Q&A with Tony Smith, Dragon Feeds

09 Dec 2010
Dragon Feeds’ founder Tony Smith.

Dragon Feeds’ founder Tony Smith.

Dragon Feeds began looking at ways to produce sustainable aquaculture feeds around 10 years ago. Following five years intense research and development work, the UK company unveiled its unique fishmeal alternative, which combines its own farm-produced Nereis virens polychaetes, also known as ragworms, with vegetable proteins.

Today, Dragon’s feed project has caught the imagination of the entire seafood supply chain – from fish farmers to top chefs and consumers – with one notable exception: traditional fishmeal manufacturers. Managing director Tony Smith is happy to take the plaudits but with traditional fishmeal stocks under immense pressure he tells World Fishing & Aquaculture he’s both astounded and disappointed that no other feed companies have so much as spoken to him about his product.


Q: WF appreciates many of the processes that go into producing this unique feed must remain confidential, but could you tell our readers a little about how the worms are grown, what goes into the feed, and explain why it’s a sustainable alternative to fishmeal?

TS:Our worms are grown in large raceways of approximately 11 metres width by 150 metres length and 60cm deep. The maturation of the worms takes place around March/April and they go through a seven-month feeding cycle before they are harvested. They are fed on waste proteins sourced from the brewing and baking industries, as well as trim waste from whitefish processing. Before we started utilising it, this waste would usually go to landfill.

The worms go into the ponds when they are very small - virtually pinhead size. Each female produces millions of eggs and our survival rate of these eggs is now over 80%. To give WF readers some idea of the scale of the project, if we had 100% survival rate of just one female’s offspring we would be able to produce 70 tonnes of polychaete worm protein.

Polychaete worms themselves are not a replacement for fishmeal; they are a very important part of a formulation we use to make fishmeal. The main structure of our fishmeal replacement is land-based protein, manufactured from the likes of soy, sunflower, pea or lupins. We manipulate the amino properties of that protein and add in the missing amino acids using our own unique process and then add in the polychaetes to that ingredient to give us our fishmeal replacement.

We don’t take any of the fish out of the food chain that are used purely for fishmeal. But there are two other things to remember: firstly, our fishmeal replacement includes polychaetes; and secondly, we bind the crystalline amino acids to the protein.


Q: What has been the reaction to your feed from those fish farmers that have tried it?

TS: It’s very difficult to bring fundamental change to the fish farming industry because many people in it believing there could never be a 100% move away from fishmeal to grow out aquaculture products.

We’ve had to overcome that mindset and I’m pleased to say we’ve been selling our feed to trout farmers for more than three years now. Some of those farmers that were trialling five tonnes are now taking 20 tonnes and have been getting good results; others will now only use our feeds; and more and more farmers are asking to have a look at it. However, it doesn’t begin and end with trout. For example, we’re about to start work with a very large salmon producer.


Q: All this suggests other feed producers would follow Dragon’s lead, yet you remain the only commercial operation in the world producing this type of feed. In your opinion, why have other feed companies been slow to embrace fishmeal alternatives?

TS: There are many possible reasons why other feed producers haven’t looked at this alternative; they may have commercial reasons for not going down this path. But none of them have come forward with a reason for not using it.

I think that by now, all feed companies know who we are, what we’re doing, and who the people are who are using our feeds. But we have never been approached by any other feed company with regard to using our product. Every single one of them has had a sample from us and yet we’ve heard nothing.

The whole industry has spoken about sustainability for many years. It’s certainly something Dragon takes very seriously and so we’re extremely disappointed that no-one else in the feed business is willing to talk to us about our product or ask us questions about it.

Oceans’ ecologies are changing, partly through over-fishing but there are lots of contributory factors. It’s not just fishmeal stocks that are affected, but fishmeal is a finite product that’s manufactured from limited resources so we can’t continue increasing fishmeal supply. We do, however need solutions – the world, with its growing population, needs more fish and therefore more feeds.

Fishmeal is a very volatile commodity – at one stage this year it hit $2,000 (€1,470) per tonne, it’s currently down to about $1,460 (€1,072), but even at the lower price we’re very competitive. Some of the proteins we use fluctuate but not to the extent that fishmeal does. It’s a lot more consistently priced and we can virtually say what our prices will be in 12 months time.


Q: To prove the polychaete feed works you have been growing your own rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which you make available to seafood suppliers and buyers - what has been the reaction to the fish from these experts and their customers?

TS: We’ve presented our fish, produced in our own raceways and fed on our feed to high-end markets and it’s been very well received and now appears in many of the top, Michelin-star restaurants. Because of the distinction our fish have from others in the UK market, we’ve decided we’re going to brand our fish ‘Ocean Rainbow’, and as we do more species we’ll expand the range to ‘Ocean Bass’ and others.

In the past, I had never considered being a fish farmer. This project came about to prove how good our feeds were, but there’s been such strong demand for our fish, who knows where it will end – we’re building new fish ponds all the time.


Q: Please outline some of Dragon’s plans for 2011?

TS: We’re well into negotiations with a global company to work together on sustainable ingredients, including our fish feed and the replacement of fish oils with a marine algae oil.

We have developed a tried and tested commercial algae oil for our fish feeds, which will maintain the all-important omega-3s and omega-6s that cannot be created by land-based oils.

Our philosophy is we don’t just want to make sustainable fish; we want to make high-quality fish. The developed world doesn’t want more herbivorous fish, affluent consumers want carnivorous fish and for that we have to produce very good feeds.