Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Fish For Fuel
Jeremy Faludi, 31 Oct 07
Article Photo

We're all familiar with biodiesel being made from soy oil, or canola, or waste cooking oil. But fish waste? Yes, it appears to be a good feedstock for the fuel. Companies and local governments in Canada, Alaska, Hawaii, Honduras, and other places have been experimenting with fish-based biodiesel for years, and some commercial enterprises are using and selling it profitably.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers that before the petroleum age dawned, the world used whale oil for light and heat. In fact, petroleum was an eco-friendly alternative when first discovered, as several whale species were roaring into the fast lane on the road to extinction. Don't worry about fish fuel speeding up the depletion of the oceans, though -- all the fuel described here is made from oil left over from fish processing.

Using this waste oil for fuel has long been standard practice. According to the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA), "[fish] processors produce approximately 8 million gallons per year of fish oil from as a byproduct of fish meal plants. Much of the oil is used in the process as boiler fuel for drying the fish meal..." At first they started simply mixing the raw fish oil with diesel fuel. This worked, but raw fish oil is about 6 percent less energy-dense than diesel, and some newer engines cannot use raw fish oil. In 2004 the AEA partnered with the Hawaiian firm Pacific Biodiesel to make biodiesel out of the fish oil; now production is more local. Biodiesel from fish and waste cooking oil is used in Denali National Park, both in stationary generators and in vehicle engines; the energy agency even has a brochure about it.

The amount of fish biodiesel being used is minuscule compared to availability, however.

Using this waste product could have other environmental benefits. As noted in the New Agriculturist last year:

Twenty-one million gallons of fish oil are produced annually by Alaska's shore-based and floating fish processing plants - mostly located on and around the Unalaska and Akutan Islands - and yet two-thirds (13 million gallons) are currently discarded. Fish waste, if not processed immediately, degrades rapidly and quickly loses its value, for example as an animal feed. Dumped into the sea in high concentrations, the waste can also disrupt marine ecosystems.

In Nova Scotia, Canada, a company that mostly sells the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils as nutrition supplements began using waste oil to make biodiesel for its' own operations, and then went on to selling it. Ocean Nutrition Canada (ONC) sells biodiesel to a local gas station chain, which blends it into B20 before selling it. Oddly, you can't find anything about it on ONC's website, but you can read about it at Canada's Eco-Efficiency Centre, as well as some other sites.

Most of the activity in fish biodiesel has been centered in Alaska and Canada. Why? Because they have some very isolated coastal cities where fish oil is the most abundant feedstock for biodiesel. As the public-private partnership West Coast Collaborative puts it, "Alaska has very limited viable sources of biodiesel due to very limited waste cooking oil, nonexistent agricultural oil crops, and high import transportation costs for biodiesel produced elsewhere." You might worry that in cold climates like that biodiesel would gel, but these climates are often so cold that petrol diesel gels as well, so most vehicles have heater coils to warm up the fuel lines.

Even in inland lake towns well connected with the rest of their countryside, fish biodiesel can work. Last year in Honduras, El Heraldo [in Spanish] reported on the company Aquafinca Saint Peter Fish, S.A. and its production of 10,000 gallons of fish oil biodiesel per day near Santa Cruz de Yojoa. Located by Lake Yojoa, it is a town well connected to the nearby agricultural lands. Still, the biodiesel the town produces from fish waste is very cheap, nearly a dollar less per gallon then petro diesel. Aquafinca farms non-native fish (tilapia) in Lake Yojoa, which may have negative environmental consequences, but has at least had a third-party study done to assess these impacts. Suzanne Hunt (Worldwatch) and Jean-Philippe Denruyter (WWF) mention in their notes from the road in the Greaseball Challenge (a trek from Washington, DC to San Jose, Costa Rica where contestants run entirely on biofuel) that Aquafinca's production is now only about 1,000 gallons per day -- which is still more than enough to fuel the entire company's vehicle fleet.

Image credit: El Heraldo
And thanks to John McKenzie for the tip!

Bookmark and Share


Vegans are going to give you an earful on this one.

Posted by: ttubby on 31 Oct 07

Like most biofuel sources, fish oil demonstrates well at small local scales but is probably dangerous if anyone gets the idea to scale it up. Fish oil is a major commodity used in all kinds of processed foods, cleaners and cosmetics. The main source of fish oil, Gulf and Atlantic Menhaden, form the base of the food chain in their ecosystems and have been decimated by overfishing. Were anyone to make a major push to use them for fuel the ecosystem would be finished. A bright green future will hopefully include a mix of small scale, niche biofuel application within closed-loop industrial systems, but they won't be a wholesale substitute for fossil fuels.

Posted by: Noam Ross on 31 Oct 07

You bet the vegans are going to give you an earful. How can you even consider this an environmentally positive process? The last thing we need to do is further entrench the use of fish and the byproducts produced by their use. Have we so quickly forgotten that we're on track to pretty much empty out our oceans by 2048?

But, then, as Noam Ross mentions, attempting to scale this process up will only make my point that much more obvious.

Posted by: Eric Prescott on 31 Oct 07

Its a tough issue that runs up again and again in the sustainability movement. Similar dilemmas involve using fly ash from coal in the production of cement or manure from large corporate farms to power methane digesters.

If you help these groups recover some of the waste do you help sustain their unsustainable enterprise? Or do you see it as a opportunity to develop a more sustainable process of living by focusing on the most wasteful industries and taking their waste to create value.

One possible way to help answer this question of whether such efforts are helpful or merely enabling polluting and unsustainable enterprises could be in terms of whether the project that utilizes the waste takes a comprehensive approach to utilizes that byproduct.

For example I dont see much sense in exporting the oil as bio-diesel. However I do see possibility in terms of using that waste oil to develop a distributed power facility using a combined heating and power configuration to power a eco-themed mixed use development. Most likely the fishery will close and other opportunities will emerge such as possibly growing algae to replace it. Thus we have a picture of a transitional model where we use the wastefulness of conventional systems of production as opportunities to invest in more sustainable systems that are designed to eventually fully replace the unsustainable ones.

Posted by: Jeff Buderer on 1 Nov 07

You bet the vegans are going to give you an earful. How can you even consider this an environmentally positive process?

Because it puts to use something that would otherwise go to waste.

This has been another edition of Sustainability 101.

Posted by: mmvii on 1 Nov 07

Cool idea! Kind of closing the loop and using waste resources. Still it bothers me -- I have read a lot about whaling :-) There is no law of the sea. If an economically viable process of creating fuel from fish were developed, then what happens where there isn't enough fish waste that day?

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 2 Nov 07

It is a good example of local resource efficiency. However, it has recently been found that local fishing can have a serious impact on migrating mega-fauna extinctions. The methods by which the fish are caught is an important aspect.

Ideally, minimizing by-catch and making sure the oil is only the byproduct of a waste stream, are important aspects of maintaining this system. Also, there should be further oversight to ensure the fishery is healthy enough to support continued current practices.

Posted by: Tim McGee on 2 Nov 07

This has been another edition of Sustainability 101.

The goal of sustainability shouldn't be how to make wasteful processes less wasteful; it should be implementing processes that aren't wasteful in the first place.

Posted by: Eric Prescott on 2 Nov 07

The goal of sustainability shouldn't be how to make wasteful processes less wasteful; it should be implementing processes that aren't wasteful in the first place.

Perfection is impossible and the best is rarely achieved in one step.

Posted by: mmvii on 2 Nov 07

Sustainability 100
We tend to use The Natural Step as a quick way to figure out whether a new process is good for the earth. In this case, is the waste returned to the earth? The process of making fertilizer out of fish waste is well known and doesn't have the downsides of this proposal.
MCAD has classes to guide folks through these sorts of decisions. It can be confusing!


Posted by: Curt McNamara on 2 Nov 07

Eric Prescott: "The goal of sustainability shouldn't be how to make wasteful processes less wasteful; it should be implementing processes that aren't wasteful in the first place."

If wasteful processes become increasingly less wasteful, then they are *increasingly less wasteful.* That's why, as Mr. Faludi points out, fish oil is already in use in AK and similar places. The need to put this 'waste' to use is made obvious by the internalized cost of transporting fuel to less-populated areas.

In this instance, it's the most sustainable solution available.

Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 2 Nov 07

Wow! Burning fish is more sustainable than making fertilizer and restoring the earth? Everybody does agriculture everywhere.
Another "reality check" is to use the O2 Global Green Design 5R's. One is RESTORE. Fertilizing the earth restores it, burning fish does not.


Posted by: Curt McNamara on 2 Nov 07

You should start a consultancy, Curt, and go sign these people up.

Posted by: mmvii on 2 Nov 07

I can't see any problems with this(beyond the usual worries about overfishing)providing that it is "accidental", and happens with materials that would otherwise go to waste. We have to live in the world we live in and if people are catching fish it has to make sense to reduce the amount of waste from the process. After all if we lived in the stone age its unlikely that we'd let much of a mammoth go to waste if we were lucky enough to catch one.

Posted by: biofuelsimon on 6 Nov 07

i'm eric. joining a couple boards and looking
forward to participating. hehe unless i get
too distracted!


Posted by: xztheericzx on 7 Nov 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg