Aquaculture has been called the next big thing for soybean meal and the next big market for U.S. soybean farmers. The United Soybean Board (USB) and the soybean checkoff are working hard to make sure aquaculture achieves its potential.

The high protein level and suitable amino acid complex of soybean meal make it a key ingredient for aquaculture feeds. Soybean meal inclusion rates in aquafeeds overall are expected to increase to 35 percent to 40 percent because of quality and lower costs compared with traditional marine animal protein meals.

In addition, the long-term growth potential of soy in fish feed is tremendous. Look to China for an example of what potential soy as fish feed holds for U.S. soybean farmers: China produces approximately 70 percent of the world’s aquaculture. A decade ago, the Chinese aquaculture industry used no soy, but today they use over 150 million bushels of soybeans annually. Checkoff-funded programs, such as aquaculture demonstrations, helped China become the number one importer of U.S. soybeans.

“Soy-based aquafeeds have garnered a great deal of interest from the global aquaculture industry, thanks in part to the soybean checkoff,” says Karen Fear, USB director and soybean farmer from Montpelier, Ind. “Projects like the Ocean Cage Aquaculture Technology (OCAT) and the Soy in Aquaculture activities in India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines ensure soy and aquaculture have a bright future together.”

Fear, along with directors Roy Bardole, Sharon Covert and Joe Meyer, represented USB and the checkoff at the Aquaculture America 2006 meeting, which is a national conference and exposition representing the North American component of the World Aquaculture Society.

These aquaculture advances have come as the result of years of work and research. Five years ago, checkoff farmer-leaders and consultants created a program to focus attention on aquaculture. This program was inspired by the success of soy in the Chinese aquaculture industry. Checkoff funding resulted in soybean meal promotion in India and Southeast Asia and ocean cage development in China. Additional funding for research through seven U.S. universities is focusing on identifying the factors that limit the use of soybean meal in Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout. In addition, research is being conducted to increase the soybean meal inclusion in marine shrimp diets.

The OCAT project demonstrates new submersible ocean cage technology that allows farmers to produce fish in the open ocean using floating, soy-based feeds. This represents a huge opportunity to farm fish from areas of the ocean that were previously unfarmed.

The production of farm-raised fish is much greater overseas than in the United States; however, the U.S. market has significant growth opportunities in its coastal waters. The United States is currently second globally in fish consumption. This market is expected to keep growing as people continue to become more and more health conscious and include more fish in their diet. Currently, in the United States, freshwater aquaculture production, such as catfish, far outpaces marine aquaculture. Replacing fishmeal with plant-based proteins will promote health through increased fish consumption and will alleviate environmental and economic constraints facing the aquaculture industry. The use of fishmeal in aquaculture feeds creates both economic and environmental challenges.

USB is made up of 64 farmer-directors who oversee the investments of the soybean checkoff on behalf of all U.S. soybean farmers. Checkoff funds are invested in the areas of animal utilization, human utilization, industrial utilization, industry relations, market access and supply. As stipulated in the Soybean Promotion, Research and Customer Information Act, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has oversight responsibilities for USB and the soybean checkoff.