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Typical family fish pond in Asia
Typical family fish pond in Asia
Courtesy of NACA

Introduction

Aquaculture -- the growing of aquatic animals and plants -- covers a wide range of species and methods. It is practised from the cold waters of the far north and south, where fish like salmon, Arctic char and sturgeon are grown in ponds, flowing raceways and cages in the sea, down through the latitudes to the tropics, where carp and tilapia flourish in freshwater and shrimp and sea bass are farmed along the coasts. It ranges from production of fish in naturally occurring ponds in rural areas to the intensive culture of ornamental fish in plastic tanks in the middle of a city. It is practised by the poorest farmers in developing countries as a livelihood and supply of much needed protein for their families -- and by urban sports shop owners in Europe and North America producing baitfish for weekend anglers.

Its systems can range from an intensive indoor system monitored with high-tech equipment through to the simple release of baby fish to the sea -- but all with the same aim, of helping boost Nature's natural productivity. Some of the simplest production systems are the small family ponds in tropical countries where carp are reared for domestic consumption. At the other end of the scale are high technology systems, such as the intensive indoor closed units used in North America for the rearing of striped bass or the sea cages used in Chile and Europe for growing salmon and bream.

Ponds

Nearly half of the world's aquaculture however is of herbivorous and filter feeding fish such as carp. Practised in freshwater, in ponds made of earth, and often being run by a single household, production systems are simple and in many cases have changed little over many centuries. A farmer will excavate a small pond near his house, sometimes, as for instance in the flood river deltas of countries like Viet Nam, using the spoil to build a raised foundation for the house itself. The pond will typically be fed by natural rainfall or ground water, or sometimes by diverting a nearby stream or irrigation canal. Some stocking occurs naturally, but more commonly the farmer will buy young fish from a breeder and stock them in his pond, often after holding them for a time in a small floating net known as a 'hapa' to check they are in good condition before release to the pond. The production will improve if the farmer can stock a good balance of different species so that the varied kinds of food available in the pond can be made best use of. Typically the fish will be fed with household or agricultural by-products, and harvested when the family needs a meal. Stocking and harvesting is often continuous, with the best stocking level being learnt from experience and the pond not being drained for many years. For most such farmers, fish production is a secondary activity, a useful additional source of protein to add to the supply or income from his main agricultural or commercial activities.

Outdoor freshwater fish farming is practised commercially in many countries, including in the developed nations. The density of stocking may be much higher, the control of feeding, water quality and fish health more closely monitored, but even in intensively operated systems, the key parameters that need to be monitored and balanced for success are similar to those in the traditional household pond system.

An intensive indoor aquaculture system
An intensive indoor aquaculture system
Courtesy of Wood Brothers

Indoor rearing

Over the last half-century, systems for the indoor rearing of many species of fish have also been developed. Holding of fish in controlled conditions indoors has been important in the development of seed production (hatcheries). Also, as knowledge has increased of nutrient cycles, bacterial action and water chemistry, it has become possible to rear fish, both for food and for ornament, in 'closed' indoor systems, where the water is recirculated. Passing the water through filters that use bacteria to naturally break down and recycle the waste products produced by the fish, allows a production system to be run in almost total isolation from the outside. Such systems have been important in the control of disease and also in maintaining the stable conditions that some species need to flourish and reproduce.

Outdoor rearing

Twenty percent of current world aquaculture production is of plants -- mainly seaweeds, that for the most part are grown on the seabed or on raft or racks in shallow coastal waters and used directly for food or for the production of alginate or carageenan (agar agar). This sector of aquaculture is another largely run by small scale growers, mainly in Asia but in some parts of the South America, who attach seedlings of marine plants to simple structures built close to shore and constructed from natural materials and then harvest the plants once they have grown.

A further fifth of world production is of molluscs such as oysters, clams and mussels. Again the majority of production is small scale and by coastal people who often combine fishing activities with farming. Oysters and mussels are mainly grown on structures built above the seabed - poles or racks on the shore, or ropes suspended from rafts or floating lines. The farmer's role is to supply suitable places for seed to settle or to add to natural production by bringing seed from a hatchery - and then to maintain the conditions of water flow and freedom from predators that the shellfish need to grow. Most of the commercially grown molluscs feed on microscopic algae floating in the water, so the farmer does not need to provide any feed.

Coastal aquaculture

Fish are also grown in coastal areas, in ponds or in floating cages. As technology advances, there is the potential to develop systems for rearing fish in the open ocean, either in sturdy cages or by so called 'ranching', where young fish are released to the wild and then collected by normal fishing or by training them to respond to specially generated sounds. The tropical coastal zones of Asia and Latin America are where most shrimp farms are found. Shrimp farming is mainly carried out in earth bottomed ponds built on flat land close to the sea. Shrimp are raised in ponds at a range of different densities. At low densities the systems need only limited inputs of feed and fertilisers. As the density increases, more feed has to be supplied and at the higher end of the range, so-called 'intensive' farming, machines have to be put in the ponds to mix and aerate the water.

 
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