Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
The Stories

Age-old tradition becoming a modern practice

By Mary M. Carroll

Photo by Carol Starbuck
A group of male and female tilapia swim in a breeding pond “raceway” at the Desert Springs Tilapia Farm.

Aquaculture, put simply, is the farming of fish, shrimp and other creatures that become seafood.  The tradition can be traced back as far as 4,000 years ago, with Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting tilapia held in ponds.  It has been practiced in Asia as far back as 3,000 years ago, with accounts of carp being raised for consumption in ponds. 

It has only been within the last two decades that aquaculture has seen its most rapid and expansive growth, leading to the global industry that we see today.  What caused such a rapid increase in the demand and popularity for farm-raised fish?

It is a response to dwindling supplies of wild fish caught in the ocean, researchers suggest. 

The advent of industrialization brought new technologies for catching and storing fish.  Bigger ships, sonar detection, mechanized fishing, refrigeration – all of these are technologies which led to the ability to catch more fish much quicker, and keep them in storage a lot longer than ever before in history. 

These methods – coupled with a belief that the ocean was so vast that its resources were inexhaustible, as well as many unregulated and unsustainable fishing practices – have led to the collapse and severe declines of many of our ocean fisheries. 

While some regulations and policies, such as closed fisheries and protected marine reserves, are making progress toward reversing the damage done to the Earth’s fisheries, the human population and the demand for seafood continues to rise. 

The types of aquaculture practiced today are far more sophisticated and advanced than those of thousands of years ago, but there is still much controversy about its sustainability and effectiveness.  For instance, farmed salmon requires 3 to 5 pound of other wild fish (used as feed) to produce only 1 pound of salmon.  This further depletes ocean resources and potentially increases loss of biodiversity.  The effluent runoff from shrimp farming in many countries has led to degradation and denudation of surrounding environments, worsening ecosystems such as mangroves. 

Although aquaculture can have just as many cons as it does pros, if practiced with wise choices about the types of fish raised and  approaches that are sustainable both economically and environmentally, it may be part of the solution to repairing the damage that has been caused to our global fisheries.


Growing fish in the desert: a remarkably sustainable venture

Documentary on Empty Oceans, Empty Nets

The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2008

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