafood. Its sudden rise since the 1980s has led to the development of pens often placed in biologically important regions, such as lakes, estuaries, and mangrove forests, which crowds out native species and may reduce storm resilience of mangroves. As with many other commercially farmed animals, farmed fish are often more stressed than wild-caught equivalents, due to higher densities of fish and potentially a less varied or natural life. This stress may lead to less healthy and flavorful fish (Paynter 2017).

More damaging, the conditions of commercial fishing are perfect for breeding diseases. Because only a handful of fish lineages are used commercially, genetic diversity is typically low, which means that when one fish becomes sick, it’s very likely its stressed, genetically similar neighbors will become sick as well. As these pens typically share water openly with their surrounding environments, any sufficiently powerful disease will likely spread beyond the pen to put wild populations at risk. The use of antibiotics or insecticides to treat fish stocks may impact unintended species or create antibiotic resistance to disease.

Because commercial farming pens are often low tech, the simple nets used are embedded in bodies of water where there is  significant risk of farmed, non-native species escaping and contaminating their surrounding environments. This happened in 2017, when 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped their pens in Washington state (NPR 2018), and were still found eight months later (Mapes 2018). Although caught individuals to date have not appeared healthy, the greater the number of released non-native species, the more likely it is some will adapt to their new settings. As farmed fishes have not been domesticated for long, they may be well-equipped to survive in the wild, where complete recapture or population control is nearly impossible. Washington has since introduced laws to phase out the use of Atlantic salmon.

Another critical challenge facing aquaculture is the over-harvest of forage fish, the most common food source used for aquaculture. These are small, fast-growing species like anchovies and sardines that are a vital linkage in marine food webs. Although most of these fishes are suitable for human consumption, it is often more profitable to grind them into fishmeal and fish oil, then feed them to farmed fish instead. Approximately 20 million tons, or 12 percent of wild-caught fish, are forage species used annually in the aquaculture industry. This figure is anticipated to rise to 16 percent by 2030 (FAO 2018).

Despite its rapid rise, aquaculture production is still growing too slowly to supply the projected global demand for seafood and is only anticipated to keep pace with increased demand from about 17 countries, while around 170 countries will be left with substantial unmet demand for protein from the sea (Cai 2017). There is an urgent and substantial need for innovations to meet the ever-increasing global demand for seafood in a sustainable way.



To solve the growing demand for seafood, aquaculture has become the fastest growing food sector, and today produces nearly as much seafood as capture production (FAO 2018). Innovations have included the development of deep sea pens to reduce the risk of impacts on more productive coastal ecosystems (Gunther 2018); whole food chain aquaculture systems that take a life cycle approach to the management of nutrients; the use of sensors and artificial intelligence to proactively monitor fish health and behavior (Spencer 2018); and perhaps most importantly, precision breeding of relatively hardy fish stocks that are now grown commercially around the world. Most notably, these include several types of freshwater carp, tilapia, Atlantic salmon, and rainbow trout (FAO 2013).

Aquaculture systems are actively innovating their design and approach. Specifically, aquaculturalists are increasingly adopting a multi-trophic or whole systems approach that seeks to mitigate well-documented nutrient and disease issues in first generation, single species, or conventional aquaculture systems. These systems work to engineer nutrient budgets that utilize the waste stream from high trophic levels to feed kelp. Kelp byproducts have a number of beneficial uses and fundamentally help with carbon capture and cycling. One notable company, Primary Ocean Producers is significantly advancing the whole life cycle perspective for the aquaculture industry and takes a biotech approach to developing useful products from kelp grown in their farms.

Genetic engineering has been one approach taken to meet the growing market demand for seafood protein, with fish engineered for size, taste, and disease resilience. In 1989, scientists inserted a Pacific Chinook salmon growth hormone gene into Atlantic salmon, alongside an expression regulating gene from ocean pout, to improve Atlantic salmon growth (Fletcher et al. 2004). The result was both increased growth rate and food conversion, producing salmon that could reach market size in half the time of their wild counterparts and require less food intake per kilogram of meat produced. Applying this research methodology, AquaBounty started to commercially develop these genetically modified Atlantic salmon in 1991. After decades of battling regulatory hurdles, the FDA has cleared a path for the sale of their AquaAdvantageTM salmon eggs in the U.S. as of March 2019. The company intends to grow these fish only in controlled facilities on land and has taken measures to ensure the fish cannot reproduce if they somehow escape to the wild. Still, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. market will embrace a genetically engineered salmon.

Another application of biotechnology eliminates the need for fish altogether, by creating plant- or cell-based alternatives that look, feel, and taste like their equivalents. Plant-based substitutes use specific proteins and compounds from plants to approximate the texture and experience of animal products. Cell-based meats are an emerging category of alternative meat, produced through cellular agriculture, in which an animal’s extracted stem cells are multiplied into muscle fibers until they form an entire piece of meat.

Demand for alternatives to meat has grown over the last few years, with global sales increasing eight percent annually since 2010 (Skerritt 2017). Between July 2017 and July 2018, sales of plant-based meat products grew by 24 percent in the U.S. alone (Nielsen Data Release 2018).  Newer companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Good Catch (which focuses on salmon replacements) have produced plant-based meat products that they market as premium, nutritious, and environmentally conscious options. This contrasts with a previous generation of alternative meats, which often were relatively unpalatable and poorly marketed to consumers. Significantly, Beyond Meat has filed to go public in 2019, demonstrating their confidence in significant market interest in this emerging sector.

Consumer sentiment is changing as products capitalize on new biotech technologies, ingredient sourcing, product structuring and manufacturing capabilities. The latest generation of alternatives exhibit greater mainstream appeal, especially for consumers seeking to diversify their protein intake without eschewing animal products altogether.



There are three primary areas where innovation in biotechnology can reduce the environmental hazards of producing seafood and lead to a more bioabundant ocean. First, biotechnology is currently being used to improve the efficiency of aquaculture, which could help farmers keep pace with growing consumer demand. Second, there are several promising new approaches to reduce or eliminate the use of forage fish in aquaculture, which would prevent the capture of ecologically important smaller species. Finally, biotechnology is being used to create new alternative seafood products that do not rely on animals for producing seafood and fish meal.

  • Genetic Variation: Farmed fishes are typically derived from genetically similar stocks, which may decrease population resilience to disease or other stressors. Genomic technologies could be used to monitor the genetic diversity of farmed fish over time or to introduce or promote alleles that exist in healthy wild populations.
  • Rapid growth: As with AquaBounty, engineered fish capable of using more energy toward fueling their own growth could potentially grow significantly faster and require less input feed, which would decrease the environmental cost of their production.
  • Cold Tolerance: By engineering in genes that are cold-adapted, farmers could raise a wider range of desirable fish in colder regions.
  • Disease Resistance: Researchers and entrepreneurs could potentially mitigate the risk of serious infection by viral diseases or parasites by engineering in better resistance (Muir 2004). If effective, this could reduce the possibility of farmed fish becoming large disease reservoirs that then infect the outside environment, and it would prevent the use of antibiotics and pesticides that may lead to greater environmental harm.
  • Stress Reduction: Survival in pens is different from survival in the wild, and genetic engineering could help fish better adapt to their artificial settings. For example, researchers could increase a fish species’ stress tolerance, which would enable fish to more comfortably stay close to one another and make them less vulnerable to parasites and diseases (Devlin 2009). It is possible these techniques could be used in the future to quickly produce domesticated varieties of regionally specific fish, which might prevent the farming of nonnative species.

Alternatives to forage fish for aquaculture

Today 20 million tons of forage fish are harvested from the ocean annually to support aquaculture. This demand is only likely to grow. To reduce aquaculture’s environmental impacts, researchers, innovators, philanthropists, and industrial groups are turning to biotechnology for alternatives. Farmed fish require nutritious feedstock and various approaches can be used to harvest or synthesize these proteins, sugars, fats, and nutrients. A move to plant-based feed may one day eliminate the need for forage fish and could reduce the mean trophic level and energy costs of production of farmed fish.

Important efforts in this sector include:

  • Bacterial meal: Feeding industrial waste gases like carbon dioxide and methane to hungry bacteria that can be processed into fish feed is an exciting new field of research. NovoNutrients uses a gas fermentation process to transform industrial waste carbon dioxide into useful, edible proteins, initially for animal feed. If commercially viable, that would reduce the need for forage fish, currently overfished yet essential for the growing aquaculture sector. It would also reduce net carbon dioxide emissions. Other companies like Calysta, Unibio, and KnipBio are transforming methane gas and ethanol from sources like wastewater treatment facilities or agricultural soils into bacterial meal. Microbial meals have been tested and approved by the FDA for use as an alternative protein in the aquaculture sector. Significant investments by Cargill on the supply side and Marine Harvest on the industry side are developing this space.
  • Algae: Microalgae has great potential as a protein and essential fatty acid source for fish feed. Companies such as Corbion, Earthrise, and Cellena are actively producing algae products that can be used in fish feeds. Promising algae species that could work well in fish feeds include schizochytrium, spirulina, nannochloropsis, and desmodesmus. In order for these ingredients to be economically viable for commercial feeds, innovation is needed to improve the efficiency of producing algae biomass.
  • Plant Proteins: Derived from agricultural plant species such as soybeans, corn, peas, and wheat, plant proteins can function as potential substitutes for fish meal. These products are not as rich in essential oils or protein as fish meal. If improperly balanced with other ingredients in feed design, they can result in digestive problems for fish. Fermented soy products are emerging as a new alternative.
  • Insect Meal: Considering that some fish naturally feed on zooplankton and insects, it may make sense to use insect meal in fish feed. For example, black soldier fly larvae can be fed waste streams such as spent brewers’ grain and then be ground into meal that is high in protein and essential fatty acids. A number of other insect species such as crickets, locusts, mealworms, beetles, and silkworms have also been tested for fish feeds. Biomin, Enviroflight, Entocycle, Ÿnsect, and Ovipost are insect meal companies active in the global market.

Alternative seafood products for human consumption

Alternative ways of producing seafood through plant-based products or cell culture could help alleviate pressure on both wild fisheries and aquaculture systems. Currently, plant-based seafood products like Good Catch’s tuna and Gardein’s “Fishless Filets” and “Crabless Cakes” are commercially available, but have not yet seen market adoption like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, which provide alternatives for land-based meat (beef and pork).

Meanwhile, companies like Memphis Meat, Mosa Meat, Shiok Foods (shrimp), Wildtype (salmon), Blue Nalu, and Finless Foods are developing cell-based products that they hope will be completely indistinguishable from meat derived from an animal. Although they have attracted considerable investor interest, none of these companies has yet to release a product commercially.

While not yet as successful as terrestrial meat alternatives, plant- and cell-based seafood may ultimately grow faster as a category. Underpinning causes for this include the rapidly growing unmet demand for seafood globally, the potential collapse of important fisheries, consumer awareness around environmental challenges, consumer fears around pollutants like mercury or microplastics that bioaccumulate in wild fish, and significant investment interest from countries in Asia that view alternative meats as a means of ensuring better food stability (Roberts 2017). This transition will likely be facilitated by applying lessons from the development, commercialization, and rapid demand for plant-based substitutes for meat.

For the industry, these products have the potential to increase efficiency and reduce losses throughout the seafood supply chain. Seafood products are highly perishable foods. Nearly half of the edible U.S. seafood supply was lost from 2009 to 2013 (Love 2015). Plant-based items have a longer shelf life and reduce the need for costly refrigerated transportation while providing a potential opportunity for local production in landlocked regions. Furthermore, the production process for both plant-based and clean seafood is more controllable and predictable, allowing for tighter responsiveness to demand and more customizable end products. These efficiencies should reduce food waste and make plant- and cell-based seafood more sustainable, more reliable, and eventually less expensive alternatives to conventional seafood.

To advance the field of cell-based meat, there are several biotechnologies that could have rapid and far-reaching benefits if successful:

  • Molecular Analysis of Seafood. First and foremost, the entire plant-based and cell-based seafood industry would benefit from the broad availability of a detailed molecular characterization of seafood. This characterization should include comprehensive analyses to define the molecular composition of muscle tissue from a number of different species as well as biophysical analyses of the structural patterns and textural properties that define these products. These data will define the design requirements of both plant-based and clean meat products that both emulate the consumer experience (taste, texture, mouthfeel, aroma) and provide a comparable or superior nutritional profile.
  • Fetal Bovine Serum. Secondly, the cell-based industry is currently restricted by its dependence on fetal bovine serum, an expensive compound extracted from developing cow fetuses that contains many compounds that facilitate cellular growth. Currently, a liter of fetal bovine serum can cost $400 to $900, and producing a single cultured hamburger can take as many as fifty liters (Reynolds 2018). For cell-based meat to succeed economically, producing a biosynthetic alternative to fetal bovine serum which can be easily mass produced is critical. This may be analogous to Revive and Restore’s initiative to promote the recombinant replacement to horseshoe crab blood (Zhang 2019).

Cellular Matrix Development. Lastly, more work remains ahead for cell-based meat companies to replicate the complicated structures that give meats their texture and mouthfeel. Due to this, it is likely that the first products to be market-ready will be ground meats, such as cell-based hamburgers or tuna spread. Due to intellectual property concerns, cell-based companies appear to be pursuing proprietary technologies internally. Blue Nalu in San Diego plans to use 3D printing to precisely layer cells and intracellular matrices, but most have not disclosed their methodologies. There may be an opportunity for research to develop and share best practices for structuring muscle fibers to help companies get to market and scale faster. Such investments in fundamental science would specifically advance the development of higher-fidelity, lower-cost products.



Wild-caught seafood markets are significantly more fragmented in vertical integration and control than the poultry, meat, and dairy industries. This represents some strategic advantages (limited organized opposition – see below) but also presents some structural challenges. Wild-caught and farmed seafood supply chains are complicated and relatively opaque. To meaningfully penetrate markets, seafood alternatives will need new, vertically-integrated companies that can remove middlemen and compete on price.

Alternatives will need to be more attractive than existing products to overcome consumer reticence to change behavior. At first this will entail creating premium products; however, to make wild-caught fishing economically unviable, producers must reach price parity with traditional seafood. Until these emerging cell-based meat businesses dramatically reduce their production costs, their economic models will remain unviable. The same cost parameters will apply for any new technologies targeting forage fish.

Apart from economics, alternative meat product companies have been bracing for resistance from existing market players who understand they are at risk of disruption. Some, like Beyond Meat, have accepted capital from large meat producers like Tyson and Cargill in order to secure their support in the future. In contrast, advocacy groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Association have begun lobbying for regulations to label meat alternatives in ways that would be less appealing to consumers (Garfield 2018).

For the development and customer adoption of genetically modified seafood, public acceptance of genetically modified foods is a significant concern. For example, while AquaBounty salmon, the first genetically engineered animal food product to reach market in the world, was approved for public sale and consumption by Canada in 2015, the first batch was not sold until 2017 (Waltz 2017). Due to sociopolitical obstacles, including several grocery store chains’ refusals to sell GMO fish products, AquaBounty continues to face marketing challenges. It was not until March 2019 that the FDA approved the product for sale in the U.S. market.

Farmers considering the use of genetically modified fish must take precautions to avoid unintentionally contaminating natural environments, as any breaches could damage ecosystems and would ultimately make future, responsible applications of genetic technologies harder to implement. Examples of precautions include farming only sterile fish, engineering dependence on a chemical provided by farmers, or setting up these aquaculture systems away from the ocean or river systems to preclude potential escape to natural settings.




The Good Food Institute is a nonprofit organization that promotes plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs as well as clean meat, as alternatives to the products of conventional animal agriculture. The organization launched in February 2016 with the vision of creating a healthy, humane, and sustainable food supply, and works with scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs.

The Anthropocene Institute’s mission is to drive thought leadership and investment by accelerating the technological and community innovations necessary to address the needs of the planet.

F3, a collaborative effort between NGOs, researchers, and private partnerships through the Aquaculture alliance, supports innovation and adoption of alternative ingredients to replace fish meal and fish oil in aquaculture feeds. The organization also collects and provides data and protocols for alternative feed ingredient companies to use.

SynBioBeta is an innovation network for biological engineers, investors, innovators and entrepreneurs who share a passion for using biology to build a better, more sustainable world.


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