About Aquaculture

Aquaculture is the farming, breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Aquaculture produces all sorts of fish, shellfish, and seaweeds including food fish, sport fish, bait fish, ornamental fish, crustaceans, mollusks, algae, sea vegetables, and fish eggs. Aquaculture also includes the production of fish and shellfish released into the wild to rebuild wild populations.

Approximately half the seafood eaten worldwide—including in the United States—is farm-raised. Because harvest from wild fisheries has peaked globally, aquaculture is widely recognized as a necessary way to meet the seafood demands of a growing population. As a result, aquaculture is the fastest growing form of food production in the world.

Aquaculture in the United States

A compelling case can be made for growing more seafood in the United States. The United States is a major consumer of aquaculture products—we import 90 percent of our seafood, half of which is from aquaculture. Yet we are a minor producer—only 5 percent of our seafood supply is from domestic freshwater and marine aquaculture. Because the United States has imported an increasing percentage of our seafood at higher prices, the U.S. seafood trade deficit has grown to more than $12 billion annually.

Commercial marine aquaculture, or seafood farming, in the United States consists of a vibrant community of producers that contribute to the seafood supply, complement wild fisheries, and support jobs and other economic activity in our coastal communities and working waterfronts. The $1 billion value of total U.S. freshwater and marine aquaculture production pales in comparison to global aquaculture production of $100 billion. Although U.S. marine aquaculture is small, it is growing at 8 percent per year and is poised for additional growth as oyster farming in particular continues to expand.

As a complement to wild harvest fisheries, aquaculture can help meet the growing demand for seafood, reduce our dependence on imports, and help rebuild wild fish stocks. Sustainable expansion of domestic aquaculture is critical to maintaining coastal communities that support commercial fisheries, aquaculture, and jobs associated with the seafood industry.

What Does NOAA Do?

NOAA (within the Department of Commerce) is one of the primary agencies charged with permitting and overseeing aquaculture. NOAA’s aquaculture program is coordinated through NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Aquaculture and encompasses activities at NOAA’s Fisheries Science Centers and Regional Offices, the National Sea Grant program, and National Ocean Service.

What Do We Produce?

The largest single sector of U.S. marine aquaculture is molluscan shellfish (oysters, clams, and mussels), which accounts for about two-thirds of total production. Marine aquaculture also produces shrimp and salmon as well as lesser amounts of barramundi, sea bass, and sea bream. Aquaculture also grows marine algae (seaweed) for food, medicine, and other uses. Marine aquaculture can take place in the ocean (in cages on the seafloor or suspended in the water column) or on land in enclosed systems.

Freshwater aquaculture produces species that are native to rivers, lakes, and streams. U.S. freshwater aquaculture is dominated by catfish but also produces trout, tilapia, and bass. Freshwater aquaculture takes place primarily in ponds and on land in enclosed systems.

A variety of techniques and technologies are used to farm fish, shellfish, and sea vegetables. Check out the Aquaculture FAQs for more information.

Impacts of Aquaculture

Sustainable marine aquaculture has many benefits. For example, aquaculture:

  • Creates employment and business opportunities in coastal communities.
  • Provides safe and sustainable seafood.
  • Supports marine fish populations and habitats.

Like any human activity, aquaculture can impact the environment, which is why U.S. aquaculture operators adhere to strong environmental and food safety regulations. When practiced responsibly, aquaculture’s impact on wild fish and shellfish populations, marine habitats, and water quality is minimal. In fact, aquaculture can benefit the ecosystem—for example, oyster aquaculture creates habitat and enhances water quality. NOAA continues to work with our partners to develop innovative techniques and management practices that ensure we’re protecting our marine ecosystems as aquaculture production expands around the world.

How Do We Regulate It?

The United States works hard to ensure that aquaculture is environmentally sustainable through effective state and federal regulations, proven management practices, and proper siting of farms. U.S. aquaculture operations must meet rigorous food safety and environmental standards and are closely monitored to ensure compliance. Seafood farmers follow the same food safety guidelines as land farmers and any other producer of seafood. These guidelines include:

  • Harvesting from approved waters.
  • Feed regulations.
  • Handling and processing under sanitary conditions.
  • Maintaining records.

Environmental regulations for aquaculture address siting, water quality, ecosystem impacts, animal health, and many other issues. Visit the Office of Aquaculture website for a detailed discussion.