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Soaring Demand for Seafood Sparks Growth in Aquaculture

Overfishing and habitat destruction have reduced the world’s stocks of many species of wild fish, both marine and freshwater. At the same time, global demand for seafood has soared. 

To help fill the growing supply gap, seafood buyers are looking to aquaculture operations in the United States and abroad. 

In fact, aquaculture is the fastest-growing means of food production worldwide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and accounts for nearly half of all seafood consumed by humans. 

Seafood will become the fastest-growing U.S. protein sector by 2020, predicts industry analyst Howard Johnson of H.M. Johnson & Associates in his report “Seafood Vision 2020.” Seafood consumption is projected to increase by nearly 7 percent between 2000 and 2020, versus about 4 percent growth for poultry and declines of more than 3 percent for both beef and pork.

What Is Aquaculture? At its most basic, aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms from juvenile through adult stage under captive, controlled conditions. Farmed fish are used to rebuild stocks for recreational and commercial fisheries, but the majority of aquaculture production is marketed as food. 

Aquaculture encompasses the culturing of marine and freshwater species. Marine aquaculture includes oysters, clams, mussels, cobia, yellowtail and salmon, while freshwater farms raise trout, catfish, shrimp, barramundi and tilapia.

Popular seafood such as salmon and shrimp are both farmed and harvested from the wild. Tilapia, catfish and mussels sold on the market are mainly farmed supplies. 

Different species require different farming techniques. Methods for raising fish and shellfish include:

  • Bottom culture: Species living at the bottom of the sea, such as oysters, are developed through seed spreading and are confined in cages or floats as they mature. 
  • Rope culture: Shellfish, including mussels and clams, are grown on ropes or within mesh bags suspended in the water. 
  • Land-based flow-through systems: Fresh water, diverted from a stream or well, flows through tanks or troughs filled with fish, typically rainbow trout. 
  • Net pens: Mesh enclosures or cages, placed in an offshore coastal site or freshwater lake, are often used for raising salmon and tuna. 
  • Pond systems: Filled with either fresh- or saltwater, natural or manmade onshore enclosures are suited to farming carp, tilapia and catfish.
  • Recirculating, or closed systems: Most of the water in the tanks is treated and reused. Hybrid striped bass are commonly farmed in such systems, as well as some tilapia.

Johnson predicts that by 2020, four of the top seafood species consumed in the United States — shrimp, salmon, tilapia and catfish — will be produced nearly exclusively via aquaculture. 

Other species on the horizon that lend themselves to farmed production include Atlantic cod, barramundi, cobia, halibut, black cod, Southern hake, tuna and yellowtail kingfish. Barramundi has been successfully farmed for more than 15 years, while cobia, halibut and black cod are in the early stages of development.