There aren’t too many fish that would be called “cute,” but ask any in-the-know fish person about the lumpsucker, and that will likely be the first word used to describe it.
The bulbous little suckers are popular guests at birthday parties in Japan and their roe makes an inexpensive alternative to caviar. But they are also great pest managers on salmon farms, replacing the sometimes toxic parasiticides used to kill sea lice. (The word “sucker” here, by the way, is literal: the creature’s fins are on its underside and actually adhere to surfaces.) First used commercially in 2009 by the Norwegian salmon farm Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett, they are now becoming a regular tool in salmon farming as a replacement for the colorful but decidedly less cute wrasse fish. Females of the Cyclopterus lumpus variety can grow up to 61 centimeters (approx. 24 inches), but are usually much smaller. Other kinds, like the Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker grow to an average of 2.5 cm.
Unlike the wrasse—which didn’t take winter so well, according to Alf-Gøran Knutsen, general manager at Kvarøy—the lumpsuckers hail from the Arctic, North Atlantic, and North Pacific Oceans, making them well suited for the cold waters of Norway. Knutsen estimates that in 2015, 10 million lumpsuckers were used for salmon farming globally. His farm, he said, used about 150,000 of the Cyclopterus lumpus, which is native to Norway. Only about 6-10% of the fish at Kvarøy are lumpsuckers, says Knutsen, and the sustainability-focused salmon farm harvests and processes them into fish oil, as well.
(And don’t worry, they can survive out of water for several minutes, so no harm needs to come to them to take cute photos.)
But the lumpsuckers are old news at the farm, whose latest sustainability stride, along with another Norwegian salmon farm, Selsøyvik, is a partnership with Whole Foods, fish feed maker BioMar, and importer Blue Circle Foods. Unlike most fish feed used for farming, BioMar’s In the Blue is made with sustainable ingredients, like the trimmings of fish already being caught and processed for human consumption. It brings the fish-in, fish-out ratio for their salmon below 1-to-1, according to the partnership. The ratio is used to calculate the weight of wild fish needed to produce farmed fish, and provides an important measurement as wild fish numbers are dropping even faster than presumed. The average ratio for farmed salmon is 1.6-to-1. “I don’t know of another salmon farm that is net protein,” says David Pilat, Whole Foods’ global seafood buyer, of both farms involved.
That’s certainly exciting, but let’s be honest, not nearly as cute.