Sustainable Aquaculture: A General Definition, and Is It Possible?

Aquaculture has been in the spotlight for quite some time now. According to the definition by the Food and Agriculture Organization, aquaculture is the “farming of aquatic organisms including fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants.” In today’s world, the demand for fish and fishery products is increasing exponentially. In fact, according to studies conducted a few years back, aquaculture already produces about 50% of the global seafood supply. The farmed fish production seems to exceed that of farmed beef. While aquaculture may solve many of the world’s famine problems and create jobs in the long term, we also face the concern of intensive aquaculture. This practice, albeit helpful, raises several issues. For example, it posses significant sustainability challenges, the limitation of marine feed ingredients, waste management, and the use of drugs or chemicals. It also affects the long-term impact on wild marine species, the improper management of fish health and welfare, site selection, and societal attitudes, among others. In this perspective, sustainable aquaculture becomes a priority. Nevertheless, what is sustainable aquaculture and how, if at all, is it possible? Today we will analyze this topic, trying to learn more about problems, policies, and practices.

1. Sustainable Aquaculture – Definition

Specialists say that aquaculture will become the prime source of seafood by 2030, as demand grows exponentially. Fish farming is one important way to provide livelihood and feed the world. The global population is on the rise and projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. In order to convey a sustainable aquaculture definition, we have to summarize the problems caused by aquaculture in general:

  • Organic waste and nutrients released by fish farms, especially open farms where waste and water flow freely, is of concern. It negatively affects seafloor ecosystems set near the farms, causing ecological impacts.
  • Aquaculture farms often provide favorable conditions to disease development; for example, fish are often stocked at a higher density than wild fish, and diseases can spread faster and easier. Moreover, antibiotics and other veterinary products, pesticides, and chemicals pose serious safety questions to many. This includes the farmed fish, the wild fish nearby, and the people consuming farmed fish. The problem of bioaccumulation is not new, but it is certainly big.
  • The use of antifoulants is one of the most expensive and difficult production issues for the aquaculture industry. This is when chemicals are applied to aquaculture equipment, such as cages and ropes, to reduce the unwanted growth of plants or creatures, such as barnacles, on their surface. Since many chemicals use copper as an active ingredient, the leach of copper in the environment is of huge concern.

These are just a few examples regarding the issues surrounding aquaculture. The topic of sustainability became one of the top priorities for legislators and environmental organizations. Sustainable aquaculture, in this regard, simply means the farming of fish and seafood in general. This complies with the general rules of environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability. To better understand if sustainable aquaculture is indeed possible in practice, let’s get into the details!

Aquaculture Environmental Sustainability

There are several factors for a fish farm to be ecologically sustainable. Aquaculture setting, methodology, and practices should not create significant disruptions to the ecosystem, cause the loss of biodiversity, or lead to substantial pollution.

Aquaculture Economical Sustainability

It must turn into a large-scale business with good long-term prospects. This should yield sufficient food with little costs, little energy consumption, and little risks for the facility, fish, the environment, and the general population.

Aquaculture Social Sustainability

The practice of aquaculture should address the needs of the community in a socially responsible manner. It should also not endanger communities with its practices.

Is Sustainable Aquaculture Possible?

Beyond legislation, with the European Union and other countries making intense efforts in this regard, fish farms can implement a handful of measures to secure sustainability on all levels. Let us see the most important ones, as described by EU representatives, Green Peace and other environmental and sustainable business-oriented professionals:

  • Aquaculture’s move towards plant-based feeds originating from sustainable agriculture;
  • The giving up on fishmeal or fish-oil-based feeds from unsustainable fisheries;
  • Mangrove and wetland conservation;
  • Effective effluent management and water quality control;
  • The cultivation of fish species that are native in open water systems, and then only in bag nets, closed-wall sea-pens or equivalent systems;
  • Sediment control and sludge management;
  • Soil and water conservation that do not result in negative effects or risks to local wildlife or wild fish and plant populations;
  • The responsible sourcing of broodstock and juvenile fish without using any wild-caught juveniles;
  • Giving up on the use of genetically engineered fish or feed;
  • More control of escapes and the minimization of biodiversity and wildlife impact;
  • Lower stock densities in order to minimize the risk of disease outbreaks and transmissions;
  • Mangrove and wetland conservation – to avoid the depletion of local resources such as drinking water supplies and mangrove forests;
  • The minimal antibiotic and pharmaceutical use;
  • Efficient and humane harvest and transport of fish;
  • The establishment of legal boundaries, rules, and regulations regarding aquaculture zones and responsibilities for the managers in the industry;
  • The setting of regulatory compliance and effective enforcement; worker safety, fair labor practices, and equitable compensation;
  • Community involvement.

How Can We Contribute to Sustainable Aquaculture?

Community involvement makes the list of the most important objectives and models of good practices when it comes to sustainable aquaculture. After all, aquaculture affects us. We all should be responsible for what we eat and for the manufacturing/delivery of what we eat. If you want to make aquaculture businesses more sustainable and more environmentally friendly, you can engage in several good practices yourself:

  • Challenge fish and fish products retailers to ensure that their supplies come from sustainable and fair aquaculture operations; it is the retailer’s responsibility to make sure that their suppliers follow at least the most of the sustainability principles mentioned above or communicate to their customers the origin and sustainability of their fish and fish products.
  • Get informed and learn about aquaculture, sustainability, and aggressive fish farming. The more you know about the principles and processes, the better decision you can make. You will be more aware of where your food comes from and how it affects the environment. You will also better understand global economics and social stability in certain communities.


First comes the law and then its application methodology and practices. We still have a long road ahead until we reach the goals of sustainable aquaculture that benefits the entire world. However, efforts are intense in this direction.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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