How lab-grown fishmouth could help save our oceans

II’m an avid surfer and certified diver, and spending so much time in the water means I’m acutely aware of the impact human activity has on the ocean ecosystem. It sometimes feels like it’s more common to see plastic bags in the water than sea life.

So I was excited this week to try lab-grown fish, a new product that could help solve at least one major problem facing the world’s oceans: overfishing. Hong Kong-based Avant Meats offered a public tasting of cultured fish, which its scientists had grown in their lab from cells of real fish.

Startups around the world are racing to raise funds to commercialize cultured animal protein, ranging from beef to kangaroo. While lab-grown beef could help offset carbon emissions and reduce animal cruelty, deploying proteins from cell-based fish, shellfish and other seafood could be an important innovation for protect the incredible biodiversity of the ocean.

One of the “four treasures” of Chinese cuisine

Avant Meats has a unique approach to their lab-grown seafood business. Not content with mass-producing lab-grown fish fillets, he focused on developing prized specialties, especially fish maw. A fish’s mouth, sometimes called a swim bladder, is an organ that helps fish control their buoyancy. It is considered one of the “four treasures” of Chinese cuisine. (Others are abalone, sea cucumber, and shark fin, the consumption of which has caused shark populations to plummet worldwide).

“We are the first company to work on farmed fish in Asia,” says Carrie Chan, co-founder and CEO of Avant Meats. “We wanted to do something very emotionally connected to people in that part of the world.”

Before Meats Fish Maw in Soup on September 14, 2021.

Aria Chen and Abhishyant Kidangoor–TIME

Fish maw is mainly eaten on special occasions; Tried it years ago at a friend’s wedding banquet. The fish maw itself does not have a strong flavor. Instead, it tends to pick up on the flavors it’s cooked in. The yellow croaker fish maw in the soup Chef Eddy Leung made for us on Tuesday tasted similar. It had a spongy, chewy texture.

“The texture is similar to the real fish maw before it’s cooked… It’s sticky, it has gelatin in it,” Leung says. “But when you eat it, it still doesn’t have the kind of stickiness that the real ones have.”

Avant Meats also gave us a taste of a farmed fish fillet, derived from a grouper. As a former vegetarian, I’m still sick of eating living things. But I didn’t feel guilty eating meat that was never a living, free-swimming fish. The tenderloin tasted like the real thing, but it still has a ways to go. Instead of flaking like real fish, it had a more starchy consistency, more like gnocchi.

To make the food we tried, the company took cells from a real fish, fed them nutrients, and incubated them until they started reproducing. Some of these cells were then placed on what are called scaffolds, plant-based materials that give the cells their shape as they grow.

Read more: Why this year is our last and best chance to save the oceans

Increase production, reduce costs

One of the biggest challenges facing cell-based companies is that, like most new technological developments, they are very expensive to produce.

It initially cost Avant Meat about $900 to produce a pound of lab-grown fish. The company has already brought costs down to around $70 a pound, and Chan believes Avant can reduce costs to $14 to $18 a pound over the next 12 to 18 months as production ramps up.

“The key is this: can you produce enough fish from cell production to replace wild capture or traditional or conventionally farmed fish?” Arlin Wasserman, the founder of sustainable food consultancy Changing Tastes, tells me.

This is where focusing on fish maw and other premium ingredients could make lab-grown seafood more quickly economically viable. A bowl of fish maw soup at a fine restaurant in Hong Kong costs around $30, while braised fish maw at the city’s three-star Michelin Lung King Heen restaurant costs around $470.

Read more: The world’s oceans are in trouble. And humans too, warns a UN report

Overfishing crisis

If cell-based seafood takes off, it will be good news for the world’s oceans. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 30% of stocks are now fished at biologically unsustainable levels. Massive amounts of unwanted fish and other creatures like sea turtles and dolphins are accidentally caught when fishing for species intended for human consumption.

The fishmouth had particularly devastating ripple effects. The swim bladder of the totoaba fish, native to Mexico, is particularly appreciated; it is sometimes called the “cocaine of the sea” for its astronomical prices. Totoaba fishing was banned in 1975, but illegal gillnets are still common. They also trap the vaquitas, the world’s smallest porpoise. Now it is estimated that there are only nine vaquitas left in the world.

Avant Meats’ innovation could help relieve the pressure that growing demand for rare delicacies has put on ocean habitats around the world. Texture aside, I’m excited to see cell-based meats getting closer to becoming a reality.

The concept of Avant Meats will be put to the test very soon. At a time when most companies are still struggling to bring their products to consumers, Avant Meats plans to sell its first products to the public sometime next year. The company is also working on a fish-based ingredient for use in skincare products, and plans to branch out into other meats soon, including sea cucumber.

—With reporting by Aria Chen/Hong Kong

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