What is good aquaculture? << back

From fishpond to certified aquaculture


What is aquaculture?

When dealing with the topic of aquaculture, it makes sense to start with a simple definition. Accordingly, aquaculture is "the rearing or cultivation of aquatic organisms, i.e. those living in water, in particular fish, molluscs, crustaceans and algae". For most people it is synonymous with the term fish farming.

Unlike fishing, where fishermen or anglers catch wild fish to actually make them their property at that particular moment, the issue of ownership of live fish, their habitat and the respective responsibility is clearly defined for aquaculture.

A distinction is made between extensive and intensive aquaculture. Extensive aquaculture, which is normally carried out in a natural environment, for example in fish farms or shellfish farms, is where breeders make a delimited living area available to their animals and then essentially leave them to themselves. And when they have then reached the desired size, they are taken out of the water by the breeder and put to their respective use. Intensive aquaculture, on the other hand, is where breeders ensure that the animals grow quickly and evenly to the desired size through specific feeding and active management of the water environment. The targeted reproduction of the animals is of particular importance, especially in intensive aquaculture, which takes place in cages, separated small ponds or even in halls on land.


How long has aquaculture been around?

The famous Roman historians Pliny and Cicero already reported about wealthy Romans who kept fish and other marine creatures in pools and ponds in order to ensure a constant supply of fresh fish for themselves. However, one can assume that this was probably more a form of fish keeping of previously wild caught fish, thus a type of husbandry.

The actual act of fish farming then began a few centuries later in the Middle Ages, with the targeted breeding of carp in Central and Eastern Europe. This is where monasteries, whose wealth and importance was also based on carp breeding, often led the way. The knowledge was extended over many centuries and resulted in the first textbooks on aquaculture being written in the 16th century, where the issues of spawning and nursery ponds, feeding and disease control were already addressed. In these times however, nature was still left to go its course when it came to the reproduction of the animals.

The beginning of modern aquaculture in Europe is closely linked to the name Stephan Ludwig Jacobi (1711 - 1784), who came up with the idea of taking eggs and sperm from spawning adult fish, mixing them with each other and then letting them develop – which is how artificial reproduction was born. However, his attempts were pretty-much forgotten and not resumed until almost a century later in 1840 in the Moselle region, which at that time belonged to France. This is where the first state trout farm was then started in Hüningen in today’s Alsace in 1854. This later became the Imperial fish farm, then under German direction. Not only trout but also salmon, vendace and carp were produced on a large scale in order to be sold either to fish farmers or to be released in inland waters, which at that time were already frequently blocked for migratory fish such as salmon and eels. As a result, "artificial trout farming" developed throughout Europe, especially after the introduction of rainbow trout, which originally came from North America. Nevertheless, only a few species were successfully bred and reared up into the 1970s.


Marine aquaculture leads to enormous expansion of farmed species and quantities

Unlike farm animals on land (44 species) and agricultural crops (roughly 250 species), of which over 90% were already domesticated 2,000 years ago, merely 3% of today’s farmed species were already used for aquaculture in around 1900.

The development that has led to the fact that today almost 50% of the world's consumed fish and seafood comes from aquaculture actually began in the late 1970s and is closely linked to the expansion of marine aquaculture, i.e. the raising of fish in the sea. Furthermore, it is today no longer Europe that leads the development and introduction of new species, but Asia, especially China, where today close to 90% of the world's farmed aquatic species come from.

The development was particularly rapid in the past 15 years in which more than a hundred of the nearly 500 freshwater and marine aquatic animals and aquatic plants were taken up in aquaculture. Thus, within less than half a century, the list of aquaculture species has become longer than that of land species and an end is not yet in sight. This statement does not seem all that far-fetched given the fact that man generally has more than 3,000 different species of marine animals on the menu – in comparison to merely 200 land animals, mostly mammals and birds.

However, many of the species that have caused the enormous growth of production volumes, especially in Southeast Asia, are relatively unknown to European consumers, as they are mainly produced for the local market in Asia. This concerns mainly herbivorous fish from the carp family such as silver carp, grass carp, also known to us as "common" carp, Catla and bighead carp.


Volume growth leads to problems in intensive aquaculture

The increase in production volumes in aquaculture, which generally coincided with a marked intensification of stocking densities and the use of land, also led to other problems that are often associated with intensive animal husbandry. This meant that educated consumers did not always perceive aquaculture as a positive contribution to provide proteins to a growing world population. The following "problem areas" were often the case:

  • Sprawling area requirements, especially where the original areas took on important roles in the environment. The most prominent example is surely the felling of mangrove forests to make room for fish and shrimp ponds.
  • Inclusion of nutrients and faecal matter in bodies of water. Fish feed that is not eaten, as well as the respective fish excrement, lead to a significant change in water quality in the immediate vicinity of fish farms, which has an impact on the local flora and fauna.
  • Use of wild fish as feed for farmed fish. The growth in the farming of carnivorous, i.e. meat-eating fish, led to an equal increase in the demand for fish meal and fish oil as a feed component. Examples include salmon, sea bass, sea bream and a variety of other species that are particularly cultivated in the sea.
  • Use of GMO components in fish feed, in this case particularly corn and soya.
  • Intensive use of antibiotics and other drugs, both as a prophylactic measure as well as to combat already existent outbreaks of animal diseases.
  • Escapes of farmed fish from their cages. This is a problem if farmed fish mate with wild fish and thereby alter the genetics of wild fish.
  • Social problems among those employed in aquaculture. A problem that is a particular concern in developing and emerging countries where a large share of global aquaculture is undertaken.

These problem areas and the fact that they are often addressed in the media and by conservation organizations, led to European and American consumers, and in particular the retail companies operating in those areas, declaring the desire in the new millennium to still obtain fish from aquaculture, but only from sources in which the above problems are largely excluded. And thus the cornerstone of certified aquaculture was laid.

In the past decade, several certification systems for sustainable aquaculture have emerged that ensure, in accordance with different specifications controlled by independent auditors, that certified fish farms produce sustainably. The best known certification bodies currently include GLOBALG.A.P., ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council), GAA (Global Aquaculture Alliance) and Friends of the Sea.


Consumers have a choice: Almost all major species are also available from certified aquaculture

Just over 10 years after GLOBALG.A.P. introduced the first certification standard, European consumers today find themselves in a fundamentally good situation. Consumers who wish to do so can now get almost all important species traded in the European market from certified aquaculture or in some cases even certified organic aquaculture. Often the price difference compared to a non-certified product is even relatively small.

The most important species in Central Europe from certified aquaculture are:

  • Atlantic salmon
  • Trout and char
  • Gilthead / seabream
    Sea bass
  • Tilapia
  • Pangasius
  • Mussels
  • White tiger / black tiger shrimps

If one adds carp to that list, which is extensively bred in aquaculture in Germany, one can say with complete justification that interested consumers already have the necessary basic conditions today in order to buy seafood only from certified sustainable sources. It must be hoped in the interest of aquaculture that more and more consumers take this step and demand the same from their fish supply sources, so that sustainable global aquaculture will also be able to play an important role in feeding a continuously growing world population in the future, too.