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A moulded plastic walkway for a fish cage
A moulded plastic walkway for a fish cage
Courtesy of Technosea

Design and construction for aquaculture facilities

Aquaculture draws on well-established engineering fields for most of the design and construction needs of its production facilities. Building earth ponds is similar to building roads -- a knowledge of the characteristics of soils and the limits of safe design are the basis of good construction. Similarly, the buildings used for hatcheries and other support activities are no different from those common in the housing, agricultural and commercial sectors.

Sometimes ponds are lined with plastics or other impermeable materials, and here the techniques are similar to those for civil structures such as potable water reservoirs or sludge tanks. The design and installation of water control gates, including in unstable soils, benefits from the long experience in this field in the agriculture and irrigation sectors. An understanding of hydrodynamics allows ponds and tanks to be built with good water circulation, oxygen mixing and without 'dead spots' where sediments might accumulate and cause health problems to fish.

For installations in the sea, the situation is somewhat different and many of the important engineering solutions, such as for fish cages or suspended shellfish growout systems, have had to be developed by aquaculturists themselves. They have benefited however from the accumulated knowledge of seafarers in general and fishermen in particular, in the design and operation of mooring and buoyage systems. More recently, when fish farmers have turned their attention to how to operate fish cages in locations further offshore where seas are rougher, the experience of the oil exploration industry has proven very valuable.

Modern techniques

Techniques have been developed in recent years for the production of fish and other aquatic products in closed recirculation systems. To make these work, aquaculturists have needed to develop a knowledge of the biological processes operating -- such as how bacteria can be used to neutralise and re-cycle the nitrogenous waste products produced by growing fish -- and how to engineer the systems to meet the biological requirements. Knowledge of bio-engineering from the waste treatment and water treatment industries has made contributions to the development of closed aquaculture systems and there is probably more that could be usefully transferred from the sewage treatment sector to help solve problems in fish rearing.

Family-style shrimp farm in Latin America
Family-style shrimp farm in Latin America

Modern materials have brought many benefits to aquaculture. For instance, custom made plastic joints have simplified the construction of sea cages, and made them more reliable in high stress conditions. Experiments with huge free-floating or sunken net cages operated in the open ocean were begun several decades ago, for instance in the Caspian Sea. These showed some promise, but more reliable construction materials will make the farming of fish in such structures increasingly feasible. Modern materials and production methods have been important also, in the construction of plastic filter substrates for indoor recirculating systems. The fine detail of these has been found to make substantial differences to the efficiency of biological filters.

In shrimp farms, specially designed matting materials that stand upright on pond bottoms, with a structure that promotes the growth of the small animals and plants that the shrimp can thrive on, have recently been developed and shown to boost production.

Engineering skills

Engineering skills are important in the design of most aquaculture facilities and good engineering can affect the efficiency and economics of production. If capital costs can be minimised while still maximising productivity and reducing risk, the farming operation will be more profitable.

Aquaculturists have proven very innovative over the past fifty years, constantly developing new technologies to support their farming operations. As new production methods and species for farming are developed, the engineering solutions needed to support them will continue to evolve.

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