What Is Aquaculture, or Fish Farming?

Definition & Examples of Aquaculture

A man carrying buckets of feed between raised water tank breeding areas in a large fish farm building interior.

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Aquaculture is the practice of cultivating aquatic animal and plant life for consumption as food. It includes breeding, raising, harvesting, and eventually delivering this farmed seafood to market.

Aquaculture is common throughout the world and has been practiced in some form for much of human history. Still, there are controversial aspects to seafood farming that must be addressed to ensure it is practiced sustainably.

What Is Aquaculture?

Aquaculture involves the breeding and harvesting of plants and animals in the water. It has gained momentum as a viable method to produce seafood commodities as the demand for fresh fish has put a strain on natural populations. The Global Aquaculture Alliance forecasts that the demand for protein, including seafood, will grow by 52% by 2050. This increasing demand is driven by the growing human population, and aquaculture provides one way to address the problem.

Rather than rely on overfishing practices, which throw off the balance of marine life and disrupt the natural ecosystem, aquaculture can be used to meet growing demand while leaving the natural aquatic ecosystem intact.

  • Alternate name: Farmed seafood

Today, aquaculture accounts for about half of the world's seafood consumption. By 2030, the Global Aquaculture Allianceforecasts it will make up 62%.

How Aquaculture Works

Aquaculture practices vary depending on the location and type of food involved. Fish and other aquatic life can be bred and reared in natural bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, marshland (freshwater aquaculture) or in the ocean (marine aquaculture). Aquaculture can also be conducted in man-made tanks, commonly found in fish hatcheries.

The practice of raising seafood in a controlled environment has been practiced for thousands of years. It was used by the indigenous people of Australia and within the Roman Empire. Aquaculture practices in China during the Tang Dynasty led to a mutation that created the goldfish, now a ubiquitous household pet.

In modern times, aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food production sectors in the world. Natural fisheries have limitations on how many fish can be caught and are only available during certain months of the year. As an alternative, aquaculture can provide large and consistent quantities of fish and seafood. The addition of aquacultural stocks such as salmon and oysters into the marketplace has helped meet current seafood demands.

Benefits of Aquaculture

Aquaculture provides many benefits to the global economy. As previously mentioned, the ability to keep pace with the growing demand for protein to feed the human population is particularly significant. This reduces the strain on aquatic wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem. It also opens opportunities for local economies to grow commerce by decreasing imports, increasing exports, and providing thousands of jobs.

Jobs in Aquaculture

There are several career opportunities within aquaculture, and most, but not all, will require a degree or advanced training. Aquaculturists can find work with state and federal government agencies, on fish farms, and within academia. On-the-job training is the main requirement to be an aquaculture farmer. 

The next step up would be an aquaculture manager. Responsibilities of this job include overseeing the fish hatchery or facility, supervising staff, and the usual managerial duties such as maintaining inventory and revenue.

For research-oriented aquaculture positions, such as biological technicians, who conduct experiments, a bachelor's degree in biology or a related field is usually required. 

Wildlife biologists and zoologists are also part of the aquaculture workforce, studying animals in both natural and controlled research environments. You'll need at least a bachelor's degree in biology or a related area for this type of job, and for high-level positions, an advanced degree may be required.

Concerns About Aquaculture

There are documented problems associated with aquaculture, the most notable of which is water pollution. This comes from highly concentrated amounts of waste from fish, which includes chemicals and antibiotics. These threaten the natural fish population because the waste makes its way into their natural habitats and can deplete oxygen and cause disease. Antibiotics that make their way into the food supply can also contribute to antibiotic resistance in the human population.

Dealing With the Problems

These are serious concerns, and government and industry regulations must continue to address them in order to ensure safe practices are in place. Fish and shellfish can be farmed using methods that do not harm the environment, and that helps meet the growing demand for seafood by supplementing wild harvests. Waste diversion has improved dramatically, and the use of antibiotics has also radically decreased since the early days of the U.S. aquaculture industry.

Studies conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate that, thanks to ongoing improvements, aquacultural practices generally pose a low risk to the environment, with most impact local and temporary. In some cases, aquaculture can benefit the environment. For instance, when filter-feeding shellfish, such as oysters, are cultured in-situ, water quality in ponds and lakes can improve.

Key Takeaways

  • Aquaculture is the practice of cultivating aquatic animal and plant life for consumption.
  • It currently accounts for 50% of the global seafood supply and is expected to increase to 62% by 2030.
  • Aquaculture reduces the strain on aquatic life and ecosystems by supplying seafood demand without overfishing.
  • There are significant environmental concerns with aquacultural practices, and regulations should ensure that everything is done safely and sustainably.