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Home > Feature Articles > Agriculture & Organic Production

Onland Fisheries - A Green Ocean Alternative

Fish provide protein, biofuel feedstock and fertilizer for plants...aquaculture is the new agriculture

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Aquaculture for sustainable fish protein In 2006 California's aquaculture industry brought in $83 million. The state's aquaculture industry is made up of freshwater fish, such as trout and tilapia, grown in tanks in Southern California, and also shellfish. No fish are now commercially farmed off the California coast -- just abalone, oysters and mussels. Because of concerns over pollution, disease and escapes, the state in 2003 banned farming of salmon and non-native fish in all coastal waters. CalCoast

Aquaculture has grown tremendously in the last 20 years and natural resource managers are trying to protect our coastal waters and our fishing industry.

The United States imports 80 percent of the seafood it consumes -- much of it farmed salmon from places like Chile, Norway and British Columbia.

Global population continues to grow and people need protein. Meanwhile, many ocean species already are overfished. With health-conscious Americans buying more fish every year, the best option to provide the health benefits of fish and the environmental health of our oceans is to farm with onland fisheries.

There are precautions, however that would make this potential solution to marine health an unhealthy industry. Good stewardship is required to prevent crowding that fosters diseases -- which can cause disease breakouts that spread to wild fish. And fish meal that is fed to many farmed fish is often made from wild fish -- further depleting wild populations.

California's Fisheries Potential

California is an ideal place for producing fish with good weather, huge demand within short distances, and stringent laws that control aquaculture for overall health of the industry.

In 2006??? the Bush administration announced plans to expand America's aquaculture industry from $1 billion a year to $5 billion a year in the next 20 years by issuing permits for floating fish farms in federal waters.

Aquaculture as Agriculture

Aquaculture is among the fastest growing segments of American agriculture and is expanding even more rapidly worldwide. Growth of aquaculture will depend upon a number of factors, the most important being the availability and nature of the water and land resources.

California has the most
diverse aquaculture industry
in the United States.

The state's size, as well as geology and topography provide a multitude of climate and water conditions suitable for diverse growing conditions.


California's channel catfish industry is one of the most profitable aquaculture industries in the state. It is based on traditional pond production of channel catfish with some production of the channel catfish x blue catfish cross. Most production occurs at locations throughout the Central Valley and in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys of southern California.

The state's catfish market structure is somewhat unique. Most of the product is sold live, primarily to recreational lakes for fee fishing and to live-tank, foodfish markets. The live haul, foodfish market is relatively new. Market outlets are centered around Asian and Southeast Asian communities in and around large metropolitan centers.


With California's large population and love for recreational fishing and fish-related hobbies, the state's nonfoodfish aquaculture industry is big business. Baitfish production consists primarily of golden shiners and fathead minnows. Production is accomplished in ponds with some fathead minnows produced in polyculture with channel catfish. California imports a significant number of golden shiners from other states and internally produces about 18-20 million fish annually.


Goldfish, koi-carp, guppies, and aquarium frogs are produced for the aquarium trade and the aquarium feeder-fish industry. The majority of these are used to feed more valuable fish in the aquarium trade. A large segment of this industry, however, produces these same species as ornamental fish in the lucrative world of hobby fish.


Sturgeon, striped bass, and hybrid striped bass aquaculture is being developed to diversify the farm by combining the culture of these experimental species with an economically viable species such as channel catfish. Production of these three fish has increased dramatically in recent years. Sturgeon fingerlings are sold to about 40 growers statewide and to markets nationally and internationally. Striped bass are produced primarily for mitigation of industrial-caused fish loss in the Sacramento Delta.


Oyster culture is the oldest aquaculture industry in California and dates back to the 1850s.

Abalone firms produce significant volumes of seed and market animals. About 95 percent of the farm-raised species are red abalone and 5 percent are pink or green abalone. The grow-out phase generally takes place in land-based, tank and raceway systems, or raft and barrel-habitat systems submerged in sheltered marine environments.


A major aquaculture industry in the state is production, harvesting, and sale of artemia (small crustaceans) for the aquarium industry and as larval feed for fish and shellfish aquaculture. They are produced in managed, hypersaline evaporation salt ponds at a number of sites located in the San Francisco Bay Area and desert areas in southeastern California.


The production of red or black marine worms (tubificid annelids) also provides an important food source for the aquarium trade and fish hobbyists. While most of the worms marketed are obtained from sewage treatment ponds, a substantial amount of the market is supplied by the controlled production of these thread-like worms in pond systems receiving the effluent discharge from aquaculture facilities. The typical production system may be a series of interlinked, shallow ponds or raceway units receiving a portion of the discharge from a trout raceway system. Clumps of worms are harvested, purged to remove gut content, and usually sold to distributors on a profit-shared basis.


Algaculture is a form of aquaculture involving species of algae. The majority of algae that are intentionally cultivated fall into the category of microalgae, also referred to as phytoplankton, microphytes, or planktonic algae. Algae is being developed as an energy source for Biodiesel production, Hydrogen production, Biomass, Methane and other energy applications. Currently most research into algal-oil production is in the private sector, but if small scale experiments succeed, using algae to produce biodiesel may be a viable method to produce feedstock for automotive fuel that could replace gasoline usage.

Spirulina is a blue-green microalgae with a long history as a food source in East Africa and pre-colonial Mexico. High in protein and other nutrients, it is used as a food supplement and as a treatment for malnutrition.

Chlorella, another popular microalgae, has similar nutrition and is the source of the "Chlorella Growth Factor," a potent phytochemical which has been shown to increase growth in animals and children and a cell wall which has a high affinity for heavy metals and poisons, particularly mercury. The cell wall binds to the toxin and helps remove it from the body. Chlorella is very popular in Japan and is currently one of the most prescribed supplements in that country.

In 1985, North Carolina State University (then) graduate student, Mark R. McMurtry, and professors Douglas C. Sanders, Paul V. Nelson, et al. created the first known recirculating (closed-loop), reciprocating (flood and drain) "aquaponic" system (called an Integrated Aqua-Vegeculture System) that filtered Tilapia effluent into sand biofilters (bacteria and alga) planted with Tomato and/or other vegetable crops. From the mid-1980s and throughout the 1990s both McMurtry and Sanders published a number of articles on their research and worked to develop the recirculatory techniques for the arid Third World, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.


Aquaponics is the combination of recirculating aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). In aquaponics, the fish waste provides a food source for the growing plants and the plants provide a natural filter for the fish. This creates a mini ecosystem where both plants and fish can thrive. Aquaponics is the ideal answer to a fish farmers problem of disposing of nutrient rich water and a hydroponic growers need for nutrient rich water.

Although the practices of fish farming and soil less plant culture have been traced to ancient times, the combination of the two is quite new. Research in aquaponics began in the 1970’s and continues today. Several Universities worldwide are dedicating resources to further the technology.

On a hobby scale, aquaponics has the potential to catch on quickly. A home aquarium, with ornamental or food fish, can be combined with a mini garden, growing herbs, vegetables or flowers. A hobby system can serve as a beautiful show piece or a food production system, depending on the size. Many backyard gardeners are setting up systems to grow hundreds of pounds of fish and all the fresh vegetables a family needs.

Aquaponics Journal
A bimonthly publication covering aquaponics. Each issue offers features on commercial, hobby, research, and educational applications of aquaponics.

Kirby Peak Ranch
Mariposa, California

Nelson/Pade Multimedia
Nelson/Pade designs and installs aquaponic systems for schools, plus offers aquaponics and hydroponics curriculums.
PO Box 761, Montello, WI 53949
Tel: 209-742-6869, 608-297-8708

Open Ponds and Greenhouse Aquaculture Facilities

Aquaculture has traditionally used open pond systems open to natural weather, predators and temperatures. Systems are increasingly covered with a greenhouse. While this usually results in a smaller system, it does reduce many of the problems associated with an open system. It allows more species to be grown, it allows dominant species to stay dominant, and it extends the growing season.

Algae can also be grown in a photobioreactor which incorporates a light source. Everything the algae needs to grow, (carbon dioxide, nutrient-rich water and light), all must be introduced into the closed system.

While algae is often grown in monocultures using microbiological techniques to purify the desired strain, another approach has been used very successfully to produce algae feed for the cultivation of a variety of mollusks.

Algae are cultivated to serve many commercial and industrial uses including Bioplastics, Dyes and Colorants, Feedstock, Nutritional, Pharmaceutical, Pollution Control, CO2 sequestration, Fertilizer Runoff reclamation, and Sewage treatment.

Agencies and Support Institutions

California's aquaculture industry operates under the jurisdiction of a number of State agencies, the primary two being the California Departments of Fish & Game (CDFG) and Health Services.

The CDFG is the lead agency. The California Department of Health Services (CDHS) has regulatory authority over all health and sanitation aspects of the shellfish industry, including growing waters, harvesting, processing, and shipping of products.

The industry association is the California Aquaculture Association (CAA). The CAA works with agencies and the State Legislature to improve the industry's position in the state. Its members work with state and regional aquaculture funding institutions and researchers to address technical problems and insure an adequate research base for future industry growth.

California Aquaculture Association
15211 Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
(530) 887-8783

UC Davis' Aquaculture Department
Fred S. Conte, Ph.D.
Aquaculture Specialist, Lecturer
Department of Animal Science
University of California
Davis, CA 95616-8521
Phone: (530)752-7689
FAX: (530)752-0175
UC Davis Aquaculture

Aquaculture Magazine Online
Information on FISH FARMING, FISH PROCESSING, FISH BREEDING and FISH RAISING (aquatic species including tilapia, trout, salmon, shrimp, catfish, crayfish, oysters, redclaw, hybrid striped bass, and shellfish). Topics include fish pond management, with a focus on U.S. and International aquaculture industry.
Fax 828-681-0601

American Tilapia Association
111 W Washington St Ste 1
Charles Town, WV 25414-1529
304/728-2196 FAX

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