Ecological Seafood and Aquatic Plant Farming

“We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters.
That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting.”
Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997)


Ecological Seafood Farming

NOAA national marine fisheries

The farming of the sea is becoming more important as world population grows. This necessitates an approach to production that reduces, and even reverses, the destructive environmental impacts that has for years been associated with aquaculture and overfishing. Innovative farmers, agency personnel, and researchers are developing ways to farm the seas by mimicking the natural, ecological systems that have sustained the oceans for millions of years. One approach is the incorporation of numerous species of sea life on offshore farms that cycle nutrients and reduce the impact of farming. In these systems, farmers use shellfish, filter feeders that live off organic matter and naturally occurring nutrients, as well as seaweeds, which are known to take up high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon. Integrating these species together yields tons of high quality seafood, fuel, and fertilizer in a closed system with zero inputs. In this section you’ll find resources on all aspects of sustainable marine and freshwater seafood farming, dealing with equipment, production practices, marketing and business planning, and regulations.


Sustainability and the Ecology of Ocean Fisheries
Education, Research, and Extension
Vertical Ocean Farming (and Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture)
Manuals, Production: Finfish and Recirculating Systems
Manuals, Production: Aquatic Plants
Manuals, Production: Shellfish
Policy and Regulations
Equipment and Water Engineering for Aquaculture
Aquaculture Budgets and Business Planning Resources
Small Scale Aquaculture
Organizations, Journals, and Magazines


Sustainability and the Ecology of Ocean Fisheries

Check out these video links for great discussions on what practitioners and researchers are doing to improve the sustainability of oceans and fisheries.

Barry A. Costa-Pierce Ecological Aquaculture Lecture
Sustainable Aquaculture: Efforts to Develop a Seaweed Aquaculture Industry in New England
The Importance of Sustainable Aquaculture in Our Future
The Four Fish we’re Overeating – and What to Eat Instead
Dan Barber: How I fell in love with a fish


Education, Research, and Extension

In the 1980s, the USDA established five regional Aquaculture Research and Development Centers. These centers develop research and Cooperative Extension education programs and publications for aquaculture that have either regional or national applications. These centers work in association with universities, colleges, state agencies and private industry to address research priorities and dissemination of new research findings. Each Regional Aquaculture Center has an online library of very helpful publications on all aspects of aquaculture, from pond and cage construction to species and disease to marketing and promotion. For more information about your regional aquaculture center or its publications, contact your regional center.

Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture
The Oceanic Institute, Waimanalo, HI
North Central Regional Aquaculture Center
Iowa State University
Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center
University of Maryland
Southern Regional Aquaculture Center
Mississippi State University
Western Regional Aquaculture Center
University of Washington

The Southern Regional Aquaculture Center hosts many publications that provide information on important species of fish and shellfish, as well as business planning, equipment, spawning and larval culture, marketing, pond construction, water quality, and more. Though produced for the Southern Region, these resources are used by educators throughout the country to assist aquaculture producers. Access the SRAC Publications website for this useful information.

The National Sea Grant College Program is a network of 33 programs based at top universities in every coastal and Great Lakes state, Puerto Rico, and Guam. A partnership between universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sea Grant directs federal resources to fish and shellfish farming, seafood safety, and fisheries management. Research is shared with the public through Sea Grant’s integrated outreach program.

Roger Williams University offers a non-credit course to teach basic shellfish farming theory and technique. The 14-week program, led by Dale Leavitt, aquaculture extension specialist and professor of marine biology at RWU, is designed to aid new and experienced shellfish farmers to start or grow their shellfish farming enterprise in Rhode Island and other areas of Southern New England. Contact Leavitt at for information on course dates and locations.

The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC) at the USDA National Agriculture Library is another excellent source for aquaculture information. The AFSIC serves as a national clearinghouse for aquaculture information and provides materials to a variety of clients, including farmers, government agencies, industry personnel and prospective farmers. The AFSIC has links for most of the U.S. federal government agencies dealing with aquaculture. The AFSIC created the 48-page Organic Aquaculture AFSIC Notes #5 in 2005.

Barry Costa-Pierce is a professor of marine sciences at the University of New England, conducting research and education on fresh and saltwater marine systems, from capture fisheries to marine and terrestrial aquaculture. His book, Ecological Aquaculture: Principles and Practices for the Blue Revolution to 2050 is currently in work (with several chapters posted on the website). Costa-Pierce’s website Ecological Aquaculture, The Evolution of the Blue Revolution offers many resources including links to presentations, publications, and undergraduate and graduate course materials in ecological aquaculture.

CT SeaGrant Marine Aquaculture and Shellfisheries is an online resource guide for aquaculture in Connecticut, developed to provide educational materials and permitting/regulatory guidance for new and prospective aquaculturists, municipal commissions, researchers, educators, students, and aquaculture enthusiasts.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Aquaculture Specialist’s Office offers information on permit assistance and regulatory streamlining, technical assistance and information resources, aquaculture education, and shellfish aquaculture best management practices (BMPs).

The eXtension Sustainable Marine Fisheries Community of Practice is a group of fisheries extension workers that have come together to provide a source of reliable and up-to-date information about social, economic, and ecological issues that are linked to sustainable marine fisheries.

Alabama Education in Aquatic Sciences, Aquaculture, Recreational Fisheries and Natural Resource Conservation (ALEARN) is a highly informative, single point, user friendly information source for commercial growers and those with commercial freshwater aquacultural business interests. To that end, they have selected and organized a number subject areas useful to owners and managers of aquatic enterprises.

The Mississippi State University Extension Service has information on production and marketing of catfish, hybrid striped bass, freshwater prawns, alligators, and crawfish, and eXtension hosts lots of information for commercial and prospective freshwater fish farmers at the eXtension Freshwater Aquaculture website.


Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture and Vertical Ocean Farming

Multi-species aquaculture has been around for centuries, and societies in Asia had perfected extensive methods of raising fish and plant species together to take advantage of synergistic effects. Integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA) is a version of this kind of production with more intensive production, and a focus on a system that takes account of the full range of ecosystem functions the system relies on. In addition to being ecologically resilient, IMTA strives to improve human well-being and the goals of the communities it serves. A good example of a farm being developed to meet the needs of sustainability and human food production is SeaVision Group, which operates Kyuquot SEAfoods Ltd., an IMTA research and development farm In Vancouver Canada.

Vertical ocean farming is a kind of multitrophic system that occupies the entire water column of the sea or an estuary, utilizing diverse species such as bivalves and seaweeds. For example, mollusks are grown in racks, bags, or socks, oysters in cages on the sea floor, and kelp on rope strung between anchored buoys. Vertical ocean farming is a concept recently popularized by Bren Smith, a former commercial fisherman turned ocean farmer. He’s the owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm and the Executive Director of GreenWave, an organization dedicated to preserving and building jobs and the local economy through regenerative farming of oceans and estuaries. Read more about Bren’s work in How the Seas will Save Us and Underwater Vertical Seaweed Farm.


Manuals, Production: Finfish Marine and Recirculating Systems

Cage culture has long been associated with environmental damage. In the past few years there’s been much research on technologies to mitigate damage and bring marine aquaculture in line with sustainable practices, given the increased world demand for seafood in a time when we are experiencing ocean acidification, warming, and nutrient loading. Marine Cage Culture & The Environment, a NOAA technical report provides a broad overview of the twenty-first century marine finfish aquaculture industry, with a targeted focus on potential impacts to water quality, sediment chemistry, benthic communities, marine life, and sensitive habitats. Included is an assessment of practices now in use to address environmental risks of cage finfish culture in the U.S. and the world.

Making offshore finfish farming sustainable is a challenge, given many factors such as feedstocks, production waste, and the impacts on ocean ecosystems. Organizations such as Ocean Steward are advocating for the emerging open ocean aquaculture industry. They have been working with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and The World Wildlife Fund for setting standards for finfish aquaculture sustainability certification.

Earth Ocean Farms used floating cages, such as the Aquapod by Innovasea, for the production of sustainably raised finfish in the open ocean. They are a company focused on developing economically viable and environmentally sustainable aquaculture systems for marine fish.

The Northeastern Aquaculture Management Guide includes science-based information about major production hazards facing farmers, including: predators, diseases, parasites, organisms that have the potential to cause aquatic animal illness and human illness (e.g. toxic algae), biofouling, spread of invasive species, and other operational and environmental hazards. The manual also includes guidelines for environmental monitoring, evaluation and sampling of stocks, record-keeping procedures, and state-by-state contact information for whom to call when a problem occurs. The manual incorporates best management practices and biosecurity measures developed through research and outreach efforts funded by the USDA Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Center (NRAC) and others. Includes finfish, shellfish, and aquatic plant aquaculture.

The Model Aquaculture Recirculation System Engineering and Operations Manual was written by aquaculture professionals to provide a guide for system design and management, and includes appendices on species selection, disease, monitoring, water quality, and sources of equipment.

The Southern Regional Aquaculture Center publication Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: An Overview of Critical Considerations provides basic information on recirculating aquaculture technology for prospective aquaculturists to bring awareness of the technical and economic risks involved in this type of aquaculture production.

A Guide to Recirculation Aquaculture is an introduction to environmentally friendly and highly productive closed fish farming systems, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and EUROFISH International Organization. With an increased focus on sustainability, consumer demands, food safety, and cost effectiveness in aquaculture production, the continuous development of new production technologies is crucial. Since aquaculture production affects the environment, state-of-the-art recirculation methods can reduce this effect compared to traditional ways of farming fish. Recirculation systems offer two advantages: cost effectiveness and reduced environmental impact. This guide focuses on the techniques for the conversion from traditional farming methods to recirculated aquaculture and advises the farmer on the pitfalls to be avoided along the way.


Manuals, Production: Aquatic Plants

The Kelp Farming Manual is an introduction to the processes, equipment and techniques for growing kelp from spores to harvest. This manual describes the techniques developed and used successfully by Ocean Approved, LLC in conjunction with Dr. Charles Yarish and Dr. Jang Kim of the University of Connecticut to farm kelp in New England waters.

The Gracilaria Culture Handbook for New England introduces cultivation techniques for native red alga
Gracilaria tikvahiae to aquaculturalists, and well as providing a resource to coastal managers. It covers biology, cultivation, and culture systems for growing seaweed in coastal waters.

The New England Seaweed Culture Handbook is a manual that serves as an introduction and instruction booklet for the nursery production and culture of the economically valuable eaweeds of New England, including locally occurring species of Saccharina, Gracilaria, Porphyra, and Chondrus.

A University of Maine project, Seaweed Production on Mussel Farms in Maine is a leading Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) effort in the US to produce sugar kelp, Latissima saccharina, on commercial mussel farms.


Manuals, Production: Shellfish

There are many good resources on the production and culture of shellfish given the new attention the sector has especially in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. Maine is granting permits for offshore shellfish aquaculture and this type of farming has promise for fishermen who have been impacted by closed fisheries. Shellfish farming is zero-input, as the filter feeders get by on naturally occurring nutrients within the ocean ecosystem. The resources that follow will help prospective farmers get a sense of the business, including sourcing seed, grow-out, biology, and marketing seafood.

Farm Aquaculture Resource Management (FARM) offers a program for determining shellfish farm-scale carrying capacity.

The Oyster Manual from New Brunswick offers references on all aspects of growing oysters. Though a bit dated (it was published in 2008), it does have good information on site selection, rearing methods, spat supply, and production plans.

The University of Maryland has an Oyster Aquaculture Resource Guide This reference guide provides oyster growers with information about obtaining seed, equipment, assistance, and financing for developing a successful shellfish aquaculture business. Information is divided into Hatcheries and Nurseries, Equipment and Supplies, and Agencies, Institutions and Organizations.

Small Scale Clam Farming in Washington discusses the production of littleneck and Manila clams in Washington tidal waters.

Another good guide for shellfish farming includes Best Management Practices for the East Coast Shellfish Aquaculture Industry, which was created to provide the information and a framework that will enable a shellfish farmer to write a comprehensive Best Management Practices document for his or her farm. BMPs can lead to greater industry environmental account ability, reduce multi-user conflicts, improve production efficiency, instill consumer confidence in products, and result in a higher degree of self-regulation which can yield economic benefits to the industry and a better product. They can also be the basis for independent third-party certification which is becoming increasingly important in the marketplace and already required by some retailers.

Mussel Farming Guide, by the Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, provides brief descriptions of how the current mussel industry operates and offers some suggestions for improvement in production efficiency, with information taken from farm and site surveys.

The Rutgers Extension Nursery and Growout Methods for Aquacultured Shellfish provides information on quahog and oyster culture, with references to other extension publications in the Northeast.

Ecosystem Concepts for Sustainable Bivalve Mariculture, from the National Research Council, providers some information on shellfish ecology and culture, with a focus on best management practices, that will be helpful for farmers in understanding the positive and negative potential ecological effects of offshore farming, and can provide insight into developing a resilient farming system.

Delaware Inland Bays Shellfish Aquaculture, a website by Delaware Sea Grant, lists educational workshops, news, and resources for shellfish farmers.

February 2016 Shellfish Aquaculture Workshop (NC Sea Grant) has links to presentations covering budgets, management, grow-out, marketing, gear, and more. A good resource for prospective farmers.

Shellfish farming gear can be a bit of a mystery to the beginner. Two good resources for information on gear and equipment are Woods Hole Sea Grant’s A Comparison of Bottom and Floating Gear for Growing American Oysters in SE Massachusetts, and Shellfish Aquaculture Gear, a PowerPoint presentation on gear types and how they are used.

The Center for Food Safety offers a publication entitled Shellfish Aquaculture in the PNW, that describes shellfish aquaculture and issues related to pesticides and health concerns.

Paralytic shellfish poison (PSP), a naturally occurring toxin, is produced by some species of microscopic algae and can concentrate in shellfish. When eaten it can cause illness in humans, affecting the nervous system and causing muscle paralysis. Shellfish farmers should understand the risk and educate themselves on regulations and food safety testing. Take a look at the NWFSC HABs and Marine Biotoxins site for more information. For information on shellfish biotoxin regulations in your area, contact your state department of health.

For more on the research underway on marine shellfish aquaculture see the University of Maine’s Northeast Aquaculture Research Farm Network.


Policy and Regulations

NOAA Fisheries plays a central role in developing and implementing policies that enable marine aquaculture and works to ensure that aquaculture complies with existing federal laws and regulations that NOAA enforces under its marine stewardship mission. The NOAA Aquaculture Program has established a study group to look at trends and factors shaping aquaculture including the forces that will drive it in the future, the inputs and outputs necessary to sustain its growth the economic consequences of offshore aquaculture, and the benefits and costs of such a domestic industry to the nation. A study was performed, entitled Offshore Aquaculture in the United States: Economic Considerations, Implications, & Opportunities that covers the effect on U.S. offshore aquaculture of global and national trends in seafood supply and demand and other factors that affect market prices, such as cost of feed and technology, social factors, government regulations, and access to sites; useful models from other food segments of the U.S. economy, such as the catfish and poultry industries; interactions between aquaculture and wild harvest fisheries; and economic analyses from the broadest to the narrowest scale, to address how marine aquaculture might play in helping to meet global demand for seafood, alternative energy, and other sustainable uses of the ocean.

The National Agricultural Law Center’s Aquaculture section covers the history of aquaculture policy and regulations in the US, with resources and direct links to the statutes and regulations that govern the industry.

The paper Environmental Performance of Marine Net-Pen Aquaculture in the United States, from the journal Fisheries, has a good description of the regulations for net pen aquaculture as well as the ecological effects of this type of farming.

The Washington Department of Ecology – Aquaculture section has numerous resources on regulations and guidance for offshore aquaculture. Included are the Shoreline Master Programs Handbook, Chapter 16 Aquaculture, WA Dept Ecology and the Shoreline Master Program Updates Aquaculture Interim Guidance. The Shoreline Master Program provides guidance for meeting the requirements of the state’s Shoreline Management Act. Other coastal states have similar requirements and policies. An internet search of state coastal management guidelines will provide resources for your state.

HACCP, or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, is a food safety management system to control hazards from production, handling, manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of the food products. Guidance for Industry: HACCP Regulation for Fish and Fishery Products offers questions and answers for guidance to develop a HACCP system in seafood processing. See also the HACCP Guide for Aquaculture written by Oregon State University.


Equipment and Water Engineering for Aquaculture

Swine Barn Conversion for Fish Culture is a 2009 publication from Lincoln University and the University of Missouri detailing how unused swine barns can be converted into recirculating system facilities for rearing profitable aquacultural products.

Spring Development, by Alberta Agriculture Technical Services Division discusses proper spring development for protecting both the spring and its water quality from environmental damage and contamination, as well as improving access to the water for its intended use. Springs can be developed as feed water for aquacultural enterprises as well as for livestock watering.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has produced a publication on Ponds – Planning, Design, and Construction that describes embankment and excavated ponds and outlines the requirements for building each. The information comes from the field experience and observation of land users, engineers, conservationists, and other specialists.

Pond Building: A Guide to Planning, Constructing, and Maintaining Recreational Ponds, by Alabama Cooperative Extension, provides prospective pond owners with the basic information needed to understand the process involved in establishing and maintaining a quality pond. The information is intended to enable landowners to avoid costly mistakes, to communicate more effectively with pond contractors, and to be successful at building and maintaining the best possible pond.

Oregon State’s Aquaculture Pond Bottom Soil Quality Management provides practical guidelines for the management of aquaculture pond soils.


Aquaculture Budgets and Business Planning Resources

The Purdue Sea Grant Aquaculture Small Business Startup Kit has good information on business planning and budgeting. In it you’ll find information on starting a new aquaculture venture, the fundamentals of a business plan, understanding your market, income statement and balance sheets, and budget templates.

TAMU Fisheries has a website with links to five Regional Aquaculture Center and university publications on Small Scale Marketing.

Aquaculture Enterprise Budget Spreadsheets are available from Auburn University Marine Extension & Research Center. The Extension specialists at Auburn have developed four Excel spreadsheets that are available as a free download from their Web site. The budgets include:

  • Channel catfish pond farm
  • Hybrid striped bass pond farm
  • Rainbow trout raceway farm
  • Water recirculating fish farm

Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses can help you develop a detailed business plan and examine ways to take advantage of new marketing opportunities.

Aquaculture Economics and Financing Management and Analysis, by Carole Engle, addresses key issues related to both financing and planning for aquaculture businesses, how to monitor and evaluate economic and financial progress, and how to manage the capital, labor, and risk in the business. Of particular interest to the business planner are Chapter 3, Developing a Business Plan for Aquaculture and Chapter 10, The Enterprise Budget and Partial Budgeting in Aquaculture.

Another online source for budget spreadsheets is the Indiana budgets for recirculating RAS), pond, and cage culture, which can be accessed at The Indiana Soybean Alliance Advancing Indiana Aquaculture website.

Aquacopia is a venture capital firm that looks for certain, rare, cooperative opportunities to invest in farms, farming technologies, feed, supply, service and distribution, value-added processing, and marketing companies.


Small Scale Aquaculture

For those who are interested in small-scale aquaculture, or are considering adding an aquaculture enterprise to your farm, Purdue Sea Grant has developed a fact sheet, A Guide to Marketing for Small-Scale Aquaculture Producers Farm and Home-Scale Aquaculture and Aquaponics that will help you plan and develop a market for your aquaculture products as well as remain competitive as a small-scale aquaculture producer.

Aquaponic Food Production: Raising fish and plants for food and profit, published by Nelson and Pade, contains information on planning, design, and operation of an aquaponic system, including system components and design, fish and plant selection, equipment, system operation, feeds, health, water quality, and renewable energy considerations.

Small Scale Aquaculture: A hobbyist’s guide to growing fish in greenhouses, recirculating systems, cages, and flowing water, by Steven Van Gorder, describes how small-scale fish culture can be both economically and technologically feasible small-scale fish culture. The book highlights systems that can be used for the backyard, basement, or greenhouse, and describes methods of fish culture that are as practical as gardening for producing food.

The Heifer Project’s Urban Aquaculture Manual provides some basic knowledge on how to build a simple recalculating system and an aquaponic system, as well as how to maintain these systems and out more about aquaculture.

How to Build and Operate a Simple Small-to-Large Scale Aquaponics System and Small-Scale Lettuce Production with Hydroponics or Aquaponics, two publications from the University of Hawaii, describe how to develop small aquaponic systems with concise, easy to follow instructions.


Organizations, Journals, and Magazines

The East Coast Shellfish Growers Association hosts an email list serve as well as information on news, research, regulations, and marketing. This is a good place to solicit or sell gear, share conference and meeting information, network for support, and become a art of a community of practice.

The Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association serves growers in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii, and provides resources on environmental protection, shellfish safety, regulations, technology, and marketing. There are also member pages, news, and shellfish information.

The Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA) is an information exchange organization and is among the oldest state aquaculture trade associations in the country.

The Global Aquaculture Alliance is an international, non-profit organization focused on responsible, sustainable aquaculture.

An excellent magazine is Aquaculture Magazine, which deals with all aspects of aquaculture. Their Annual Buyers Guide and Industry Directory is an excellent reference, providing information for all people interested in aquaculture, from the expert to the novice. Aquaculture Magazine Online is a publication serving the national and global aquaculture industry, focused on knowledge, science and research. Issues covered include pond management, diseases, market trends, farm stocking, recirculating systems, statistics, selling, nutrition, feed, seafood processing and more.

Aquaculture North America, a Canadian publication, highlights news, research, and topics on finfish and shellfish, and includes a supplier directory.

World Fishing and Aquaculture covers commercial fishing and aquaculture from an international perspective, providing readers with the latest news and product launches, country profile features, interviews, and regular columns from fishery experts.

Oceanus Magazine is the publication of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a leading non-profit oceanographic research organization. Their mission is to explore and understand the ocean and to educate scientists, students, decision-makers, and the public. Visit the Oceanus aquaculture resource page for more information.

The World Aquaculture Society promotes educational, scientific, and technological development and advancement of aquaculture throughout the world. In addition to disseminating technical and information on aquaculture worldwide, they hold meetings for the presentation, exchange, and discussion of information, findings, and experiences on all subjects and techniques related to aquaculture. WAS hosts a journal, conference proceedings, and the publication World Aquaculture.

Ecotao’s Aquaculture Links is a comprehensive listing of websites and publications on fish farming, which is excellent for beginning your research on all things related to fish and shellfish farming.

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This page was last updated on September 14, 2017->