Aquaculture is the production of marine and freshwater organisms under controlled conditions. This includes fish and shellfish for human consumption, sport fishing, backyard ponds, and release to enhance wild populations. Other farms produce aquatic plants for food, garden ponds, aquariums, and even for fuel and medicine. Aquaculture production includes baitfish, cultured pearls, and tropical fish.
Some types of aquaculture are practiced in the open ocean and in bays where products such as mussels, clams, oysters, salmon, flounder, and cobia are grown. Other aquaculture occurs in artificial earthen ponds, that are the primary source of farm-raised catfish, tilapia, bass, shrimp, crawfish, baitfish, and ornamental fish and plants. Trout, because they have high oxygen requirements, are often raised in raceways where water continuously flows through the system.
In some areas, aquaculture production takes place on land in high-tech recirculating systems that re-use the water after it has been cleaned.
Federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversee the production of aquatic organisms.
States often establish additional management practices that deal with water quality, wetlands protection, wastewater treatment, water supply, non-native species, and fish health programs. Integrated systems combine aquaculture with traditional farming to increase food production capacity.
Aquaculture also provides fish for bait and stocking recreational fishing areas. This allows more people to fish while ensuring that our wild fish populations remain sustainable. To protect the environment and wild fish populations, cultured fish are tested prior to stocking to ensure they are healthy and safe.
Fish and shellfish can be farmed using methods that do not harm the environment and that help meet the growing demand for seafood by supplementing wild harvests.
In the United States, harvesters carefully manage the resource. However, over 88% of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, often from countries that do not have strict environmental and product safety standards.
Water leaving fish farms is of the same or higher quality than that of water coming into the facility. Discharges from U.S. aquaculture facilities must meet the rigorous standards of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as stringent state and local regulations. Water released is often re-used for irrigation or treated and recycled for fish culture and other purposes. For an aquatic farm to be profitable, it is essential that excellent water quality be maintained in the system.
Aquaculture provides reasonably priced, good quality, highly nutritious food while helping to maintain the long-term sustainability of wild caught fisheries and the environment.
It is estimated that wild harvest fisheries have reached maximum sustainable yield while the world’s appetite for seafood is growing. U.S. aquaculture can satisfy that demand in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner.
The production of bivalve shellfish (clams, oysters, and mussels) actually provides positive environmental impacts. Their three dimensional structure forms habitats and hiding places for other bottom dwelling organisms, adding to the biodiversity and stability of the marine environment.
These shellfish remove nutrients from the water by filtering algae and particulate matter from the water. This helps to maintain good water quality and minimizes the loss of oxygen, which is critical to the survival of other organisms.
While farmed shellfish are growing, they spawn and help to reseed wild beds. These impacts are so important, that in some areas, community volunteers are restoring oyster and clam populations.
In the U.S., very few drugs have been approved for use with aquatic animals. Strict withdrawal times are followed so that drug residues do not remain when fish and shellfish reach the market. The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) works with government agencies and aquaculture associations to maintain the safety and effectiveness of all approved drugs. Before a drug is approved for use in U.S. aquaculture, it must be shown that it will not harm the environment or public health.
In the wild, salmon and shrimp feed on organisms that contain natural red pigments from algae. Because color plays such an important role in our enjoyment of foods, FDA has approved certain color additives for use in foods. Some of those color additives, specifically astaxanthins in fish feeds, are natural pigments.
Seafood processors and packers comply with the mandatory requirements of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Program administered by FDA. The program identifies potential hazards and develops strategies to help ensure that they do not occur. Product traceability is a critical component of the program.
Farm-raised oysters, clams, and mussels are monitored by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC) in cooperation with the FDA. State agencies administer a certification program requiring all wholesale shellfish dealers to handle, process, and ship shellfish under sanitary conditions, and maintain records verifying that the shellfish were harvested from approved waters.
Aquaculture feeds are regulated under the FDA as well as respective State Departments of Agriculture and the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). The approval and use of any drug or medication is strictly regulated. The FDA conducts inspections, and collects and analyzes samples of feeds and fish to help ensure that unsafe levels of any compounds used in animal production do not appear in the marketplace.
America’s fish farmers have a strong commitment to sustainability. Sharing the concerns raised by environmental groups, the U.S. aquaculture industry is actively looking at ways to substitute other proteins for fishmeal. That means less fishmeal is needed to produce wholesome, high quality fish.
Fishmeal is used in a variety of animal feeds including those for poultry, swine, cattle, and fish. The fish used to produce fishmeal are those that people do not readily consume or from the by-products of seafood processing.
The U.S. has some of the strictest environmental and product safety rules and regulations found anywhere, but more than 88% of all the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. Almost half of that total is farm-raised, often in countries that do not have stringent environmental and food safety regulations.