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Basic Questions about Aquaculture

This set of FAQs was developed by the NOAA Office of Aquaculture with input from national experts, to address commonly asked questions about a broad range of topics associated with aquaculture. If you have a question or concern that is not addressed here, contact us.





















In 2011, NOAA and DOC finalized national policies that support sustainable marine aquaculture in the United States. To learn more, go to the
Aquaculture Policy page.








Aquaculture also is a tool to enhance recreational, commercial, and ecologically-important species and habitats.



















For more information on seafood trends, see FAO's The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture – 2010.








































In 2011, the U.S. trade deficit in seafood was $11.2 billion. That number grows annually and is second only to oil.

For more information on 
U.S. seafood trade, please see NOAA’s
Fisheries of the United States – 2012.

















For more information on seafood production, see FAO's 'The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture – 2010.'




























































































  1. What is aquaculture?
  2. What is NOAA’s role in aquaculture?
  3. Why do we need aquaculture?
  4. How much seafood is produced by aquaculture?
  5. Are U.S. farm-raised fish and shellfish safe?
  6. How much seafood do Americans eat every year?
  7. Why should I buy farmed fish and shellfish grown in the United States?
  8. What kind of jobs does aquaculture support?
  9. Where does our seafood come from now?
  10. How much of the seafood produced in the U.S. comes from aquaculture?
  11. What kind of fish and shellfish are farmed in U.S. waters?
  12. Which countries produce most of the world’s farmed seafood?
  13. How much is U.S. aquaculture production worth?
  14. Where are aquaculture facilities located in the United States?
  15. How do you farm a shellfish?
  16. How do you farm finfish?
  17. What do farmed fish eat?
  18. What is ‘stock enhancement?
  19. What is a hatchery and why is it important?


1.  What is aquaculture?

The broad term “aquaculture” refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.  Aquaculture is used for producing seafood for human consumption; enhancing wild fish, shellfish, and plant stocks for harvest; restoring threatened and endangered aquatic species; rebuilding ecologically-important shellfish habitat; producing nutritional and industrial compounds; and providing fish for aquariums.


2.  What is NOAA's role in aquaculture?

NOAA has a multi-faceted role in aquaculture from supporting cutting-edge science and research to federal policymaking and regulation.  The NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture fosters sustainable aquaculture that provides safe, sustainable seafood; creates employment and business opportunities in coastal communities; and complements NOAA’s comprehensive strategy for maintaining healthy and productive marine populations, ecosystems, and vibrant coastal communities.

NOAA's aquaculture efforts are led by NOAA Fisheries and include activities at NOAA Fisheries science centers and regional offices, NOAA's National Sea Grant program, and NOAA's National Ocean Service. The Aquaculture Office integrates and coordinates the agency’s aquaculture policies, research, outreach, and international efforts.


3.  Why do we need aquaculture?

Aquaculture serves many purposes and seafood production is paramount among them.  Aquaculture has helped improve nutrition and food security in many parts of the world.
 Increasing global population coupled with icreased per capita seafood consumption result in constant, growing demand for seafood.  Global seafood consumption reached 143 million metric tons in 2009, which is an increase of more than 20 million tons in 10 years.

According the the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, “With capture fisheries production stagnating, major increases in fish food production are forecast to come from aquaculture. Taking into account the population forecast, an additional 27 million tonnes of production will be needed to maintain the present level of per capita consumption in 2030.

Aquaculture is one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein.  Fish come out well because, in general, they convert more of the food they eat into body mass than land animals.  “Feed Conversion Ratios” indicate how many pounds of feed it takes to produce a pound of protein.  As can be seen in the table below, salmon – the most feed-intensive farmed fish – is still far more efficient than other forms of protein production.


Feed Conversion Ratio



It takes 1.2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of salmon


It takes 8.7 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of beef


It takes 5.9 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of pork


It takes 1.9 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of chicken



4.  How much seafood is produced by aquaculture?

Globally, aquaculture supplies more that 50 percent of all seafood produced for human consumption – that percentage has been and will continue to rise.  Conventional wisdom holds that traditional fisheries are producing near their maximum capacity and that future increases in seafood production must come largely from aquaculture.  Experts at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization say we will need another 40 million tons of seafood worldwide per year by 2030 just to meet current consumption rates.


5.  Are U.S. farm-raised fish and shellfish safe?

Yes, the U.S. laws governing the harvest and processing of seafood for human consumption are among the most stringent in the world.  The responsibilities of monitoring and controlling seafood safety are divided among various agencies of the federal government and individual states.  The primary federal agencies involved with seafood safety include:

Consumers play an important role in seafood safety as well.  When shopping for seafood, it is important to know what to look for.  Read the NOAA Fishwatch Program ‘Seafood & Your Health, page for information about buying, handling, storing, and cooking seafood.


6.  How much seafood do Americans eat every year?

Not enough individually but a lot collectively.  In 2009 (the last year for which data is available), Americans consumed a total of 4.8 billion pounds of seafood, or approximately 15.8 pounds of fish and shellfish per person (both wild-caught and farmed), according to the latest data collected by NOAA.  The U.S. continues to be ranked the third largest consumer of fish and shellfish behind China and Japan.  While Americans eat an average of one seafood meal a week, USDA recommend doubling that to two meals.


7.  Why should I buy farmed seafood grown in the United States?

It’s good for you and good for the country.  From a seafood safety standpoint, the United States has some of the strictest environmental and food safety rules and regulations found anywhere in the world.  Buying U.S.-grown farmed fish and shellfish guarantees that your seafood meets rigorous state and federal standards and supports American jobs.


8.  What kind of jobs does aquaculture support?

All kinds!  Aquaculture supports American jobs throughout the seafood supply chain. Aquaculture jobs tend to be year-round, living-wage jobs centered in coastal, rural communities.  Marine aquaculture operations support working waterfronts and the same infrastructure as does capture fisheries such as docks, boat yards, and processing plants. 

The economic impact of the industry extends well beyond benefits to aquaculture companies.  “Upstream” industries that supply aquaculture production include agriculture, hatcheries, feed manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, and veterinary services.  “Downstream” industries supplied by aquaculture include processors, wholesalers, retailers, transportation, and food services.  An Oklahoma State University study examined job multipliers for aquaculture and found that upstream inputs accounted for 22 percent of jobs created, production and processing only 9 percent, and that the distribution, retail, and service sectors generated 69 percent of jobs.


9.  Where does our seafood come from now?

Seafood consumed in the United States comes from a variety of sources including:

‘Imported seafood’ is listed first because, of the total amount of seafood consumed in the United States, over 91% (by value) is imported from foreign countries – about half of that is produced by aquaculture.


10.  How much of the seafood produced in the U.S. comes from aquaculture?

Not much.


11.  What kinds of fish and shellfish are farmed in U.S. waters?

Freshwater aquaculture produces primarily catfish, trout, and tilapia.  Two-thirds of marine production is molluscan shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels.  The other third is finfish, but the U.S. has few commercial finfish farms.  Existing farms are located in state waters in Maine, Washington, Hawaii, and on land in ponds and tanks in several states.  Species produced include Atlantic salmon, steelhead trout, coho salmon, cod, sturgeon, red drum, Pacific threadfin (moi), Hawaiian yellowtail, and cobia.


12.  What countries produce most of the world's farmed seafood?

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture – 2010, approximately 62% of all farmed seafood in the world is produced in China, 26% in Asia outside of China, 4.5% from Europe, and 4.5 percent from the Americas.  (This excludes aquatic plants.)


13.  How much is U.S. aquaculture production worth?

Total U.S. aquaculture production (freshwater and marine) is about $1.2 billion annually (relative to world aquaculture production of almost $100 billion).  U.S. marine aquaculture has a “farm-gate” or landed value of $200 million.  This represents fish produced directly for food.   (This excludes aquatic plants and hatchery-raised salmon that are later caught in commercial and recreational fisheries.)


14.  Where are aquaculture facilities located in the United States?

There is aquaculture in some form or another in all 50 states. The largest production states for marine aquaculture are Maine, Washington, Virginia, Louisiana, and Hawaii.  The largest states for freshwater aquaculture are Mississippi (catfish) and Idaho (trout). Some facilities grow fish and shellfish on a commercial scale as food for human consumption while other facilities such as hatcheries produce fish and shellfish in support of commercial and recreational fisheries.


15.  How do you farm shellfish?

With an eye on the tide chart!  In the United States, the farming of shellfish is typically done by placing bivalves, such as oysters and clams, in bags set in tidelands, bays, or rivers. Usually these come from a hatchery, but some operations rely on a natural “set” of wild larvae. These shellfish are left to grow for a year or more in suspended bags or on the bottom. Mussels, another type of shellfish, are grown on ropes hanging off rafts in rivers or bays and on submerged lines anchored to the bottom of the ocean. In order to grow, shellfish feed on microscopic plankton that they filter out of the water.  When the shellfish reach market size, they are harvested and sold to seafood processors, grocery stores, seafood markets, restaurants, or directly to consumers.


16.  How do you farm finfish?

A variety of techniques and technologies – each with its own advantages and disadvantages – can be used to raise finfish:


17.  What do farmed fish eat?

Farmed fish are fed diets specially designed for their nutritional needs.  This feed contains all the essential nutrients needed to keep them healthy and growing.  This feed usually is in the forms of dried pellets, similar in many ways to dry dog food.  See our Alternative Feeds for Aquaculture FAQ for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about fish feeds.

Nutritionists who design feed for fish have to account for about 40 essential nutrients needed by the fish.  These include vitamins, minerals, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), and some fats.  These are provided in the feed through a number of ingredients including fishmeal, fish oil, plants, and animal trimmings.  The purpose of the NOAA-USDA Alternative Feeds Initiative is to identify alternative dietary ingredients that will reduce the amount of fishmeal and fish oil contained in aquaculture feeds while maintaining the human health benefits of farmed seafood.  For more information, visit our Feeds page and view the FAQ’s on Alternative Feeds for Aquaculture.


18.  What is 'stock enhancement?'

Stock enhancement – also known as ‘restoration aquaculture’ – is a method through which fish and shellfish are raised in a hatchery and then released to supplement the populations of recreational, commercial, and ecologically-important species.

For example, 40% Alaska salmon caught in the commercial fishery start their lives in a hatchery.  This is true of 80-90% of salmon caught in other parts of the Pacific northwest.  Examples of other fish that are stocked in U.S. waters and may be caught as part of a commercial or recreational fishery include red drum (Texas) and white sea bass (California).  Some shellfish, such as oysters and clams, also are raised in hatcheries and then are transplanted to the wild to support restoration efforts and commercial harvest.


19.  What is a hatchery and why is it important?

Hatcheries provide the seed for aquaculture and some commercial fisheries.  All kinds of fish and shellfish begin life in tanks in a hatchery. A hatchery is a mix of a laboratory and a farm, where fish and shellfish are spawned, then hatched and cared for.  They remain at the hatchery until they are large enough to be transferred to a fish or shellfish farm or released into the wild as part of a stock enhancement program. Commercial fish and shellfish farms require a steady, predictable source of juveniles from hatcheries in order to stay in operation and provide a consistent product.