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What is Aquaculture and Why Is it Important?

Although you may not realize it, aquaculture is something that touches our lives on a regular basis. It impacts the fish you see swimming in tanks at your local aquarium, the salmon on grocery store shelves, and the Blue Ring Angel living in your saltwater tank at home.

According to Dr. Judy St. Leger, executive officer of Rising Tide Conservation, aquaculture is defined as the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals for consumption, conservation, or commercial production.

Aquaculture happens in a human, controlled environment. And although the exact definition of aquacultured fish may differ within organizations, St. Leger and Rising Tide use the term to describe fish that have been raised from eggs to adult fish in that controlled environment.

This differs from terms such as “wild caught” or fish caught by “sustainable collection” because these fish are caught from their natural environments and habitats, whereas aquacultured fish are fully raised in research labs or environmentally conscious facilities.

“Sustainable is a subjective term,” says St. Leger, “but generally means that the fish and spawn are collected in a manner that does not (or minimally) impacts the collected fish, wild fish populations, and the habitats they are being collected from.”

Types of Aquaculture

Aquaculture happens with both marine and freshwater species of fish and plant life. The processes for both are similar, but the species that they produce differ.

“Aquaculture is done with both freshwater and marine species and can take place contained within the natural ecosystem—in nets or cages—or on land in manmade systems,” says St. Leger.

Marine Aquaculture

Marine aquaculture refers to the culturing of ocean and saltwater-based species of fish, mussels, shrimp, clams, and more.

According to St. Leger, only 10 percent of commercially available marine aquarium fish species have been aquacultured.

“For many years, it was thought that marine aquaculture was too difficult to be commercially successful,” she says. “Now, with programs like Rising Tide Conservation and the growing interest in marine fish aquaculture, it can be a reality for marine fish.”

Freshwater Aquaculture

Freshwater aquaculture is defined as the culturing of fish species that live in freshwater lakes, streams, and rivers.

St. Leger explains that 90 percent or more of commercially available freshwater aquarium fish species have been aquacultured. This is because the methods for breeding and raising freshwater fish are generally easier and more Understood than for marine species.

Benefits of Aquaculture

Overall, aquaculture is considered a sustainable alternative to wild-caught fish. This method of growing and cultivating fish and aquatic plants reduces overfishing, prevents damage to coral reefs, and allows for transparency in the commercial sale of fish for pets.

fish tank with saltwater fish

Here are some of the top benefits of aquaculture:

1. It protects coral reefs. “Most of the popular marine ornamental fish inhabit coral reefs for some or all of their lifecycle,” says St. Leger. “This means that collection of marine ornamentals often occurs on coral reefs.”

But fishing on and around coral reefs can cause serious harm to these thriving marine environments.

“Boat anchors have the potential to hook on and drag across corals, destroying them in the process. Boat oil, gasoline, trash and other leftover items can get into the ocean and pollute the water around corals,” says St. Leger. “The presence of people on the reef also has the potential to damage the coral through poor collection techniques, such as moving or destroying coral or using cyanide to collect fish.”

Increasing the availability of aquacultured fish reduces the need to catch fish from reef environments.

2. It produces supply-chain transparency. St. Leger explains that one of the additional benefits of aquacultured fish is the ability to understand where the fish you buy come from.

“With aquacultured fish, it is possible to reliably trace the fish through the entire supply chain, which cannot always be done with wild collected fish,” says St. Leger. “This means that information such as age of the fish can be accurately conveyed to customers, which is not possible with wild collected fish.”

3. It can help to ensure health and hardiness. St. Leger says that some wild-caught fish can have trouble acclimating to life in a controlled environment, which could affect their overall health and wellbeing.

“Wild-caught fish have a long and potentially stressful transport from reef to home or public aquarium,” she explains. “While precautions are taken, fish that are collected from the wild may die from the stress of collection, and those that survive may not be as healthy.”

But aquacultured fish spend their entire lives in a controlled environment and aren’t exposed to the same shock or stress of transport. They are also less likely to encounter parasites that infect wild-caught fish, says St. Leger.

Aquaculture Facts

The continued demand for both freshwater and marine fish for food consumption, scientific education, and both personal and large-scale aquariums is not slowing down. And with demand, comes the need for increased aquaculture.

Here are some interesting aquaculture facts to help you learn more about the practice:

  • Fact #1: By 2030, aquaculture production is estimated to grow 50%.
  • Fact #2: The percent of commercially available aquacultured marine aquarium fish species is only 10-15%.
  • Fact #3: Two-thirds of the world’s fish population are overfished and the stock is substantially depleted.
  • Fact #4: The U.S. aquaculture industry produced 627 million pounds of seafood in 2015.
  • Fact #5: 95% of the freshwater aquatic life sold at Petco is aquacultured while 35% of the marine aquatic life sold at Petco is aquacultured. Petco has also committed to not offering wild-collected corals or live rocks.

How You Can Help Support Aquaculture

The goal of aquaculture is to limit the overfishing and destruction of wild freshwater and marine species through sustainable cultivation of fish in controlled environments. If you want to support aquaculture initiatives, it’s important to have an understanding of where your fish come from, says St. Leger.

“Always make sure to know where the fish purchased come from and how they were collected,” she says. “Talk to your local pet store about stocking aquacultured and sustainably sourced species.”

To further support aquaculture initiatives, Petco is committed to eliminating the purchase of a wild collected species when an aquacultured version of that species is available. Petco also donates a portion of all marine aquatic life sales to aquaculture research and ocean conservation efforts by supporting organizations like Rising Tide Conservation and the Coral Restoration Foundation, donating over a million dollars to date.