Insect meal – is it the future for ornamental fish foods.

The range of aquarium and pond fish foods has never been larger.  Fish food technology is moving forward at a pace, with novel ingredients and formats being used to provide new and innovative foods for our fish.  Crisps with their low temperature production, soft pellets, wafers and species specific diets are all now regulars on aquatic shop shelves. Developments are still occurring and one of the major changes that I believe will happen over the next few years is the increasing use of insects as a key ingredient for fish foods.  It makes sense in so many ways – after all it is what most of the fish that we keep in aquaria and ponds have been eating for millions of years. But what insects and why? Reducing the use of fish meal. Most of the fish that we keep in our aquaria and ponds are not fish eaters  – and yet most of the foods that are available to feed them are based on fish meal. Fish meal has been used as a key ingredient and source of protein in fish foods because it was (and still is) readily available, is relatively inexpensive, and has a good nutritional profile.  It is a good ingredient.  Originally the fish meal was produced from low value wild caught fish or from fish that were not suitable for human consumption (often called trash fish).  In the past they were caught and processed in vast numbers, even being scattered on the ground as a fertilizer. However the reduction in fish populations and our increasing awareness of the need for sustainability and to be environmentally friendly has resulted in a dramatic fall in fish meal production.  It more than halved in the twenty year period from 1994 – 2014  (from 34 million tonnes to 16 million tonnes) and that trend is continuing.  Wild caught fish are still used in fish meal production, but they are increasingly from sustainably harvested populations of anchovies, capelin and herring.  The official figures vary, but it is thought that 25 – 33% of fish meal is now produced from fish by-products – that is the heads, tails, bones etc that are left after the fish have been processed for human consumption. We still use an estimated 10% of the worlds fish catches to feed to other fish. Obviously as the production and availability of fish meal reduces, the costs of this ingredient increases.  Not surprisingly significant research is being focused on identifying less costly and more sustainable alternatives.  The use of insect meal appears to offer one of the better alternatives. Insects as food. The use of protein sourced from insects goes far beyond the need to protect fish stocks.  It is seen as a long term solution to providing high quality protein for human food.  In many parts of the world insects are already eaten in huge numbers.  More than 2 billion people are estimated to eat caterpillars, beetles and larvae as part of their everyday diet.  In South Africa over 9.5billion mopane caterpillars are harvested every year for human consumption.  In Uganda a kilo of grasshoppers is more valuable than a kilo of beef.  It is only in Europe and North America that we find the idea of eating insects distasteful.  Leading authorities believe this is about to change and that we will all be eating insects within 20 years. What are the benefits of feeding insects to our fish. Insect meal is a fantastic new ingredient that is being cultured at sites across the world.  Many of these are still prototype factories, which are finding methods to culture different insect species in commercial quantities.

The Black Soldier Fly

The black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) has been the subject of considerable research and is being used as an ingredient in both aquaculture and ornamental fish foods.  There are many benefits of the insect meal for fish keepers including:

  • It is eagerly eaten by the fish. Many freshwater fish naturally eat insects either from the water surface or by consuming their aquatic larvae.  Even species that are normally reluctant to consume prepared foods will insect meal based flakes.  The African Butterfly fish  (Pantodon buchholzi) is a great example eating insect meal based flakes as soon as they are offered, presumably being tempted by the smell of the food.
  • Fish have been eating insects for millions of years and, not surprisingly have evolved to digest and process them very effectively. Independent trials have demonstrated excellent food conversion ratios and low waste production from foods based on insect meal
  • Provides an environmentally friendly and sustainable source of high quality protein.

Sustainability. The ‘green’ side of insect production is a major benefit.  Not only does the use of insect meal reduce the need to use fish meal, with the benefits that this provides to our marine environment – it also has some major benefits over other protein production methods.  Take a look at the benefits of culturing and using black soldier flies:

  • Cultured on organic material such as brewery waste and waste fruit and vegetables. These are materials that are usually composted and dug into the ground
  • They grow rapidly from an egg to the pre-pupating larvae in only 13 days
  • Efficient conversion of food into protein, particularly when compared to other protein production
    • 5kg of food needed to produce 1kg of insects
    • 3kg of food needed to produce 1kg chicken
    • 8kg of food needed to produce 1kg beef
  • Less than 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions when compared with conventional livestock rearing
  • Consistent quality and traceable

Early days The use of insect meal as an ingredient in fish foods (and for other animals and humans) is still at an early stage.  As recently as July 2017 amendments were made to EU regulations which permitted insect meal to be used as feed in aquaculture.  Prior to this it could only be used for non -food species – which included ornamental fish.  The aquaculture industry is keen to find alternatives to the use of fish meal and will undoubtedly spend large amounts on research which will benefit our hobby. Most of the research to date has focused on the black soldier fly, meal worms and crickets.  However there are many different insect species available which could be cultured.  By selecting the insect species and what they are fed on it is possible to obtain different nutritional profiles which could be used to produce the ‘ideal’ food for different animal and fish species.  There are an estimated 14 million species of beetles, insects and terrestrial arthropods, so the opportunities are endless. Using insects as food for farm animals, pets and even humans is big news, with articles and features on the opportunities and what will happen in the future appearing in the press on a regular basis.  In the ornamental fishkeeping world we are already there – with insect meal based foods being available to feed to your fish.  Have you tried them yet?

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