Overfishing is driving eels to extinction. Can Forsea Foods Cell Technology Save Them?

Israeli food technology startup Forsea Foods is working to create cell-based eel meat using its patented organoid technology. With this technology, the startup has the ability to farm virtually any type of seafood—without killing a single fish or affecting the ocean’s delicate ecosystem—but is currently focusing its efforts on freshwater eel because overfishing is drives the species to extinction.

“Eels are a highly sought after delicacy, especially in East Asia. However, overfishing in recent decades has made them an endangered species,” Roee Nir, a biotechnologist and CEO and co-founder of Forsea, said in a statement. “The Japanese eel population alone has declined by 90 to 95 percent, which has driven prices to astronomical levels. Eel meat is sold in Japan for up to $70 per kilogram. They are also considered the most mysterious creatures of the ocean, undergoing an unusual metamorphosis.”

The mysterious life of eels

Unlike other fish that are bred and raised in fisheries – which cause a number of problems such as environmental degradation, pollution and destruction of fish habitats – eels cannot be bred in captivity. Eels live most of their lives in fresh water and, when they are ready to reproduce, will swim over 4,000 miles into the deep ocean to one of two very specific rendezvous points: the Sargasso Sea, near the Bermuda Triangle or in Guam.

And as soon as they multiply, they die. What is brought back with the help of ocean currents are small eels of two grams in size. They are small eels that are caught and raised in controlled pools where, during a year and a half, they turn into adults.

This unsustainable commercial fishing system has meant that wild eel populations are now considered endangered and critically endangered. Forsea’s new farming platform hopes to provide a solution for endangered species such as eels, offering a clean, nutritious and commercially viable alternative to wild-caught seafood, while leaving the ocean’s delicate ecosystem completely intact.

The startup was formed last October with financial backing from the Israel Innovation Authority and a handful of other investors. Yaniv Elkouby, a senior researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and expert in developmental cell biology, and Iftach Nachman, PhD, a principal investigator at Tel Aviv University, join Nir as co-founders of Forsea.

Cultivation of seafood cells using organoid technology

The startup’s organoid technology, which has previously been proven in fields including developmental biology and medicine, involves three-dimensional tissue structures derived from stem cells that, when used in cell-cultured seafood, require only a minimal growth factors.

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This approach to fish tissue formation involves creating an ideal environment for fish cells to spontaneously form their natural composition of fat and muscle. They grow as a three-dimensional tissue structure in the same way that they would grow into a living fish.

“While cell culture mainly focuses on a directed differentiation system, where cells are signaled to differentiate into a specific cell type and then combined on a scaffold, our system grows the aggregate of different cells already at the initial stage of the process. Nachman said in a statement. “Cells organize themselves autonomously into their innate, intended structure, just as they do in nature.”

The result is sustainably produced fillets with farmed seafood that embody the same flavors and textural characteristics as their ocean-caught counterparts. However, unlike their ocean-derived counterparts, the resulting product is free of pollutants such as mercury, industrial chemicals and microplastics. Forsea claims they will also deliver the same nutritional profile as traditionally farmed seafood.

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“This is a function of how you feed the cells,” says Nir. “There are many benefits to the organoid method of cell culture of fish. First, it is a highly scalable platform that bypasses the scaffolding step and requires fewer bioreactors. This makes the process much simpler and more cost effective. Additionally, it dramatically reduces the amount of expensive growth factors needed.”

Ultimately, Forsea Foods plans to perfect its techniques and processes so that it can offer a sustainable and commercially viable alternative to wild-caught eel, giving marine ecosystems a break from human exploitation and allowed them to recover.

“In 2000, the Japanese consumed 160,000 metric tons [of eels]. But due to overfishing and rising prices, consumption has dwindled to just 30,000 metric tons,” says Nir. “There is a huge gap between supply and demand for eel, which traditional aquaculture cannot accommodate. Adding because of this problem, Europe has banned the export of all eel products. The market opportunity for cell-cultured eels is tremendous.”

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