There are so many reasons that commercial fishing needs a new paradigm. The seas are being overfished. Some species of fish are experiencing population declines so drastic that they will most likely not be available as food for the next generation of people. Jobs have been lost as population busts leave entire industries with nothing to harvest, often as a result of advancing technologies combined with increased demand. For instance, groundfish (haddock, cod, and flounder) industries in the northeastern US decimated entire economic industries when their stocks collapsed as a result of “tragedy of the commons” management.
In addition to the harvested species, the by-catch of commercial fishing is difficult to even wrap your head around. WWF estimates that 300,000 small whales, dolphins, turtles, and more are killed in commercial fishing nets each year. Estimates are that 20-25% of well-known (aka charismatic) species like dolphins and whales will go extinct due to our zeal to catch as many fish in the cheapest way possible. Certain fishing methods, like unselective trawling, are particularly bad. Seafood Watch estimates that for each pound of shrimp harvested, 6 pounds of other species are killed unintentionally. Sometimes, even desirable species are thrown away (if quotas have been exceeded, or the animal caught is too small or otherwise not fitting for commercial consumption).
In terms of health, the amounts of mercury (from coal combustion largely), other heavy metals, hormones, plastic chemical residues, and other contaminants in the world’s oceans and freshwater systems continues to make eating fish a dicy proposition for women of childbearing age at the very least, and for the general public probably something they’d prefer to avoid.
Then when you then factor in the amount of fossil fuels required to send those boats out across ever-expanding areas searching for the remaining fish stocks, along with the plastic waste associated with nets, line, and other fishing gear, the bottom line is that commercial fishing is an industry ripe for disruptive technology. It’s all part of our broken food system, and it needs help.
Enter laboratory tuna.
Or shrimp. Or conch for that matter. The idea of laboratory grown meats is not new. Advocates of the technology funded a $330,000 lab grown hamburger to showcase that it could be done. The basic idea of lab-grown food is that stem cells from the actual animal species in question are used to create a substitute that is every bit as genetically real as its living, breathing cousin.
Consider that this technology could create thousands of new, good-paying jobs in laboratories and processors across the world. Consider that the foods produced in these laboratories would have few or none of the negative externalities of factory farms or commercial fishing. Consider that these foods would contain no mercury or other heavy metals, antibiotic or chemical residues, and could be packaged and shipped sustainably. Consider that the food miles on these foods could be, effectively, zero.
Meet the entrepreneurs
There are a lot of startups in the Bay Area, where I live, that are working on laboratory foods. Investment interest is high, as is corporate strategic partnership interest. The potential is clearly there to disrupt older and more broken models, and the job-creating and profitability aspects are strong motivators for this field to advance as well.
Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Michael Selden, a biochemist working on “finless” fish grown in a laboratory. Here is the transcript of our discussion.
SC: Describe the progress so far in the laboratory seafood industry?
MS: So far there have been plenty of vegetarian and vegan replacements, from companies like Gardein and Sophie’s Kitchen, but very little real work done in cellular agriculture. In 2002 a NASA-funded paper came out of Touro College outlining how a fish filet was created using catfish myosatellite cells and a goldfish explant, the results were promising but there was never a follow-up.
SC: Where is it at nowadays, and what’s your crystal ball say about where it’s going?
MS: A pretty similar place really, still plenty of completely plant-based seafood happening but as far as companies working on culturing seafood we at Finless Foods are to my knowledge as far along as it gets. I think that the direction we have to go in is cellular, culturing cells together in order to create actual meat products that don’t involve fishing or energy-intensive aquaculture.
SC: What products are in development that you know of, by which companies?
MS: New Wave foods is doing interesting work with plant-based shrimp that I’m very excited about, but other than that frustratingly little progress has been made. The only company that I know of that is actively doing cellular agriculture is my own, Finless Foods. We’re entering the lab this year to begin the creation of the first ever cellular agriculture fish products.
SC: How long do you think it’ll be before we see commercially viable laboratory grown shrimp or tuna?
MS: I think it could hit the market in as early as 5 years from now, but really we’ll have to wait and see what happens once the initial prototypes are made. This may sound a long way off but it’s much closer than many pipelines for new drugs hitting the market, it’s relatively short by comparison to plenty of other fields of research.
SC: Do you have some summary stats about the market potential?
MS: In 2014, 368 billion pounds of seafood were farmed or captured in the world. Approximately 205 billion pounds were from fishing and 162 billion pounds were farm raised. The largest producer was China, with a total of 97 billion pounds produced, accounting for 30% of the world’s production. The United States was the fourth highest producer, accounting for 3% of the total production, with 10 billion pounds. The average person consumes 44.31 pounds of seafood per year, but many people’s access to seafood is limited. This number would be higher if it were affordable to eat fresh seafood far from the ocean where it is sourced.
SC: Summary stats on the enviro benefits?
MS: Currently 53% of fish stocks are fully exploited. The majority of the top ten fisheries, which are about 30% of all wild fishing, are fully exploited or overexploited. If these fisheries collapse there’s a good chance the entire ocean ecosystem will collapse, which will absolutely have huge effects on us on the land. Cellular agriculture as a system will solve all of these problems, and provide people mercury-free and fresh fish to boot.
SC: Any other thoughts??
MS: We need more money in this industry, there are loads of scientists itching to jump into the research but there’s a dearth of grant money for them to do so. New Harvest is a non-profit organization that puts grants towards this, anybody who thinks this is a cause worth championing should donate to them. They run very lean, and accomplish a lot with a little. I think if the public research were a little further along you would see all sorts of companies cropping up to produce this for the masses, and I think New Harvest is the way to jumpstart that.
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