What Is Aquaculture or Fish Farming?

Learn the environmental benefits of this food supply practice

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

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Aquaculture, or fish farming, has gained momentum as a viable method to produce seafood as demand for fresh fish has put a strain on natural populations. It involves the breeding and harvesting of plants and animals in the water. Aquaculture can take place in natural bodies of water, such as ponds, lakes, marshland—freshwater aquaculture—or in the ocean—marine aquaculture. It can also be conducted in man-made tanks, commonly found in fish hatcheries.

Aquaculture Then and Now

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.

Aquaculture plays an important role in the economy, providing thousands of jobs in operations and ancillary services. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit environmental organization, global fisheries exports now earn more revenue than any other traded food commodity in the world, including rice, cocoa, or coffee.

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. 

Low Environmental Impact

Studies conducted by NOAA indicate aquaculture poses a low risk to the environment, with most impact local and temporary. In some cases, aquaculture can benefit the environment. In cases where filter-feeding shellfish, such as oysters, are cultured in-situ, water quality in ponds and lakes can improve.

Fish and shellfish can be farmed using methods that do not harm the environment, and that helps meets the growing demand for seafood by supplementing wild harvests.

There are documented problems associated with aquaculture, including water pollution and the use of chemicals, as well as threats to the natural fish population. But, governmental agencies believe it is a long-range and sustainable solution to the world's wild marine fish populations.