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All About Aquaculture: from 2000 BC in China to Today in the U.S.

Maine's farmed salmon industry brought in $81 million last year. (Photo Credit: Maine DMR)

Madi Gamble was the Ocean Conservation intern this summer at CLF.  She grew up fishing in Marblehead, MA and is now a senior at Dartmouth College, where she studies biology and environmental science. This piece is the first in a series will focus on aquaculture, both world-wide and in New England.  Over the next few weeks, the series will explore topics including methods of aquaculture, its environmental and sustainability implications, current aquaculture research and production in New England, and national regulations and sustainability certifications. 

To many people, aquaculture – the practice of breeding and raising fish and shellfish for harvest–is a confusing, new-fangled approach to producing these products, which is only making it harder for them choosing sustainable choices in the supermarket.  In fact, aquaculture has been around since at least 2000 BC and today is the fastest growing food-production sector in the world.  Aquaculture is believed to have first been practiced in China, where the common carp was raised with minimal intervention in earthen pools.  The first written record of aquaculture practices, a book called “The Classic of Fish Culture” by Chinese historian Fan Lai, dates to around 500 BC.  Since then, the practice of aquaculture has spread from carp to all kinds of finfish and shellfish, from China to the rest of the world.

Many champion aquaculture because of its potential to address food security concerns and create jobs by producing sustainable, healthy seafood products at a faster pace and in greater volumes than conventional wild-capture fisheries.  In the face of a rapidly increasing global population and in light of recent estimations that 87% of the world’s wild marine fisheries are at or above full exploitation, aquaculture is argued to present a compelling solution to the conflict between feeding the world’s people and conserving the world’s fisheries. However, the expansion of global aquaculture production at that scale inevitably involves addressing the many potential environmental impacts of many forms of aquaculture, which many consumers see as an ethical obstacle to consuming farmed fish.

In the United States, aquaculture began as an effort to boost recreational fishing opportunities by stocking rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds with fish.  The first fish hatchery opened in 1887 in Madison, WI, and its success spurred the growth of the aquaculture industry.  In the 1960s, catfish aquaculture became popular in southeastern states, and Atlantic salmon farming in ocean-based net pens began in the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest.The shellfish aquaculture industry in the U.S. emerged in the first half of the 20th century as some fishermen shifted from harvesting wild shellfish to “enhancing” beds of mussels, oysters, and clams with additional seed (very young shellfish) from the wild stock.  Finally, some shellfish farmers began using hatchery seed for their shellfish farms, thereby separating the process entirely from wild populations.

Reported aquaculture production in United States from 1950-2010 (Photo Credit: FAO)

Today, two-thirds of U.S. aquaculture operations raise shellfish, mainly oysters, clams, and mussels. The other third produce finfish products, the majority of which is catfish raised mainly in the Southeast. The majority of domestic aquaculture produces freshwater species – only 20% of U.S. aquaculture produces marine species.  The Northeast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest have the highest concentration of shellfish aquaculture production, while Mississippi and Idaho lead freshwater finfish production and Maine and Washington lead marine finfish production.  Atlantic salmon production continues in marine habitats along the northwestern and northeastern coasts (mostly in Washington and Maine), but opposition to salmon farming based on environmental risks and a lack of comprehensive federal regulation is likely to impede significant growth of marine finfish aquaculture in the U.S.

In 2004, NOAA launched a National Marine Aquaculture Initiative to increase domestic aquaculture production and consumer education. While the Initiative has made progress and shellfish farming has been on the rise in the U.S., growth in domestic finfish aquaculture has leveled off and even slipped in recent years.  Despite federal goals for the expansion of aquaculture, concerns over its environmental impacts and the lack of a streamlined federal regulatory structure – both topics that will be discussed in later posts in this series – have continued to hinder its growth in the U.S.



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