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What is Aquaculture?

Alaska salmon fry Aquaculture refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments. Aquaculture serves a variety of purposes. Most U.S. marine aquaculture is shellfish while a small percentage is marine finfish. [credit: NOAA Aquaculture Office]

Aquaculture -- also known as fish or shellfish farming -- refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.  Researchers and aquaculture producers are "farming" all kinds of freshwater and marine species of fish, shellfish, and plants.  Aquaculture produces food fish, sport fish, bait fish, ornamental fish, crustaceans, mollusks, algae, sea vegetables, and fish eggs.

Aquaculture includes the production of seafood from hatchery fish and shellfish which are grown to market size in ponds, tanks, cages, or raceways.  Stock restoration or "enhancement" is a form of aquaculture in which hatchery fish and shellfish are released into the wild to rebuild wild populations or coastal habitats such as oyster reefs.  Aquaculture also includes the production of ornamental fish for the aquarium trade, and growing plant species used in a range of food, pharmaceutical, nutritional, and biotechnology products.

Marine aquaculture refers to the culturing of species that live in the ocean.  U.S. marine aquaculture primarily produces oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, and salmon as well as lesser amounts of cod, moi, yellowtail, barramundi, seabass, and seabream.  Marine aquaculture can take place in the ocean (that is, in cages, on the seafloor, or suspended in the water column) or in on-land, manmade systems such as ponds or tanks.  Recirculating aquaculture systems that reduce, reuse, and recycle water and waste can support some marine species.

Freshwater aquaculture produces species that are native to rivers, lakes, and streams.  U.S. freshwater aquaculture is dominated by catfish but also produces trout, tilapia, and bass.  Freshwater aquaculture takes place primarily in ponds and in on-land, manmade systems such as recirculating aquaculture systems.

As the nation's oceans agency, NOAA and its Office of Aquaculture focus on marine aquaculture, although research and advancement in technology can be more broadly applied.  Continued advances in technology and management practices are expanding aquaculture's potential role in producing a variety of species for both restoration and commercial purposes.