Photo of shoreline with buildings next to the shore and wooody hillside in the background
Aquaculture installations in southern Chile

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants.[1][2] Aquaculture involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions, and can be contrasted with commercial fishing, which is the harvesting of wild fish.[3] Mariculture refers to aquaculture practised in marine environments.

The reported output from global aquaculture operations would supply one half of the fish and shellfish that is directly consumed by humans,[4] however there are issues about the reliability of the reported figures.[5] Further, in current aquaculture practice, products from several pounds of wild fish are used to produce one pound of a piscivorous fish like salmon.[6]

Particular kinds of aquaculture include fish farming, shrimp farming, oyster farming, algaculture (such as seaweed farming), and the cultivation of ornamental fish. Particular methods include aquaponics, which integrates fish farming and plant farming.



Photo of dripping, cup-shaped net, approximately 6 feet (1.8 m) in diameter and equally tall, half full of fish, suspended from crane boom, with 4 workers on and around larger, ring-shaped structure in water
Workers harvest catfish from the Delta Pride Catfish farms in Mississippi

The indigenous Gunditjmara people in Victoria, Australia may have raised eels as early as 6000 BC. There is evidence that they developed about 100 square kilometres (39 sq mi) of volcanic floodplains in the vicinity of Lake Condah into a complex of channels and dams, that they used woven traps to capture eels, and that capturing and smoking eels supported them year round.[7][8]

Aquaculture was operating in China circa 2500 BC.[9] When the waters subsided after river floods, some fishes, mainly carp, were trapped in lakes. Early aquaculturists fed their brood using nymphs and silkworm feces, and ate them. A fortunate genetic mutation of carp led to the emergence of goldfish during the Tang Dynasty.

Japanese cultivated seaweed by providing bamboo poles and, later, nets and oyster shells to serve as anchoring surfaces for spores.

Romans bred fish in ponds.[10]

In central Europe, early Christian monasteries adopted Roman aquacultural practices.[11] Aquaculture spread in Europe during the Middle Ages, since away from the seacoasts and the big rivers, fish were scarce/expensive. Improvements in transportation during the 19th century made fish easily available and inexpensive, even in inland areas, making aquaculture less popular.

Hawaiians constructed oceanic fish ponds (see Hawaiian aquaculture). A remarkable example is a fish pond dating from at least 1,000 years ago, at Alekoko. Legend says that it was constructed by the mythical Menehune dwarf people.

In 1859 Stephen Ainsworth of West Bloomfield, New York, began experiments with brook trout. By 1864 Seth Green had established a commercial fish hatching operation at Caledonia Springs, near Rochester, New York. By 1866, with the involvement of Dr. W. W. Fletcher of Concord, Massachusetts, artificial fish hatcheries were under way in both Canada and the United States.[12] When the Dildo Island fish hatchery opened in Newfoundland in 1889, it was the largest and most advanced in the world.

Californians harvested wild kelp and attempted to manage supply circa 1900, later labeling it a wartime resource.[13]


Picture of 5 or more dripping fish suspended on a vertical string or stick
Tilapia, a commonly farmed fish due to its adaptability

According to the FAO, aquaculture "is understood to mean the farming of aquatic organisms including fish, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Farming implies some form of intervention in the rearing process to enhance production, such as regular stocking, feeding, protection from predators, etc. Farming also implies individual or corporate ownership of the stock being cultivated."[14]

21st century practice

About 430 (97%) of the species cultured as of 2007 were domesticated during the 20th century, of which an estimated 106 came in the decade to 2007. Given the long-term importance of agriculture, it is interesting to note that to date only 0.08% of known land plant species and 0.0002% of known land animal species have been domesticated, compared with 0.17% of known marine plant species and 0.13% of known marine animal species. Domestication typically involves about a decade of scientific research.[15] Domesticating aquatic species involve fewer risks to humans than land animals, which took a large toll in human lives. Most major human diseases originated in domesticated animals.[16] through diseases such as smallpox and diphtheria, that like most infectious diseases, move to humans from animals. No human pathogens of comparable virulence have yet emerged from marine species.

Harvest stagnation in wild fisheries and overexploitation of popular marine species, combined with a growing demand for high quality protein encourages aquaculturists to domesticate other marine species.[17][18]

Production volume

In 2004, the total world production of fisheries was 140 million tonnes of which aquaculture contributed 45 million tonnes, about one third.[19] The growth rate of worldwide aquaculture has been sustained and rapid, averaging about 8 percent per annum for over thirty years, while the take from wild fisheries has been essentially flat for the last decade. The aquaculture market reached $86 billion[20] in 2009. [21]

Carp are the dominant fish in aquaculture
Top ten species groups in 2004
Species group Million tonnes[19]
Carps and other cyprinids 18.30
Oysters 4.60
Clams, cockles, ark shells 4.12
Miscellaneous freshwater fishes 3.74
Shrimps, prawns 2.48
Salmons, trouts, smelts 1.98
Mussels 1.86
Tilapias and other cichlids 1.82
Scallops, pectens 1.17
Miscellaneous marine molluscs 1.07

Aquaculture is an especially important economic activity in China. Between 1980 and 1997, the Chinese Bureau of Fisheries reports, aquaculture harvests grew at an annual rate of 16.7 percent, jumping from 1,900,000 tonnes (1,900,000 long tons; 2,100,000 short tons) to nearly 23,000,000 tonnes (23,000,000 long tons; 25,000,000 short tons). In 2005, China accounted for 70% of world production.[22][23] Aquaculture is also currently one of the fastest growing areas of food production in the U.S.[1]

Top ten aquaculture producers in 2004
Country Million tonnes[19]
China 30.61
India 2.47
Vietnam 1.20
Thailand 1.17
Indonesia 1.05
Bangladesh 0.91
Japan 0.78
Chile 0.67
Norway 0.64
United States 0.61
Other countries 5.35
Total 45.47

Approximately 90% of all U.S. shrimp consumption is farmed and imported.[24] In recent years salmon aquaculture has become a major export in southern Chile, especially in Puerto Montt, Chile's fastest-growing city.

Over reporting

China overwhelmingly dominates the world in reported aquaculture output.[25] They report a total output which is double that of the rest of the world put together. However, there are issues with the accuracy of China's returns.

In 2001, the fisheries scientists Reg Watson and Daniel Pauly expressed concerns in a letter to Nature, that China was over reporting its catch from wild fisheries in the 1990s.[5][26] They said that made it appear that the global catch since 1988 was increasing annually by 300,000 tonnes, whereas it was really shrinking annually by 350,000 tonnes. Watson and Pauly suggested this may be related to China policies where state entities that monitor the economy are also tasked with increasing output. Also, until recently, the promotion of Chinese officials was based on production increases from their own areas.[27][28]

China disputes this claim. The official Xinhua News Agency quoted Yang Jian, director general of the Agriculture Ministry's Bureau of Fisheries, as saying that China's figures were "basically correct".[29] However, the FAO accepts there are issues with the reliability of China's statistical returns, and currently treats data from China, including the aquaculture data, apart from the rest of the world.[30][31]



Mariculture is the term used for the cultivation of marine organisms in seawater, usually in sheltered coastal waters. In particular, the farming of marine fish is an example of mariculture, and so also is the farming of marine crustaceans (such as shrimps), molluscs (such as oysters) and seaweed.


Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) is a practice in which the by-products (wastes) from one species are recycled to become inputs (fertilizers, food) for another. Fed aquaculture (for example, fish, shrimp) is combined with inorganic extractive (for example, seaweed) and organic extractive (for example, shellfish) aquaculture to create balanced systems for environmental sustainability (biomitigation), economic stability (product diversification and risk reduction) and social acceptability (better management practices).[32]

"Multi-Trophic" refers to the incorporation of species from different trophic or nutritional levels in the same system.[33] This is one potential distinction from the age-old practice of aquatic polyculture, which could simply be the co-culture of different fish species from the same trophic level. In this case, these organisms may all share the same biological and chemical processes, with few synergistic benefits, which could potentially lead to significant shifts in the ecosystem. Some traditional polyculture systems may, in fact, incorporate a greater diversity of species, occupying several niches, as extensive cultures (low intensity, low management) within the same pond. The "Integrated" in IMTA refers to the more intensive cultivation of the different species in proximity of each other, connected by nutrient and energy transfer through water.

Ideally, the biological and chemical processes in an IMTA system should balance. This is achieved through the appropriate selection and proportions of different species providing different ecosystem functions. The co-cultured species are typically more than just biofilters; they are harvestable crops of commercial value.[33] A working IMTA system can result in greater total production based on mutual benefits to the co-cultured species and improved ecosystem health, even if the production of individual species is lower than in a monoculture over a short term period.[34]

Sometimes the term "Integrated Aquaculture" is used to describe the integration of monocultures through water transfer.[34] For all intents and purposes however, the terms "IMTA" and "integrated aquaculture" differ only in their degree of descriptiveness. Aquaponics, fractionated aquaculture, IAAS (integrated agriculture-aquaculture systems), IPUAS (integrated peri-urban-aquaculture systems), and IFAS (integrated fisheries-aquaculture systems) are other variations of the IMTA concept.

Netting materials

Various materials, including nylon, polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene, plastic-coated welded wire, rubber, patented rope products (Spectra, Thorn-D, Dyneema), galvanized steel and copper are used for netting in aquaculture fish enclosures around the world.[35][36][37][38][39][40] All of these materials are selected for a variety of reasons, including design feasibility, material strength, cost, and corrosion resistance.

Recently, copper alloys have become important netting materials in aquaculture because they are antimicrobial (i.e., they destroy bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae, and other microbes) and they therefore prevent biofouling (i.e., the undesirable accumulation, adhesion, and growth of microorganisms, plants, algae, tubeworms, barnacles, mollusks, and other organisms). By inhibiting microbial growth, copper alloy aquaculture cages avoid costly net changes that are necessary with other materials. The resistance of organism growth on copper alloy nets also provides a cleaner and healthier environment for farmed fish to grow and thrive.

Species groups


The farming of fish is the most common form of aquaculture. It involves raising fish commercially in tanks, ponds, or ocean enclosures, usually for food. A facility that releases juvenile fish into the wild for recreational fishing or to supplement a species' natural numbers is generally referred to as a fish hatchery. Fish species raised by fish farms include salmon, bigeye tuna, carp, tilapia, catfish and cod.[41]

In the Mediterranean, young bluefin tuna are netted at sea and towed slowly towards the shore. They are then interned in offshore pens where they are further grown for the market.[42] In 2009, researchers in Australia managed for the first time to coax tuna (Southern bluefin) to breed in landlocked tanks.


Commercial shrimp farming began in the 1970s, and production grew steeply thereafter. Global production reached more than 1,600,000 tonnes (1,600,000 long tons; 1,800,000 short tons) in 2003, representing a value of nearly 9,000 million U.S. dollars. About 75% of farmed shrimp is produced in Asia, in particular in China and Thailand. The other 25% is produced mainly in Latin America, where Brazil is the largest producer. Thailand is the largest exporter.

Shrimp farming has changed from its traditional, small-scale form in Southeast Asia into a global industry. Technological advances have led to ever higher densities per unit area, and broodstock is shipped worldwide. Virtually all farmed shrimp are penaeids (i.e., shrimp of the family Penaeidae), and just two species of shrimp, the Pacific white shrimp and the giant tiger prawn, account for about 80% of all farmed shrimp. These industrial monocultures are very susceptible to disease, which has decimated shrimp populations across entire regions. Increasing ecological problems, repeated disease outbreaks, and pressure and criticism from both NGOs and consumer countries led to changes in the industry in the late 1990s and generally stronger regulations. In 1999, governments, industry representatives, and environmental organizations initiated a program aimed at developing and promoting more sustainable farming practices.[citation needed]

Freshwater prawn farming shares many characteristics with, including many problems with marine shrimp farming. Unique problems are introduced by the developmental life cycle of the main species, the giant river prawn.[43]

The global annual production of freshwater prawns (excluding crayfish and crabs) in 2003 was about 280,000 tonnes of which China produced 180,000 tonnes followed by India and Thailand with 35,000 tonnes each. Additionally, China produced about 370,000 tonnes of Chinese river crab.[44]


Abalone farm

Abalone farming began in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Japan and China.[45] Since the mid-1990s, this industry has become increasingly successful.[46] Over-fishing and poaching have reduced wild populations to the extent that farmed abalone now supplies most abalone meat.


Commercially harvested echinoderms include sea cucumbers and sea urchins. In China, sea cucumbers are farmed in artificial ponds as large as 1,000 acres (400 ha).[47]


Microalgae, also referred to as phytoplankton, microphytes, or planktonic algae constitute the majority of cultivated algae.

Macroalgae, commonly known as seaweed, also have many commercial and industrial uses, but due to their size and specific requirements, they are not easily cultivated on a large scale and are most often taken in the wild.


Aquaculture can be more environmentally damaging than exploiting wild fisheries on a local area basis but has considerably less impact on the global environment on a per kg of production basis.[48] Local concerns include waste handling, side-effects of antibiotics, competition between farmed and wild animals, and using other fish to feed more marketable carnivorous fish. However, research and commercial feed improvements during the 1990s & 2000s have lessened many of these.[49]

Fish waste is organic and composed of nutrients necessary in all components of aquatic food webs. In-ocean aquaculture often produces much higher[citation needed] than normal fish waste concentrations. The waste collects on the ocean bottom, damaging or eliminating bottom-dwelling life. Waste can also decrease dissolved oxygen levels in the water column, putting further pressure on wild animals.[50]

Fish oils

The nutritional value of farm-raised tilapia may be compromised due to the amount of corn included in the feed. Corn contains short chain omega-6 fatty acids that contribute to the buildup of these materials in the fish. "Ratios of long-chain omega-6 to long-chain omega-3, AA to EPA respectively, in tilapia averaged about 11:1, compared to much less than 1:1 (indicating more EPA than AA) in both salmon and trout." The US produced 1.5 million tons of tilapia in 2005, with 2.5 million projected by 2010[citation needed]. Widespread publicity encouraging fish consumption has led to increases in tilapia consumption by those with lower incomes who are trying to eat a balanced diet. The lower amounts of omega-3 and the higher ratios of omega-6 compounds in farmed tilapia raise questions of the health benefits of consuming this fish.[51]

Adequate diets for salmon and other carnivorous fish can be formulated from protein sources such as soy, although soy-based diets may also change in the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.[52]

Impacts on wild fish

Salmon farming currently leads to a high demand for wild forage fish. Fish do not actually produce omega-3 fatty acids, but instead accumulate them from either consuming microalgae that produce these fatty acids, as is the case with forage fish like herring and sardines, or, as is the case with fatty predatory fish, like salmon, by eating prey fish that have accumulated omega-3 fatty acids from microalgae. To satisfy this requirement, more than 50 percent of the world fish oil production is fed to farmed salmon.[53]

In addition, as carnivores, salmon require large nutritional intakes of protein, protein which is often supplied to them in the form of forage fish. Consequently, farmed salmon consume more wild fish than they generate as a final product. To produce one pound of farmed salmon, products from several pounds of wild fish are fed to them. As the salmon farming industry expands, it requires more wild forage fish for feed, at a time when seventy five percent of the worlds monitored fisheries are already near to or have exceeded their maximum sustainable yield.[6] The industrial scale extraction of wild forage fish for salmon farming then impacts the survivability of the wild predator fish who rely on them for food.

Fish can escape from coastal pens, where they can interbreed with their wild counterparts, diluting wild genetic stocks.[54] Escaped fish can become invasive, out competing native species.[55]

Coastal ecosystems

Aquaculture is becoming a significant threat to coastal ecosystems. About 20 percent of mangrove forests have been destroyed since 1980, partly due to shrimp farming.[56] An extended cost–benefit analysis of the total economic value of shrimp aquaculture built on mangrove ecosystems found that the external costs were much higher than the external benefits.[57] Over four decades, 269,000 hectares (660,000 acres) of Indonesian mangroves have been converted to shrimp farms. Most of these farms are abandoned within a decade because of the toxin build-up and nutrient loss.[58][59]

Salmon farms are typically sited in pristine coastal ecosystems which they then pollute. A farm with 200,000 salmon discharges more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. This waste is discharged directly into the surrounding aquatic environment, untreated, often containing antibiotics and pesticides."[6] There is also an accumulation of heavy metals on the benthos (seafloor) near the salmon farms, particularly copper and zinc.[60]

Genetic modification

Salmon have been genetically modified for faster growth, although they are not approved for commercial use, in the face of opposition.[61] One study, in a laboratory setting, found that modified salmon mixed with their wild relatives were aggressive in competing, but ultimately failed.[62]

Animal welfare

As with the farming of terrestrial animals, social attitudes influence the need for humane practices and regulations in farmed marine animals. Under the guidelines advised by the Farm Animal Welfare Council good animal welfare means both fitness and a sense of well being in the animal’s physical and mental state. This can be defined by the Five Freedoms:

  • Freedom from hunger & thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, disease, or injury
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

However, the controversial issue in aquaculture is whether fish and farmed marine invertebrates are actually sentient, or have the perception and awareness to experience suffering. Although no evidence of this has been found in marine invertebrates,[63] recent studies conclude that fish do have the necessary receptors (nociceptors) to sense noxious stimuli and so are likely to experience states of pain, fear and stress.[64][63] Consequently, welfare in aquaculture is directed at vertebrates; finfish in particular.[65]

Common welfare concerns

Welfare in aquaculture can be impacted by a number of issues such as stocking densities, behavioural interactions, disease and parasitism. A major problem in determining the cause of impaired welfare is that these issues are often all interrelated and influence each other at different times. [66]

Optimal stocking density is often defined by the carrying capacity of the stocked environment and the amount of individual space needed by the fish, which is very species specific. Although behavioural interactions such as shoaling may mean that high stocking densities are beneficial to some species,[63][67] in many cultured species high stocking densities may be of concern. Crowding can constrain normal swimming behaviour, as well as increase aggressive and competetive behaviours such as cannibalism,[68] feed competition,[69] territoriality and dominance/subordination hierarchies.[70] This potentially increases the risk of tissue damage due to abrasion from fish-to-fish contact or fish-to-cage contact.[63] Fish can suffer reductions in food intake and food conversion efficiency.[70] In addition, high stocking densities can result in water flow being insufficient, creating inadequate oxygen supply and waste product removal.[67] Dissolved oxygen is essential for fish respiration and concentrations below critical levels can induce stress and even lead to asphyxiation.[70] Ammonia, a nitrogen excretion product, is highly toxic to fish at accumulated levels, particularly when oxygen concentrations are low.[71]

Many of these interactions and effects cause stress in the fish, which can be a major factor in facilitating fish disease.[65] For many parasites, infestation depends on the host’s degree of mobility, the density of the host population and vulnerability of the host’s defence system.[72] Sea lice are the primary parasitic problem for finfish in aquaculture, high numbers causing widespread skin erosion and haemorrhaging, gill congestion,and increased mucus production.[73] There are also a number of prominent viral and bacterial pathogens that can have severe effects on internal organs and nervous systems.[74]

Improving welfare

The key to improving welfare of marine cultured organisms is to reduce stress to a minimum, as prolonged or repeated stress can cause a range of adverse effects. Attempts to minimise stress can occur throughout the culture process. During grow out it is important to keep stocking densities at appropriate levels specific to each species, as well as separating size classes and grading to reduce aggressive behavioural interactions. Keeping nets and cages clean can assist positive water flow to reduce the risk of water degradation.

Not surprisingly disease and parasitism can have a major affect on fish welfare and it is important for farmers not only to manage infected stock but also to apply disease prevention measures. However, prevention methods, such as vaccination, can also induce stress because of the extra handling and injection.[67] Other methods include adding antibiotics to feed, adding chemicals into water for treatment baths and biological control, such as using cleaner wrasse to remove lice from farmed salmon.[67]

Many steps are involved in transport, including capture, food deprivation to reduce faecal contamination of transport water, transfer to transport vehicle via nets or pumps, plus transport and transfer to the delivery location. During transport water needs to be maintained to a high quality, with regulated temperature, sufficient oxygen and minimal waste products.[65][67] In some cases anaesthetics may be used in small doses to calm fish before transport.[67]


Global wild fisheries are in decline, with valuable habitat such as estuaries in critical condition.[75] The aquaculture or farming of piscivorous fish, like salmon, does not help the problem because they need to eat products from other fish, such as fish meal and fish oil. Studies have shown that salmon farming has major negative impacts on wild salmon, as well as the forage fish that need to be caught to feed them.[76][77] Fish that are higher on the food chain are less efficient sources of food energy.

Apart from fish and shrimp, some aquaculture undertakings, such as seaweed and filter-feeding bivalve mollusks like oysters, clams, mussels and scallops, are relatively benign and even environmentally restorative.[18] Filter-feeders filter pollutants as well as nutrients from the water, improving water quality.[78] Seaweeds extract nutrients such as inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus directly from the water,[32] and filter-feeding mollusks can extract nutrients as they feed on particulates, such as phytoplankton and detritus.[79]

Some profitable aquaculture cooperatives promote sustainable practices.[80] New methods lessen the risk of biological and chemical pollution through minimizing fish stress, fallowing netpens, and applying Integrated Pest Management. Vaccines are being used more and more to reduce antibiotic use for disease control.[81]

Onshore recirculating aquaculture systems, facilities using polyculture techniques, and properly sited facilities (for example, offshore areas with strong currents) are examples of ways to manage negative environmental effects.

Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) recycle water by circulating it through filters to remove fish waste and food and then recirculating it back into the tanks. This saves water and the waste gathered can be used in compost or, in some cases, could even be treated and used on land. While RAS was developed with freshwater fish in mind, scientist associated with the Agricultural Research Service have found a way to rear saltwater fish using RAS in low-salinity waters.[82] Although saltwater fish are raised in off-shore cages or caught with nets in water that typically has a salinity of 35 parts per thousand (ppt), scientists were able to produce healthy pompano, a saltwater fish, in tanks with a salinity of only 5 ppt. Commercializing low-salinity RAS are predicted to have positive environmental and economical effects. Unwanted nutrients from the fish food would not be added to the ocean and the risk of transmitting diseases between wild and farm-raised fish would greatly be reduced. The price of expensive saltwater fish, such as the pompano and combia used in the experiments, would be reduced. However, before any of this can be done researchers must study every aspect of the fish’s lifecycle, including the amount of ammonia and nitrate the fish will tolerate in the water, what to feed the fish during each stage of its lifecycle, the stocking rate that will produce the healthiest fish, etc.[82]

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