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What comes first? The fish or the feed?

Expert Dan Benetti talks about what is being done -- and the work that is still left -- to create better feed for emerging tropical marine species such as cobia and pompano.

Aquaculture feed is something Dan Benetti takes very seriously.

The University of Miami professor, a highly-regarded expert in the industry, has been wrestling with the idea of finding the optimal feed for emerging tropical marine fish species, such as cobia, pompano, grouper and snapper.

Because of this, the aquaculture program he directs at the university has a strong nutrition component. Led by Jorge Suarez, the research and development (R&D) group focuses on improving the economic and ecological effectiveness of feeds for those tropical marine fish, he says.

Feed companies have excelled at feed for more traditional species, such as salmon and trout, but in emerging species, the picture is different, says Benetti.

“For traditional species, the feed companies have reached extraordinary levels of accuracy and they’re excelling at producing diets for salmon and trout and other species that are more traditional,” he tells Fish Farming International. “There’s been a lot of investment in R&D for those species. It’s outstanding.”

The up-and-coming species are a bit tougher, he says. Firstly, “the little that is known about the nutritional requirements is based on trials with small fish, with juveniles,” he says. This can be somewhat unhelpful to producers of those tropical marine species, since a small percentage of total feed are given to those tiny fish, as they are smaller and thereby need less feed. The vast majority — 80 to 90 percent, Benetti says — is given to fish in the growout phase, close to harvest size.

“At that point, almost nothing is known about their nutritional requirements,” Benetti explains, adding that in order to develop a proper feed, manufacturers also need to fully comprehend the digestibility of each ingredient for the particular species. “Almost nothing has been done of that kind of work for tropical marine emerging fish species specifically.”

“As a consequence, since the nutritional requirements of the fish being raised are not being met, their aquaculture performance in terms of growth, feed conversion and survival is poor,” he adds. “Thus, new operations raising marine fish in the region are losing money primarily because of the high costs of the feeds, high FCRs, and poor fish health. With FCRs above 2 — often above 2.5 — and feeds costs above $2 per kg, the numbers simply don’t work.

R&D still missing

The bottom line? There need to be more resources poured into R&D for these emerging species, the longtime aquaculture industry insider said. And it needs to be done only after changing the perception that the market for feeds in species such as cobia, snapper, grouper, pompano is still small.

“In reality, the market in the region has already grown to about $20 million per year and continues to grow,” Benetti says, adding that the growth of the industry is conditioned to the development of specialized diets. “This is surprising because it’s well known that R&D pays off. Indeed … the only company that invested in research to determine digestibility of ingredients for a tropical marine fish species has capitalized tenfold on their investment in less than 2 years. Unfortunately, this is the scenario: the producers of emerging tropical marine fish species are losing money while the feeds companies are profiting. This situation is not exclusive to the Americas; it has also been observed in Asia with groupers and cobia, and probably with other species as well.”

Still, Benetti gives praise where he says it is due. BioMar is a shining example, he says — the feed giant invested funds to really understand the nutritional requirements of certain species and “the investment paid off a thousandfold in just two years.”

In addition the US Soybean Export Council (USSEC) is also taking the initiative and investing resources, as well as private companies who are taking the time to understand feed.

“They invested time and resources for a better product, and it’s working,” he says.