What Is Aquaculture?

We farm land animals, why not sea creatures?

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Salmon aquaculture (credit: Patagonia SeaFarms Inc., not to be used without written consent)

Aquaculture is the practice of rearing aquatic life for consumption and other uses. Fish, seaweeds, mollusks, crustaceans, other minor invertebrates (like seahorses), and ornamental fish for the aquarium trade are all examples of aquaculture products. The process can be conducted in the ocean in cages, on the seafloor, or in the water column, as well as on land, in ponds, tanks, or raceways. Inland finfish aquaculture is the most common type of aquaculture in the world (FAO). Integrated aquaculture systems also exist, in which livestock are reared alongside fish, and a growing system is maintained between agriculture and aquaculture.

According to the Food & Agriculture Organization’s 2016 report on world fisheries, global aquaculture production of fish accounted for 44% of total production in 2014, and continues to increase. It is accepted that aquaculture seafood production accounted for half of all the world’s seafood production in 2016, reaching a proportion comparable to wild caught seafood. The world’s top aquaculture producers, based on the FAO’s 2016 report, include China (58.7 million tons), Indonesia (14.3 million tons, much of which is seaweed), India (4.8 million tons), followed by Vietnam, Philippines, Bangladesh, Republic of Korea, Norway, and Chile. Shrimp and salmon are the aquaculture products most commonly imported into the U.S., and are also 2 of the most highly consumed seafood products in the country. U.S. exports from aquaculture production peaked in 2008, and current trends in aquaculture imports has increased the U.S. seafood trade deficit to over USD 10 billion (FAO.org).

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The United States is not a primary producer of aquaculture products, and ranked 17th in the world for total production (425,900 tons in 2014). In the United States, “marine aquaculture primarily produces oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, and salmon as well as lesser amounts of cod, moi, yellowtail, barramundi, seabass, and seabream,” (National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA). As a matter of fact, “About 40% of the salmon caught in Alaska and 80-90% in the Pacific Northwest start their lives in a hatchery – contributing over 270 million dollars to the commercial fishery,” (NMFS).

However, the U.S. is a primary consumer of seafood and aquaculture products, second only to China (NMFS). Technological and political advances are being made to make U.S. aquaculture more economically feasible and environmentally friendly. We expect to see an increase in U.S. aquaculture production in years to come to meet the growing demand for seafood proteins, provide job opportunities and growth, and remove some of the pressures being placed on wild stocks of fish while providing safe, delicious, and sustainable seafood for Americans.