Fish farming refers to the commercial production of fish in an enclosure or, when located in a body of freshwater or marine water, in an area that is penned off from the surrounding water by cages or open nets.
A fish farm is similar to a fish hatchery in that both can contain 500,000 and more fish. But, a fish hatchery is designed to raise the fish only to a young age before they are released into the wild, usually to bolster the numbers of that species. In contrast, a fish farm is designed to raise the fish until they are a size and age that makes them the best commercial value. The fish are ultimately retrieved and sold, typically as whole or processed food.
Fish farming is the most common form of aquaculture, and commonly involves trout, salmon, tilapia, cod, carp, and catfish. For a species such as cod, whose numbers in the Grand Banks fishery off the east coast of the Canadian maritime provinces plummeted to near zero in the 1970s due to overfishing, and as of 2008 have yet to recover, the cod available from fish farming represents almost the sole source of the fish in North American markets.
The example of cod is cited as one of the advantages of fish farming. Raising fish under more controlled conditions that are possible in the wild avoids the problem of overfishing. As well, because an operation takes up relatively little space, feeding and care of the fish can be done under more controlled conditions, which is an economic advantage to those who own and run the facility.
However, fish farming is a controversial practice. For example, on the Canadian west coast, the farming of salmon typically uses species normally found in the Atlantic Ocean. The escape of fish to the wild does occur, and has created concern that the presence of the species in an environment that is unnatural to them could upset the marine ecology. Other concerns of fish farming are the overcrowding of fish, which can make them more susceptible to disease such as sea lice, and the use of antibiotics, which can also be released into the natural environment.
Historical Background and Scientific Foundations
Fish farming is an ancient practice, dating back to about 2500 BC in China, when carp were raised in ponds and in artificial lakes created by receding floodwaters. Some of the motivations for fish farming in ancient China are shared with fish farm owners and operators in 2008. These include maximizing the food available from the resource; reducing the energy needed to search for, gather, and transport the food; making food production more predictable and less likely to be influenced by weather, predators, or other factors; and ensuring that the quality of the resource remains acceptable over time.
Evidence of fish farming also dates back at least 1,000 years in Hawaii, when rocks were added to existing reefs to create an artificial pond. The spaces between the rocks were large enough to let seawater circulate in and out, allowing nutrients to circulate in and waste out, but were too small to allow the fish to escape. The open net design of present-day fish farms follows this example.
Fish farming became more prevalent in Europe in the fifteenth century. The first known fish hatchery constructed in North America was built in the Canadian province of Newfoundland in 1889.
In the 1960s, fish farming expanded worldwide as some commercial fish stocks became less plentiful and a growing global population increased the demand for fish. As with factory farms—the landlocked facilities in which huge numbers of poultry and livestock are raised—economic incentives were provided to encourage the establishment of freshwater and marine water fish farms. In addition, corporations involved in the sales of fresh and processed fish products began to expand into fish farming as a way of ensuring supply, expanding their market, and trimming costs.
As practiced in China thousands of years ago, fish farming was efficient and sustainable. The numbers of fish were suitable for the space available and the population was managed so that the numbers of fish ready for harvesting did not decline over time. When done in such a sustainable way, fish farming can be a good strategy to supplement or even replace the fish caught from the wild.
However, the confinement of large numbers of fish in a small area can create problems. In an enclosed pond, one problem can be the accumulation of waste products. Aside from making the water less hospitable for the fish, the waste material can act as a food source for microorganisms known as algae. Combined with suitable water temperature and sunlight, the presence of the food source can lead to the rapid increase in the number of algae termed as algal blooms. The number of algae in blooms that occur in the open ocean can be so large that the growth is visible from orbiting satellites. In a confined pond, an algal bloom can use up much of the oxygen in the water, leading to the death of the fish.
When a fish farm is done in tanks (closed circulation type), it is essential to keep the water well oxygenated and to remove wastes. Bubbling air into the water as is done with a home aquarium can be one means of oxygenation. Alternatively, water can be cascaded from tank to tank in the fish farm complex, with oxygen being supplied as the water tumbles between tanks. Waste removal is typically done by continual removal of the water and
WORDS TO KNOW
AQUACULTURE: The farming of fish or shellfish in freshwater or saltwater.
PARASITE: An organism that lives on or in another organism, and which harms the host.
SEA LICE: A type of crustacean that is a parasite of farmed fish including salmon and rainbow trout.
passing it through a filter before returning the water to the tank. Regular monitoring of the tank water is necessary to ensure that other parameters such as pH are maintained at an optimal level.
Fish farming that is done in large bodies of freshwater or in the ocean avoids the potential problems associated with the closed circulation system. Typically, the fish are housed in a series of pens, which consist of mesh nets attached to rigid supports. The entire structure floats on the surface.
Impacts and Issues
Fish farming has become a very contentious practice, for a number of environmental reasons and for the adverse health effects it has on the farmed fish and possibly other species, including humans.
In a fish farm, the concentration of fish far exceeds that found in schools of fish in the wild—50,000 or more fish in an area of several acres in volume—with the possible exception of the spawning runs of west coast salmon. These crowded conditions reduce the free-swimming volume of each fish to about that of the average household bathtub. In such crowded conditions, the fish bump and rub against each other in the boundaries of the pens, which can produce cuts and scrapes. This increases the likelihood of infection and the development of diseases.
Species of sea lice that parasitize Coho and Atlantic salmon are especially troublesome. The sea lice attach to the fish and feed on tissue, which creates lesions and causes fluid loss from the affected fish. The confined fish become ill and can die. In addition, the sea lice can spread to wild salmon in the seas around fish farms when farmed salmon escape from the confinement, and also when the lice are washed away from the fish farm into the surrounding water. A 2001 survey of wild juvenile salmon migrating past fish farms in British Columbia found many more sea lice on the juveniles that had passed the farms than on those who had not yet passed by the facilities.
The escape of fish from fish farms is not a trivial and isolated event. Rips and breaks in the pen material and buffeting of the pens by storm-driven waves can lead to the escape of fish. In some cases, pens are designed with a net lid to reduce this possibility. Sometimes only a few fish escape. But mass escapes have occurred. For example, in January 2002, over 8,000 fish escaped from a fish farm in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. Worldwide in 2004, an estimated 2 million farmed fish escaped to the wild.
Once in the wild, the farmed fish have the potential to transfer disease to the wild population. An article in a December 2007 issue of Science documented declines in the population of wild Pacific salmon related to their decimation from sea lice transferred from farm populations of Atlantic salmon. The situation is so dire that the natural population could be reduced by 99% by 2015, which would be an economic disaster for the traditional salmon fishery and those employed by the fishery.
Antibiotics can be supplied to the food in an effort to control infections. As with land-bound factory farms, this practice encourages the development of antibiotic resistance among the surviving bacteria. These hardier varieties of the bacteria may pose a health hazard not only to the farmed fish, but to wild fish populations and to humans.
A fish farm releases a great amount of untreated sewage to the surrounding water. A study done in Clayoquot Sound calculated that the 700,000 fish housed in the facility that is the size of three football fields generate the daily equivalent amount of sewage produced by 150,000 people.
Elsewhere, the situation is not better. In China, for example, which produces approximately 70% of the world’s farmed fish, fish farms can be concentrated together around large ponds. Analysis of the pond waters has revealed the presence of pesticides and other agricultural run-off, antibiotics, and cancer-causing compounds. The result is both an environment and food safety problem. In late 2007, the United States and China signed an agreement to permit more monitoring of the farms and the safety of the exported products.
Molyneaux, Paul. Swimming in Circles: Aquaculture and the End of Wild Oceans. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.
Krkosek, Martin, Jennifer S. Ford, Alexandra Morton, Subhash Lele, Ransom A. Myers, and Mark A. Lewis. “Declining Wild Salmon Populations in Relation to Parasites from Farm Salmon.” Science 318 (2007): 1772–1775.
Time. “Fish Farming’s Growing Dangers.” September 19, 2007. www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1663604,00.html (accessed March 5, 2008).
Brian D. Hoyle