New York CNN  — 

Companies like Beyond Meat Inc (BYND) and Impossible Foods are seeing strong sales. Earlier this year, Target launched its own line of 30 vegan food options. Even giant Tyson Foods Inc (TSN) is getting in on the act with its recent introduction of vegan bratwurst and burger patties.

Plant-based meat sales are soaring, but is there a similar appetite for plant-based seafood?

A host of small companies certainly hope so, and they’re crowding into the alternative seafood space. Sales in the sector grew 23% from 2019 to 2020, according to data from The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is “to accelerate alternative protein innovation internationally,” according to its website. In the first half of 2021, the institute said, $116 million has been invested in the seafood space, exceeding 2020’s total of $90 million.

Plant-based seafood could help alleviate the demand for fresh-caught fish, curbing overfishing that can decrease fish populations, reduce biodiversity in the ocean and harm habitats, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. About 5 billion pounds of seafood are consumed every year in the United States, according to Molly Masterton, the group’s fisheries director, with more than 90% of it harvested, farmed, or processed in countries that lack rigorous seafood management laws.

Environmental benefits

“Giving consumers more sustainable, affordable, and traceable choices” is a “positive development” for the oceans and the environment, Masterton said. Adding more plant-based seafood options to the market could help take pressure off some of the fish species that are in high demand, she added.

Many plant-based options on the market list ingredients that include seaweed, peas or beans of some kind. Good Catch, a plant-based seafood startup, for example, uses peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy beans, fava beans and navy beans in its products, which include fish sticks, fish fillets, fish burgers, crab cakes and fish cakes.

Good Catch recently completed a round of funding that secured $26.35 million with investments from companies including Louis Dreyfus Company, Unovis Asset Management and Big Idea Ventures. “The only truly sustainable seafood is seafood that allows fish to remain in the ocean,” Chad Sarno, co-founder and chief culinary officer at Good Catch, told CNN Business.

Demand grows for faux fish

Thai Union Group, one of the world’s largest canned tuna providers, owns a number of tuna brands including Chicken of the Sea, which sold its first can in the US in 1930. Now Thai Union is focusing on plant-based seafood products, according to the company’s website. Earlier this year it launched plant-based seafood in the Thai market, with offerings that include crab dumplings, crab meat and fish nuggets.

OmniFoods, a Hong Kong startup known for its fake pork product “OmniPork,” is also getting in on the plant-based seafood trend, launching a new line of products that include alternatives to fish fillets, fish burgers and cuts of tuna.

Nestle is also focusing on seafood options, particularly in Europe. In August, the company launched Vuna, a vegan alternative to tuna fish. “The demand for plant-based products is really growing strongly in Europe, but also elsewhere,” a Nestle spokesperson said. The company is seeing growth in the sector over the last year and is looking to quickly bring new products to the market; Vuna, for example, was developed in about nine months, the spokesperson added.

Seaweed-based shrimp

In September 2019, Tyson Foods’ venture capital arm invested in New Wave Foods, a plant-based fish company that sells seaweed-based shrimp.

“Approximately 90% of shrimp in the US are imported and more than half come from shrimp farms which contaminate and pollute our oceans,” Michelle Wolf, co-founder of New Wave Foods, told CNN Business. So Wolf and her team got creative and made a shrimp alternative out of plant-based ingredients like seaweed extract, mung bean protein and sunflower oil.

While Wolf wants people to integrate the alternative seafood options into their lifestyles, she doesn’t expect consumers to completely shift their diets and replace traditional seafood with plant-based options. “Even if it’s once a week, those small changes can build up across a population and have positive impacts on public health and our environment at large,” she said.