An Introduction to Aquaculture

What makes aquaculture good or bad?

Large metal fish cage floating in the ocean
Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

What is Aquaculture?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines “aquaculture” as the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments. This is by no means a new idea (considering that early civilizations were breeding fish in lakes as early as 2500 BC), but commercial aquaculture has grown increasingly more attractive as humans attempt to meet the rising demand for seafood. In the twenty-first century, aquaculture is an integral part of our global food system. It also has developed into a very contentious issue. 


Graph showing world fisheries and aquaculture production
2018 FAO State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture Production

Why Aquaculture?

In a perfect world, all seafood eaten by humans would be wild and sustainable; however, the reality is a little more complicated. In the 1970s, many fisheries across the world started declining because of 1) harvest pressure, 2) pollution, 3) disease and 4) habitat loss. As the supply of wild seafood leveled out, the demand for seafood has only continued to grow. When the wild seafood supply started to reach its carrying capacity in the 1970s, the global food system was taxed with the difficult decision of finding new ways of meeting the demand of a growing world in a sustainable way. The obvious option was to start producing more of our own seafood. But the question remains… what makes Aquaculture Good or Bad?

The collection of articles and documentaries highlighting whether aquaculture is “good” or “bad” can confuse even those of us who take the time to study up on these issues. The takeaway message from this article is that all aquaculture CANNOT be labeled as “good” or “bad.” It depends on the species, location, and the methods used.

Species

Person organizing oysters on a wooden table
Courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Some species are more sustainable than others. For example, an aquaculture facility that raises salmon in open water cages will produce large amounts of fish feces and chemical byproducts. On the other hand, an aquaculture facility that produces shellfish in open water cages will actually improve the water quality in the process because shellfish filter water. Hog Island Oyster Company is a great example of a group that is promoting sustainable shellfish aquaculture.

Location

Netting in the foreground with a hole. School of tuna in the background.
Courtesy of Seafood Watch

The main reason why location is an important factor is that the species that is being farmed in an area should also be native to that area. For example, if Atlantic salmon are being farmed in the Pacific, a potential escape of these fish would result in the introduction of invasive species. This has happened multiple times throughout the past few decades. In 2017 a salmon pen broke open and resulted in the accidental release of thousands of farmed non-native Atlantic salmon into the waters around Skagit County, Washington.

Methods

a Series of circular fish tanks inside a building.
Courtesy of AKVA Group

Even if an aquaculture farm is raising a sustainable species in a sustainable location, the methods used are still an important determining factor. For example, if Atlantic Salmon are being raised in land-based tanks, the excessive nutrients from fish feed and fish feces can be contained and removed responsibly. If these species are raised in open-water cages, these excessive nutrient loads would be released into the immediate environment. There are a handful of companies that are starting to ramp up land-based aquaculture facilities. One of these companies is AKVA Group.

Now What?

Next time you go to the grocery store, make sure to think about the species, location, and methods used in that operation. This is a lot of information to track down. Good thing we have some awesome resources for helping you understand what aquaculture practices are considered sustainable.

Marine Stewardship Council

Sustainable seafood label with cartoon fish
Courtesy of Marine Stewardship Council

Whole Foods Responsibly Farmed

Blue logo with fish
Courtesy of Whole Foods

NOAA Fish Watch

Blue NOAA Fish Watch Logo with Fish
Courtesy of NOAA

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Bold Lettering with a picture of a tuna
Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Article written by Flylords Content Team Member Andrew Braker.

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