Fish farming is the principal form of aquaculture, while other methods may fall under mariculture. It involves raising fish commercially in tanks or 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, catfish, tilapia, cod, carp, trout and others.
Increasing demands on wild fisheries by commercial fishing operations have caused widespread overfishing. Fish farming offers an alternative solution to the increasing market demand for fish and fish protein.
Major categories of Fish Farms
Basically there are two kinds of aquaculture: extensive aquaculture based on local photosynthetical production and intensive aquaculture, in which the fish are fed with external food supply. The management of these two kinds of aquaculture systems are completely different.
Extensive (Pond) Aquaculture
Limiting for fish growth here is the available food supply by natural sources, commonly zooplankton feeding on pelagic algae or benthic animals, such as certain crustaceans and mollusks. Tilapia species filter feed directly on phytoplankton, which makes higher production possible. The photosynthetical production can be increased by fertilizing the pond water with artificial fertilizer mixtures, such as potash, phosphorus, nitrogen and microelements. Because most fish are carnivorous, they occupy a higher place in the trophic chain and therefore only a tiny fraction of primary photosynthetic production (typically 1%) will be converted into harvestable fish.
As a result, without additional feeding the fish harvest will not exceed 200 kilograms of fish per hectare per year, equivalent to 1% of the gross photosynthetic production.
A second point of concern is the risk of algal blooms. When temperatures, nutrient supply and available sunlight are optimal for algal growth, algae multiply their biomass at an exponential rate, eventually leading to an exhaustion of available nutrients and a subsequent die-off. The decaying algal biomass will deplete the oxygen in the pond water and pollute it with organic and inorganic solvents (such as ammonium ions), which can (and frequently do) lead to massive loss of fish.
In order to tap all available food sources in the pond, the aquaculturist will choose fish species which occupy different places in the pond ecosystem, e.g., a filter algae feeder such as tilapia, a benthic feeder such as carp or catfish and a zooplankton feeder (various carps) or submerged weeds feeder such as grass carp.
Intensive (Closed-Circulation) Aquaculture
In this kind of systems fish production per unit of surface can be increased at will, as long as sufficient oxygen, fresh water and food are provided. Because of the requirement of sufficient fresh water, a massive water purification system must be integrated in the fish farm. A clever way to achieve this is the combination of hydroponic horticulture and water treatment, see below. The exception to this rule are cages which are placed in a river or sea, which supplements the fish crop with sufficient fresh water. Environmentalists object to this practice.
The cost of inputs per unit of fish weight is higher than in extensive farming, especially because of the high cost of fish food, which must contain a much higher level of protein (up to 60%) than, e.g., cattle food and a balanced amino acid composition as well. This frequently is offset by the lower land costs and the higher productions which can be obtained due to the high level of input control.
Essential here is aeration of the water, as fish need a sufficient oxygen level for growth. This is achieved by bubbling, cascade flow or liquid oxygen. Catfish, Clarias ssp. can breathe atmospheric air and can tolerate much higher levels of pollutants than, e.g., trout or salmon, which makes aeration and water purification less necessary and makes Clarias species especially suited for intensive fish production. In some Clarias farms about 10% of the water volume can consist of fish biomass.
Especially when fish densities are high, the risk of infections by parasites like fish lice, fungi (Saprolegnia ssp.), intestinal worms (such as nematodes or trematodes), bacteria (e.g., Yersinia ssp, Pseudomonas ssp.), and protozoa (such as Dinoflagellates) is much higher than in animal husbandry because of the ease in which pathogens can invade the fish body (e.g. by the gills). The same holds for water pollution or depletion of oxygen in the water, which can ruin a fish crop within minutes. This means, intensive aquaculture requires tight monitoring and a high level of expertise of the fish farmer.
Intensive aquaculture was developed as a source for food fish. Raising ornamental cold water fish (goldfish or koi), although theoretically much more profitable due to the higher income per weight of fish produced, has never been successfully carried out till very recently. The increased incidences of dangerous viral diseases of koi Carp, together with the high value of the fish has led to initiatives in closed system koi breeding and growing in a number of countries. Today there are a few commercially successful intensive koi growing facilities in the UK, Germany and Israel.
Some producers have adapted their intensive systems and made them totally biosecure in an effort to provide consumers with fish that do not carry dormant forms of viruses and diseases.
Specific Types of Fish Farms
Within intensive and extensive aquaculture methods there are numerous specific types of fish farms, each has benefits and applications unique to its design.
Integrated Recycling Systems
One of the largest problems with freshwater aquaculture is that it can use a million gallons of water per acre (about 1 m³ of water per m²) each year. Extended water purification systems allow for the reuse (recycling) of local water.
The largest-scale pure fish farms use a system derived (admittedly much refined) from the New Alchemists in the 1970s. Basically, large plastic fish tanks are placed in a greenhouse. A hydroponic bed is placed near, above or between them. When tilapia are raised in the tanks, they are able to eat algae, which naturally grows in the tanks when the tanks are properly fertilized.
The tank water is slowly circulated to the hydroponic beds where the tilapia waste feeds a commercial plant crops. Carefully cultured microorganisms in the hydroponic bed convert ammonia to nitrates, and the plants are fertilized by the nitrates and phosphates. Other wastes are strained out by the hydroponic media, which doubles as an aerated pebble-bed filter.
This system, properly tuned, produces more edible protein per unit area than any other. A wide variety of plants can grow well in the hydroponic beds. Most growers concentrate on herbs (e.g. parsley and basil), which command premium prices in small quantities all year long. The most common customers are restaurant wholesalers.Since the system lives in a greenhouse, it adapts to almost all temperate climates, and may also adapt to tropical climates.
The main environmental impact is discharge of water that must be salted to maintain the fishes' electrolyte balance. Current growers use a variety of proprietary tricks to keep fish healthy, reducing their expenses for salt and waste water discharge permits. Some veterinary authorities speculate that ultraviolet ozone disinfectant systems (widely used for ornamental fish) may play a prominent part in keeping the Tilapia healthy with recirculated water.A number of large, well-capitalized ventures in this area have failed. Managing both the biology and markets is complicated.
Irrigation Ditch or Pond Systems
These use irrigation ditches or farm ponds to raise fish. The basic requirement is to have a ditch or pond that retains water, possibly with an above-ground irrigation system (many irrigation systems use buried pipes with headers. Using this method, one can store one's water allotment in ponds or ditches, usually lined with bentonite clay. In small systems the fish are often fed commercial fish food, and their waste products can help fertilize the fields. In larger ponds, the pond grows water plants and algae as fish food. Some of the most successful ponds grow introduced strains of plants, as well as introduced strains of fish.
Control of water quality is crucial. Fertilizing, clarifying and pH control of the water can increase yields substantially, as long as eutrophication is prevented and oxygen levels stay high.Yields can be low if the fish grow ill from electrolyte stress.
Fish cages are synthetic fiber cages kept in existing water resources to contain and protect fish until they can be harvested. A few advantages of fish farming with cages are that many types of water can be used (rivers, lakes, filled quarries, etc.), many types of fish can be raised, and fish farming can co-exist with sport fishing and other water uses. However, fish are vulnerable to disease, poaching, and low levels of dissolved oxygen. In general, pond systems are easier to manage, and simpler to start.
In regards to genetic modification of fish, cage systems can be detrimental to the environment because the genetically modified fish can easily escape into the wild destroying other breeds of fish and upsetting the balance of nature.
Classic Fry Farming
Trout and other sport fish are often raised from eggs to fry or fingerlings and then trucked to streams and released. Normally, the fry are raised in long, shallow concrete tanks, fed with fresh stream water. The fry receive commercial fish food in pellets. While not as efficient as the New Alchemists' method, it is also far simpler, and has been used for many years to stock streams with sport fish. European eel (Anguilla anguilla) aquaculturalists procure a limited supply of glass eels, juvenile stages of the European eel which swim north from the Sargasso Sea breeding grounds, for their farms. The European eel is threatened with extinction because of the excessive catch of glass eels by Spanish fishermen and overfishing of adult eels in, e.g., the Dutch IJsselmeer, Netherlands. As per 2005, no one has managed to breed the European eel in captivity.
The issue of feeds in fish farming has been a controversial one. While vegetarian fish like tilapia require no meat products in their diets, carnivorous fish like salmon depend on fish feed of which a portion is usually derived from wild caught fish. Attempts to replace fish meal and oil in fish feed with vegetable sources of protein like soybeans are underway but have yet to be successful.
Secondly, farmed fish are kept in concentrations never seen in the wild (e.g. 50,000 fish in a two-acre area) with each fish occupying less room than the average bathtub. This can cause several forms of pollution. Packed tightly, fish rub against each other and the sides of their cages, damaging their fins and tails and becoming sickened with various diseases and infections.
However, fish tend also to be animals that aggregate into large schools at high density. Most successful aquaculture species are schooling species, which do not have social problems at high density. Aquaculturists tend to feel that operating a rearing system above its design capacity or above the social density limit of the fish will result in decreased growth rate and FCR (food conversion ratio - kg dry feed/kg of fish produced), which will result in increased cost and risk of health problems along with a decrease in profits. Stressing the animals is not desirable, but the concept of and measurement of stress must be viewed from the perspective of the animal using the scientific method.
Some species of sea lice have been noted to target farmed coho and Atlantic salmon.Such parasites may have an effect on nearby wild fish. For these reasons, some aquaculture operators frequently use strong antibiotic drugs to keep the fish alive (but many fish still die prematurely at rates of up to 30%). In some cases, these drugs have entered the environment. Additionally, the residual presence of these drugs in human food products has become controversial.
The lice and pathogen problems of the 1990's facilitated the development of current treatment methods for sea lice and pathogens. These developments reduced the stress from parasite/pathogen problems. However, being in an ocean environment, the transfer of disease organisms from the wild fish to the aquaculture fish is an ever-present risk factor.
The very large number of fish kept long-term in a single location produces a significant amount of condensed feces, often contaminated with drugs, which again affect local waterways. However, these effects are very local to the actual fish farm site and are minimal to non-measurable in high current sites.
Other potential problems faced by aquaculturists are the obtaining of various permits and water-use rights, profitability, concerns about invasive species and genetic engineering depending on what species are involved, and interaction with the UN Law of the Sea Treaty.
Environmentally Friendly Methods
An alternative to open ocean cage aquaculture, one in which the the risk of environmental damage is substantially eliminated is through the use of a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). A RAS is a series of culture tanks and filters where water is continuously recycled. To prevent the deterioration of water quality, the water is treated mechanically through the removal of particulate matter and biologically through the conversion of harmful accumulated chemicals into nontoxic ones.
Other treatments such as UV sterilization, ozonation, and oxygen injection are also utilized to maintain optimal water quality. Through this system, many of the environmental drawbacks of aquaculture are minimized including escaped fish, water usage, and the introduction of harmful pollutants. The practices also increase efficiency of feed utilisation and growth by providing optimal water quality parameters (Timmons et al., 2002; Piedrahita, 2003).
One of the drawbacks to recirculating aquaculture systems is water exchange. However, the rate of water exchange can be reduced through aquaponics, such as the incorporation of hydroponically grown plants (Corpron and Armstrong, 1983) and denitrification (Klas et al., 2006). Both methods reduce the amount of nitrate in the water, and can potentially eliminate the need for water exchanges, closing the aquaculture system from the environment. The amount of interaction between the aquaculture system and the environment can be measured through the cumulative feed burden (CFB kg/M3), which measures the amount of feed that goes into the RAS relative to the amount of water and waste discharged.
Because of its high capital and operating costs, RAS has generally been restricted to practices such as broodstock maturation, larval rearing, fingerling production, research animal production, SPF (specific pathogen free) animal production, and caviar and ornamental fish production. Although the use of RAS for other species is considered by many aquaculturalists to be impractical, there has been some limited successful implementation of this with with high value product such as barramundi, sturgeon and live tilapia in the US.