“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Where this famous proverb comes from is still unknown, but its meaning is clear: giving someone the means to do something, instead of doing it for them, is better in the long run.
It’s an insight that can be applied directly to aquaculture. After all, why catch just one fish, when you can raise and harvest entire farms, and even feed your whole community?
You may have heard the word ‘aquaculture’ more than a few times recently. Simply put, it’s the farming of ocean and freshwater denizens for—mainly—human consumption. This can include everything from clams, mussels, and shrimp to seaweed, salmon, black sea bass, yellowtail, catfish, freshwater trout, and other fish species.
Performed in fresh, salt, or brackish water, the big difference between traditional capture fisheries—where harvesting takes place in naturally occurring environments—and aquaculture is that the latter needs deliberate human intervention in semi-natural or controlled conditions. This can include stocking water with juvenile organisms (seed), feeding organisms, fertilizing of the water, maintenance of water quality, and more.
A rich and diverse sector, aquaculture encompasses not only food for people, but cultivating ornamental fish, algae for chemical extraction, and even oysters for their pearls. And although there are many differences from what we typically think of as farming—the land-based variety—aquaculture is still considered an agricultural activity, one producing mainly protein-rich crops, like fish.
Although some might think of aquaculture as a modern industry, it goes back thousands of years and, like other types of agriculture, has seen countless advances.
Developed over 2,000 years ago in China, Rome, Egypt, and later, Japan and Europe, early aquaculture saw wild-caught juvenile fish (fingerlings) caught and relocated to other bodies of water so they could grow under controlled conditions.
As the years went on, other countries made advances, including the technique of encouraging oyster spat (newly settled juveniles) to settle on upright bamboo stakes embedded in sea floors, and the addition of manure to water. This encouraged the growth of plankton and invertebrates, creating sustenance for fish.
In North America, one of the biggest advances to the industry came in 1871, when the United States Congress launched the National Fish Hatchery System (NFHS) to propagate anadromous fishes, like salmon, and some sturgeon, which are born and raised in freshwater, spend most of their lives in saltwater, then return to freshwater to spawn.
Years later, seafood-rich Japan established the first marine shrimp hatchery in 1959, which led to the commercial shrimp-culture industry.
Worldwide, aquaculture is an expanding sector, providing food and employment. In Canada, 45 species are commercially cultivated, with British Columbia leading the way with finfish production, and Prince Edward Island with shellfish.
According to research from the Library of Parliament, Canada’s aquaculture sector produced 187,026 tonnes of seafood in 2019, valued at over $1.2 billion, benefiting many small coastal communities. In the United States, aquaculture is estimated to be worth $2.7 billion US, making it a valuable contributor to the economy.
Although worldwide demand is projected to increase seven to nine percent every year (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization), only three percent of human food comes from oceans. Considering that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, the amount is surprisingly low.
Approximately half of all global seafood production intended for human consumption is farmed, and this share is expected to rise to more than 60 percent by 2030.
This year saw the publication of The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022. Towards Blue Transformation, by the UN. A massive 266-page document, it covers important topics including aquaculture production, employment, adaptation to climate change, and consumption of aquatic foods in a world of increasing demand. (At present, the worldwide population is estimated at 7.79 billion people; by 2050, it is predicted there will be 9.8 billion of us, and 11.2 billion by 2100. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.)
Excluding algae, worldwide consumption of aquatic foods has steadily increased over the decades. According to the World Fisheries report, the amount of aquatic food consumed worldwide in 1961 was 28 million tonnes; in 2019, it reached 158 million tonnes.
Compared to other protein sources, seafood holds many benefits, the first of which is that it is more sustainable and better for the planet.
Cattle farming, for example, takes a huge toll on nature. Requiring large tracts of land for grazing, dairy cows and beef cattle for consumption need specialized (and expensive) veterinary care, feed lots, housing, genetic testing, and antibiotics.
While we may conjure pastoral images of cows luxuriating in rolling grassy fields and sunshine, factory farming often involves dirty and unhealthy living conditions for animals who consume enormous quantities of feed and water. Producing an estimated 81.5 pounds (180 pounds) of waste daily per cow—some of it polluting streams and rivers—the methane emissions of herds of cattle also contribute to climate change.
And then, of course, there are the health implications of beef consumption. While many of us enjoy a sizzling steak, eating excessive amounts of meat may be associated with an increase in deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
And as the price of feed, care, and processing keeps increasing, these costs are passed onto the consumer, making beef unaffordable for some.
Compared to beef, fish and seafood may be healthier and often less expensive. An excellent source of high-quality protein and nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit brain function, Vitamin D, and more. Unlike beef, which may increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, fish is a heart-healthy food that may lower the risk of heart disease if eaten once or more per week.
Economically, aquaculture is also a job-creator, benefiting not only those directly involved in the industry but ancillary businesses, such as technology companies, and others selling feed and medicine.
As the global population grows, aquaculture will continue proving itself as an efficient way of providing the planet with stable, affordable sources of healthy protein, a source of income for farmers, and employment. If done responsibly, aquaculture and farmed seafood will meet our food demands in the years to come.