Aquaculture: An Overview


Raising aquatic animals for the purpose of human consumption has been practiced for many centuries. Ancient Chinese records indicate that the common carp was raised as a food source for humans more than 4,000 years ago.  The hieroglyphics in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs describe tilapia farming, while the Romans built small ponds for raising fish and oysters. Although the practice of aquaculture has a long history, until recently there was no reason for an intensive development of fish farming techniques. At one point, there was an abundant supply of fish and shellfish from natural sources. However, world population growth and increasing per capita consumption of fish and shellfish have resulted in an over-exploitation of some species, stimulating a need for further development of the industry.

As a result of the growing demand and production, the 2013 Census of Aquaculture reported farm-level sales of $1.37 billion, as a result of the industry’s 36% growth over the previous seven years. In the 2018 Census of Aquaculture, reported farm-level sales jumped to $1.52 billion, an increase of about 15% from the total sales reported in 2013.  Food fish- including catfish, perch, salmon, hybrid striped bass, tilapia and trout, accounted for 62% of 2013 sales, followed by ornamental fish, such as koi and tropical fish, that each accounted for about 5% of sales, and baitfish and sportfish at about 4% and 2%, respectively. In 2018, food fish accounted for around 47% of total sales, while ornamental fish accounted for about 3%, and baitfish and sportfish accounted for about 2% each. The rest of the farm-level aquaculture sales reported in the 2018 Census were split between sales of crustaceans, mollusks, and miscellaneous sales.

Early development of the aquaculture industry in the United States focused on raising fish for recreational use, rather than for food.  In the late 1800s, federal and state hatcheries were built to raise various sportfish species to stock public and private waters.  In 1853, commercial fish farming began with the production of rainbow trout, and the earliest efforts in the private sector were directed at raising fish for recreational purposes.

The first attempts to commercialize aquaculture for food purposes began in 1955, with channel catfish farming in the Mississippi Delta region of the United States. However, for the first decade this largely remained a regional enterprise. Since then the industry has undergone massive growth.  Today, catfish sales are valued at $360 million dollars and account for 46% of all food fish sales. Commercial catfish operations are concentrated in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, where water and land are readily available for pond construction.  However, catfish rearing also exists in states such as Idaho, California, Kansas, and Missouri, as well as some other Southern states.

Other major food fish species grown in the United States are trout, salmon, tilapia, hybrid striped bass, sturgeon, walleye, and yellow perch.  Aside from fish, United States aquaculture also produces freshwater crawfish- mainly in Louisiana and Texas- and shrimp in brackish ponds in South Carolina, Texas, and Hawaii. The industry also farm-raises mollusk species such as abalone, oysters, clams, and mussels in almost every coastal area in the United States.  Additionally, nonfood species such as baitfish and ornamental fish are also raised.  While baitfish are produced in freshwater ponds, ornamental fish production covers a large number of species and a variety of growing environments, including freshwater, saltwater, cold water, and warm water.  Other species that fall under the definition of aquaculture include: the farmed production of alligators (mostly in Florida and Louisiana), turtles, algae and aquatic plants. Aquatic plants include both edible varieties and plants for use in wetland restoration projects.

Regulation of Aquaculture in the United States

Aquaculture in the United States is regulated at both the federal and state level.  At the federal level, leading agencies include the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), the Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), and the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).  These agencies regulate the part of the aquaculture industry that falls within the scope of their mandated duties. For example, the EPA is responsible for wastewater permitting across all industries, while the FDA covers food safety regulations and drug approvals. Additionally, there are several other agencies and programs at the federal level involved more indirectly in aquaculture activities.  These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) in the Department of Commerce, the Center for Veterinary Medicine within the FDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in the USDA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) of the Department of the Interior.  Finally, the Joint Subcommittee on Aquaculture (“JSA”) was created by enactment of the National Aquaculture Act of 1980 and amended in 1985. The purpose of the JSA is to increase the overall effectiveness and productivity of Federal aquaculture research, transfer, and assistance programs.

At the federal level, “aquaculture” is defined in the National Aquaculture Act of 1980 as the “propagation and rearing of aquatic species in controlled or selected environments, including but not limited to, ocean ranching (except private ocean ranching of Pacific salmon for profit in those States where such ranching is prohibited by law).”  16 U.S.C.A. § 2802(1).  This act, in recognizing that the harvest of fish and shellfish can exceed levels of optimum sustainable yield, and that the rehabilitation and enhancement of fish and shellfish resources are important, calls for the development by the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Secretary of the Interior, to create a National Aquaculture Development Plan that identifies aquatic species, which the Secretaries determine to have significant potential for culturing on a commercial or other basis. 16 U.S.C.A. § 2803.  It also contains various recommendations for research and development, technical assistance, design and management of aquaculture facilities, and resolution of legal or regulatory constraints affecting aquaculture, including coordination of national activities regarding aquaculture.  16 U.S.C.A. §§ 2805-2806.

Other than the National Aquaculture Act, relevant federal statutes rarely address aquaculture directly.  For example, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, the Animal Drug Availability Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation Act, Lacey Act, and the Virus Serum Toxin Act do not significantly address aquatic livestock, but provide the statutory framework for regulating food safety, veterinary medicines, veterinary biologics, HACCP programs, coastal zone management and other activities related to aquaculture in general.

State and local governments generally regulate activities that are permitted or licensed at the community level.  In aquaculture, the majority of operations fall into this regulatory scheme.  Generally, permits deal with zoning, building, water use, waste discharge, species certification related to wildlife management, marketing or processing, and trade.  Often, regulations differ based on the position of the operation: inland, wetland, coastal and offshore.  Due mainly to environmental concerns, requirements for each type of operation are varied, with states administering permits based on its own specific rules.  There are no consistent or universal laws and regulations of aquaculture among the several states. Thus, regulations can vary considerably between geographic locations.

Internationally, there are very different laws among nations that affect aquaculture. However, the United Nations has played a significant role in the development of international law for seas and fisheries, by directly impacting coastal or open ocean aquacultural operations. The 1982 United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) set offshore territorial boundaries that establish zones of exclusive economic and fisheries rights for coastal nations. While some nations have not ratified this convention, it is the de facto set of guidelines, until changed, for the world’s oceans. Furthermore, the UN has developed a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, based on international laws including UNCLOS.  For more information, please see the International Agricultural Law and Organizations.

Aquaculture and the Environment

Aquacultural activities, like any other type of farming, have an effect on the surrounding ecosystems.  Despite state and federal regulations aimed at improving these effects, environmental impacts currently associated with some aquaculture operations and practices continue to draw criticism.  Concerns include pollution from solid waste and effluent by-products, pesticide and antibiotic residues, introductions of species to non-native environments, and transmission of disease between individual organisms and to other species.  For more information on specific laws, please see the Clean Water Act Reading Room.  For more information on agriculture and the environment in general, refer to the Environmental Law Reading Room.

International Trade

The United States is one of the world’s largest seafood exporters. U.S. exports of fish and seafood reached a record level in fiscal year 2014, with a total value of $5.3 billion, up four percent from FY 2013.  These exports included over 146 thousand tons of salmon valued at $457.5 million and over 26 thousand tons of lobster valued at $359.2 million. Exported canned items totaled 79 thousand tons valued at $264.5 million. Salmon was the major canned item exported, with 51.7 thousand tons valued at $203.0 million.

The United States has also become a major market for the global aquaculture industry, resulting in an annual seafood trade deficit of over $9 billion. Driven by imports, the U.S. seafood trade deficit has grown to $14 billion in 2016. U.S. imports of fish products in 2007 were valued at $13.7 billion, $0.3 billion more than in 2006. The quantity of fish imports was 2.4 million metric tons, a decrease of 24,384 tons from the quantity imported in 2006.  Shrimp imports, valued at $3.9 billion, and accounted for 29 percent of the value of U.S. seafood imports in 2007.  Total imports included 2.0 million tons of fresh and frozen products valued at $12.0 billion and 318.5 thousand tons of canned products valued at $1.4 billion.  For more information, please refer to the International Trade Reading Room.