Introduction to Ecological Aquaculture

Barry A. Costa-Pierce


Reference: Costa-Pierce, B.A. 2015. Introduction to Ecological Aquaculture. Ecological Aquaculture: Principles and Practices for the Blue Revolution to 2050.



Ecological aquaculture is an integral part of our common planetary wisdom and cultural heritage, and is an essential part of our future evolution as a sophisticated species living in peace with the Earth’s complex ecosystems.


Costa-Pierce (2002) defined "ecological aquaculture" as an alternative model that uses ecological principles and ecosystems thinking as the fundamental organizing paradigm for the development of aquaculture. Ecological aquaculture incorporates—at the outset—the principles of natural and social ecology, planning for community development, and concerns for the wider social, economic, and environmental contexts of aquaculture”. Ecological aquaculture plans for both economic and social profit.


The six characteristics of ecological aquaculture are:


1.     Ecological aquaculture preserves the form and functions of natural ecosystems. Aquaculture sites do not disrupt or displace valuable natural ecosystems, but if localized displacement or degradation does occur, active research and development programs for ecosystem rehabilitation and enhancement are initiated and sustained.


2.     Ecological aquaculture practices trophic efficiency as the world’s most efficient protein producer. Aquaculture ecosystems rely on protein and oil sources from sustainable fishmeal/oil fisheries, plant, waste animal, and seafood processing wastes, with the “sustainability trajectory” (the “evolution of the blue revolution”) oriented towards the use of fish meals/oils not as the major protein or energy sources, but for issues of diet palatability only.


3.     Ecological aquaculture practices nutrient management by not discharging any irreversible nutrient or chemical pollution. No harmful metals, chemicals or antibiotics potentially harmful to human or ecosystem health are used in the aquaculture production processes.


4.     Ecological aquaculture uses native species/strains, and does not contribute to "biological" pollution. However, exotic species/strains can be used if long term scientific research and monitoring data indicate that if escapees to do occur, they are unlikely to establish, or, if established, they are unlikely to have major ecological or social impacts. Ecological aquaculture operations ensure that complete escapement control and recovery procedures are in place; and that active research and development programs provide complete documentation and public information.


5.     Ecological aquaculture is integrated with communities to maximize economic and social multiplier effects, provides maximal job creation and training for displaced fishers and “sea workers”, and is a good community citizen. Ecological aquaculture operations export to earn profits, but also promote and market products locally to contribute to community economic and social development.


6.     Ecological aquaculture is a global partner, producing information for the world, avoiding the proprietary.


Ecological aquaculture is a discipline that merges the use of ecological principles and practices, such as ecological design, ecological engineering, and ecological approaches to governance with the understanding of the social ecology of aquatic foods in aquatic farming families, communities and regions. The goal of ecological aquaculture is to create and sustain innovative, economically and socially viable aquaculture ecosystems at all scales of societies, from local to global.


Since 1950, there's been a 100% increase in the per capita demand for fish products. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts world consumption of aquatic proteins to increase to 150-160 million tons in this century. Traditional fisheries can provide no more than 100 million tons, so the bulk of the increase will need to come from aquaculture—farming the world’s waters. But the expansion of aquaculture has raised concerns about intensive aquaculture operations being confined animal feedlots that are energy intensive operations producing nutrient pollution comparable to small cities; concerns about habitat destruction and water diversions that disrupt invaluable aquatic ecosystems; and concerns about the accelerated use of fish meals in aquaculture feeds resulting in aquaculture being a consumer rather than a producer of animal protein. Expansion of industrial aquaculture in enclosed bays along crowded coasts and rivers in conflict with coastal communities and environmental managers is not the way to plan and develop the “blue revolution”.


Environmental groups have done a service to society and the global aquaculture industry by pointing out the ecological and social impacts caused by aquaculture. Aquaculture does have an impact on the environment, just as agriculture does. However, most of the well-publicized problems are with shrimp and salmon aquaculture. Environmental concerns about shellfish, grazing and omnivorous fish aquaculture, and marine plant agronomy (eelgrass, aquatic plant, algae and seaweed aquaculture, etc.) are fewer. Aquaculture is not a monolithic "industry" or a standard set of practices easy to label or regulate. Indeed, shellfish aquaculture has been shown to provide a vital ecosystem service—nutrient removal. Aquaculture encompasses a diversity of systems, species and management practices which defy rigorous classification.


I support the rapid expansion of aquaculture worldwide but believe expansion must be accomplished by promoting an alternative aquaculture development model, an “ecological aquaculture” model which brings not only the technical aspects of ecosystems design and ecological principles to aquaculture, but also incorporates comprehensive, participatory planning for the wider social, economic, and environmental contexts of aquaculture.


Aquaculture is nothing new; nor is the concept of “ecological” aquaculture. Aquatic animals and plants were farmed over 3000 years ago. Aquaculture evolved naturally in historical times in societies pressed by the inabilities of natural and cultivated land and water resources to provide adequate quantities of high quality protein foods for their increasing populations. Integration of aquaculture, agriculture and animal husbandry on farms in Asia creates definable aquaculture ecosystem types that closely resemble natural ecosystems having their own structure, closely-coupled nutrient recycling pathways, and ecological management strategies.


Adopting ecological technologies alone, however—no matter how innovative—is not enough. More appropriate technologies must be implemented; farming practices must be reformed; and new, more comprehensive policies must be enacted for the industry to resurrect its reputation and gain the support of its many detractors. New aquaculture developments must be planned as part of not separate from comprehensive management strategies for the restoration and sustainability of coastal ecosystems, coastal fisheries, and coastal communities. Professor Jim Anderson, a fisheries economist at the University of Rhode Island, put this lack of comprehensive fisheries planning in context when he considered a typical meeting of fisheries experts. He states, “They debate fisheries management and innovative solutions to the great open access problems. When they break to eat dinner, it is likely to consist of salmon or shrimp. Yet they seem oblivious to the fact that the seafood they are consuming is farmed. They eat the future of fisheries, but they continue to discuss its past.”


Alaska is a textbook case of the need for more comprehensive planning for fisheries, aquaculture, and the future of coastal communities. Some time ago, Alaska made salmon aquaculture “illegal” to protect its salmon fishery and its pristine marine environments (and with the unstated purpose of protecting its salmon markets?).


But Alaska is a salmon aquaculture powerhouse. For example, salmon hatcheries and nursery net pens in Prince William Sound have added millions of salmon to the approximately 10 million salmon harvested each year in the 1990’s. Recent scientific studies found that these hatchery salmon did not displace the region’s wild salmon stocks; rather, the hatchery salmon added to the overall size of the Alaska salmon harvest. As a result, Alaska is awash in salmon not only from the wild, but also from its aquaculture-enhanced salmon fishery. According to an article in the Anchorage Daily News on January 13, 2002 titled, “On the rocks - historic Alaska salmon industry faces unprecedented threat”, Alaska fishermen landed almost 175 million salmon in the summer of 2001 but received only $216 million for them, less than half the revenue earned of 15 years ago. This is occurring when global demand for salmon is exploding. In 2001, the world consumed an estimated 3.7 billion pounds of salmon, triple the amount of 20 years earlier, but salmon farms have won almost all of the new demand. Alaska salmon fishermen contend that wild salmon tastes better than farmed, but consumers don’t care.


We need an increased focus on the evolution of the blue revolution in order to get beyond the current plague of endless user conflicts over the future of our coasts and our fisheries. Increased planning for aquaculture is needed at scales beyond the farm site in order to recognize aquaculture’s vital support services at the outset of proposed developments; to maximize potential job creation and local benefits; and to plan better for aquaculture’s ecological and social “footprints” in the larger context of a bioregion and the future of coastal fishing communities. The growth of aquaculture impacts the future of our coastal zones and traditional fisheries. Aquaculture’s growth can be better planned to serve human needs and meet the phenomenal growth in seafood markets. The associated value and price competition that occur between aquaculture and fisheries products can be better managed for the mutual benefit of both traditional fishing and farming communities.


New aquaculture developments need to be evaluated in their larger regional and community impacts and contexts. New companies and farmers incorporating aquaculture need to and recognize their social and environmental responsibilities and internalize plans for more efficient resource recycling and enhance—not degrade—natural ecosystem and community social services as part of their business plans and economic projections. Clearly this will require accelerated funding for applied aquaculture research and increased public involvement by state and federal agencies so that we can have available the latest science and outreach advances needed to assist the evolution of ecological aquaculture. Governments—worldwide—have dropped the ball here.


Aquaculture must expand but it needs to become part of the “culture” of a place and region. Aquaculture needs family and community roots in addition to corporate ones. Thousands of new, ecologically and economically sustainable aquaculture family farms and progressive start-up companies need to be developed in the 21st century. These farms will need to practice "input management", recycle water, nutrients and materials, and produce healthy, uncontaminated products without discharges. If aquaculture continues to evolve as a corporate and regulatory undertaking rather than in an environmental and socially responsible manner in areas where it is relatively new—such as North America—it will never provide its full potential benefits. Increased diseases, environmental regulations, management difficulties, and resource and social conflicts coming in the crowded 21st century will slow its progress and its promise. And it is certain that the public worldwide will not accept any new forms of food production that exploit people, cause environmental harm, or produce new sources of aquatic pollution. Only with increased and more comprehensive participatory planning can we become better stewards of the Earth's natural and cultivated aquatic ecosystems. In short, the “blue revolution” will quickly go bust unless it “greens up”.


In the very earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen—
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody can explain this:
That's the way it was.

Nalungiaq, an Netsilik Eskimo poet wrote this mystical piece, edited by Edward Field.

Ecological Aquaculture is the Only Way to Save the World's Last and Most Spectacular Terrestrial Ecosystems


The working hypothesis we have is that ecological aquaculture is one of the only ways we have to save the world's last and most spectacular terrestrial ecosystems, preserves and natural areas from complete destruction by agriculture. By 2050 global food production will need to rise at least by 70% (FAO 1991, 2011) as the world's population is expected to reach 9.6 to 12.3 billion (Science, 2014). There are severe resource limits to expanding terrestrial food production. If humanity expands traditional and industrial terrestrial farming across the globe to feed this future population, the world will face a terrible conservation crisis. Less than 1% of human foods come from the ocean (Pimentel and Pimentel 1996; FAO 2011). The real debate over the future of aquaculture is not whether aquaculture will grow, but how it will grow. Innovative approaches are needed to develop new, ocean food production systems that do not separate but combine capture fisheries and aquaculture, and do not destroy or compromise the resilience of marine ecosystems. By developing - fully - cooperative research and team science - and using the "aquaculture toolbox" we can not only produce adequate seafoods for future humanity but also support the restoration of capture fisheries while protecting and enhancing marine ecosystems, plus also redevelop the world's working waterfronts as premier examples of the "blue-green economy". Ecological aquaculture and the ecosystems approach to aquaculture will enhance humanity’s responsibility to better steward ocean ecosystems while also feeding the future world with nutrient-dense foods essential for human health and wellness. Ecological aquaculture is a transdisciplinary area of scholarship and practice – a “pracademic

” – that combines the social-ecological wisdom of aquafarming and fishing peoples with the science knowledge of aquatic ecosystems to provide economic, environmental, and social profit from seafoods. Ecological aquaculture is “team science” that develops social-ecological partnerships of scientists working with fishermen, farmers, and civil society that are central to the success of ecological aquaculture. Ecological aquaculture incorporates the knowledge – and power – of ecological design, ecological engineering, and ecological approaches to governance – to implement and then evolve – more sustainable aquaculture businesses and family farms at the bioregional scale. This “alternative path” of aquaculture is being used to evolve a whole new generation of aquaculture ecosystems that produce not only higher economic benefits, but also increased social and environmental profit due to the multiple benefits they provide not only to the economy, but also to ecosystems, and societies.




Costa-Pierce, B.A. 2002. Ecological Aquaculture: The Evolution of the Blue Revolution. Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK.

Costa-Pierce, B.A. 2002. Ecology as the paradigm for the future of aquaculture, p. 339-372. In: B.A. Costa-Pierce (Ed.) Ecological Aquaculture: The Evolution of the Blue Revolution. Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 1991. Food Balance Sheets. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2011. The state of the world's land and water resources for food and agriculture (SOLAW) - Managing systems at risk. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome and Earthscan, London.

Pimentel, D. and M. Pimentel. 1996. Food, Energy and Society. Boulder, CO: Colorado University Press.

Soto, D. and 22 co-authors. 2008. Applying an ecosystem-based approach to aquaculture: principles, scales and some management measures, p. 15-36. In: Soto, D. et al. (eds). Building An Ecosystem Approach to Aquaculture. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Proceedings 14. Rome, Italy.