Aquaculture: definition, history, importance and classification

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By Milthon Lujan

The use of the additive increases the cellular resistance of fish in intensive culture systems, with the potential to improve health and reduce production costs. Source: EMBRAPA

By: Milthon Lujan Monja and Angie Caruajulca
Aquaculture or aquaculture is an activity that is destined to become the main source of provision of protein of animal origin by the year 2050, when the world’s population exceeds 9 billion people. In this sense, many countries have implemented policies to promote activity to guarantee the availability of food and the generation of employment.

In this post we want to share some definitions, history, classification, importance of aquaculture for people who are looking for information or starting in this exciting activity. It is only a small introduction to the aquaculture world; However, in the last part of the post we include a series of bibliographic references that can be used to delve into the different ones and for you to build a small library with aquaculture books.

What is aquaculture?

The definitions of aquaculture are abundant; However, they all agree that: “Aquaculture or aquaculture is defined as the cultivation of aquatic plant organisms (algae, aquatic plants, etc.) and aquatic animal organisms (fish, crustaceans, mollusks, etc.) in natural environments (sea, river, lake, lagoon) or artificial environments (ponds, tanks), with marine, brackish or fresh waters, for feeding purposes, obtaining bioactive compounds, biofuels, conservation or recreation ”.

In this regard, it is important to note that aquaculture is not only intended to produce food, but also to get bioactive compounds (anticancer, essential fatty acids, proteins, etc.) through seaweed or sea cucumbers farming, or biofuels by microalgae culture.

History of aquaculture

Recent discoveries in Australia seem to show that the first aquaculture experiences date back to 6,600 years with eel farming. However, it is commonly accepted that aquaculture started 4000 years BC in China. In 475 BC, Fan Lei wrote the first Aquaculture Treatise where he explained carp farming.

The first forms of aquaculture practiced consisted of enclosing wild aquatic animals in lakes, ponds or small coastal lakes; there is evidence that tilapias were already cultivated in Egypt, and that the Japanese, Greeks and Romans cultivated oysters.

It was not until the seventeenth century that artificial reproduction began using hatcheries, a practice that is widespread today. From the 60s of the last century, aquaculture gained greater prominence with the realization that fishing does not guarantee the supply of protein in the future, and the use of sea cages for salmon farming grew, a practice that is one of the most important in the world.

Importance of aquaculture

According to FAO projections, the production of fish and shellfish during 2019 reached 177.8 million tons, of which 158.2 million tons are used in food. The same report shows a decrease in fish catches and an increase in aquaculture production that reached 86 million tons.

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Likewise, it is important to highlight the contribution of aquaculture in the apparent per capita consumption of fish and shellfish in 2019. According to the Globefish, the apparent per capita consumption during 2019 was 20.5 kilograms, of which aquaculture contributes 11.2 kilograms; In this sense, aquaculture is responsible for more than 50% of the fish and shellfish we consume.

On the other hand, we must emphasize that aquaculture not only provides food, it is also important for production of bioactive compounds (fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, etc.) for the food or pharmaceutical industry, biofuel production, wild species recovery (repopulation), education, effluent treatment, among others.

In this new context, we can no longer speak of aquaculture as an activity only for the production of food, but as an opportunity for the production of a series of substances that can be integrated into other economic activities such as agriculture. Some examples are the use of effluents from culture tanks for irrigation or vegetable crops (aquaponics), the use of sludge from aquaculture ponds as fertilizers, the use of processing residues of aquaculture species as new protein sources or compounds, among others.

Aquaculture as an economic activity also has a social importance because it allows coastal communities to diversify their activities and thus cope with a climate change scenario; in addition to job creation. It is important to note that when we start an aquaculture farm it has to have a business focus.

Aquaculture classification

Due to the great diversity of operations, a single aquaculture classification can be complex and confusing; Based on these considerations, a basic classification is shown below according to different characteristics of the activity:

Due to the environment where it is practiced:

Marine aquaculture or mariculture:

It is practiced in sea water, highlights the cultivation of scallops, oysters, oysters, mussels, cobia, salmon (fattening), macroalgae, among others.

Freshwater aquaculture:

It is practiced in environments within the continent and uses fresh water.

Brackish water aquaculture:

It is practiced in environments where the concentration of salt varies constantly.

By the level of intensity or production systems

Extensive System:

It is carried out in ponds, in which the fish feed on the primary production of the body of water, for this, fertilization is used. These systems have low cultivation densities, such as 1 fish / m2, and their productions are less than 500 kilograms per hectare.

Semi-intensive system:

It is carried out in constructed ponds which are fertilized (organic or chemical) and balanced food is provided to the animals in a complementary way. The density is between 1 and 5 fish / m2. Sometimes in these systems aeration is used that usually covers 10 to 15% of the pond area.

Intensive System:

It is carried out in ponds, cages, raceways or tanks, with permanent control of the quality of the water, feeding and production. Aeration is usually used in at least 50% of the pond area. The diet will depend only on artificial diets. The density is between 5 to 20 fish / m2, this will depend on the exchange of water and aeration supplied to the pond.

Superintensive or hyperintensive systems:

It is carried out mainly in tanks, under strict control of all factors, mainly water quality, aeration and feeding. The culture density used is greater than 20 fish / m2; however, the peak production density reached depends on being able to keep up good water quality conditions for the organisms in culture.

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By the number of species:


Only one species is cultivated. For example, the cultivation of tilapia, trout.


Two or more species are grown in the same pond or culture system. The most important consideration in polyculture is the likelihood of increasing fish production, through better use of natural foods or area of ​​farming systems. For example, the cultivation of tilapia and shrimp, where it is sought to take advantage of all the space, the tilapia live in the water column and the shrimp in the bottom of the pond.

Integrated crops:

The organic waste from the cultivation of other animals such as ducks or pigs is used, which is used for the production of microalgae, which will be food for the fish. Integrated farming has advanced further and we are now talking about concepts like rice-fish farming, biofloc, aquaponics, integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA) and aquamimetics.

By type of species

Some researchers prefer to classify aquaculture by the species they cultivate in this way we have:

Fish farming or Pisciculture:

Term that is commonly used as a synonym for aquaculture; however, fish farming refers to growing fish in pools (ponds) or nurseries.

Shrimp farming:

Used to name the culture of fresh or marine water shrimp. Shrimp farming is one of the most important in the world, and the main cultivated species are the Pacific white shrimp and the black tiger shrimp.

Salmon farming:

It refers to the cultivation of salmon. This fish farming started in European countries and then spread to American countries. Currently, the salmon farming has as main producers Norway, Chile, Scotland.

Tilapia farming:

It refers to the cultivation of tilapia. Tilapia is one of the main species that has been cultivated in tropical and subtropical climates, due to its rusticity and rapid growth it has won the preference of many fish farmers in the world.

Frog farming:

Although it is not a widespread practice, the cultivation of frogs, mainly the bullfrog, is practiced in countries such as Mexico and Brazil.

Shellfish farming:

Includes the cultivation of mollusks, such as fan shells, oysters, mussels.

Seaweed farming:

Refers to the cultivation of macroalgae or seaweed.

By the level of water exchange

Static systems:

Traditionally extensive ponds, where water exchanges are used during the cultivation period.

Open systems:

Use the environment like a fish farm, for example cages. The cultivated organisms are confined or protected, there is no artificial circulation of water or within the system, the flow and quality of the water is maintained by natural currents (lakes or ocean).

Closed or recirculation systems:

They are characterized by minimal contact with the environment and the original water source. These systems have minimal water exchange during the production cycle.

Classification Based on Seed Origin

A recent publication by Froehlich et al., (2023) has classified aquaculture operations according to the origin of the seed: capture-based aquaculture or domesticated aquaculture.

Capture-Based Aquaculture

This type of aquaculture relies on the use of wild seed.

Domesticated Aquaculture

The seed comes from hatcheries.

Types of aquaculture structures

The main structures used by aquaculturists are ponds; raceways; concrete, fiberglass or geomembrane tanks; floating cages; Rafts and fences (hapas). The use of any of these structures will depend on your business plan to start your fish farm.

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A complete description of each type of structure will be developed in the next post; However, a quick search on the internet will allow you to have some manuals on the cultivation of species such as trout, tilapia, carp, ornamental fish, bivalve molluscs, among others, which will help you learn about the design and management of these aquaculture structures.

How to start an aquaculture business?

Aquaculture is a business, and therefore, the first thing you should analyze is whether there is a current or potential market for the species you are interested in growing; Because these data will allow us to decide what variety of fish or shellfish people are consuming, how much to produce and at what prices to market, starting points for the design of any farm. Some time ago we published a very basic article (spanish) that can serve you initially, the main points to keep in mind are: 

1. Identify a market

2. Learn about the species to cultivate

3. Know the current legal framework

4. Develop a business plan

Simple Methods for Fish Farming

Now that you have basic knowledge about aquaculture, you may be interested in delving into topics such as water quality, pond construction, fish farm management, among other topics related to the good management of a fish farm or aquaculture farm. In this sense, you can download the FAO collection on “Simple Methods for Aquaculture” here


Abdel-Hamied M. Aquaculture Systems. University of Egypt. 

FAO y MAG. 2011. Manual para extensionistas en Acuicultura. 54 p. 

FAO. Simple Methods for Aquaculture

Froehlich, H. E., Montgomery, J. C., Williams, D. R., O’Hara, C., Kuempel, C. D., & Halpern, B. S. (2023). Biological life-history and farming scenarios of marine aquaculture to help reduce wild marine fishing pressure. Fish and Fisheries, 00, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/faf.12783

Lujan M. 2011. ¿Cómo iniciar un emprendimiento de acuicultura? AquaHoy. 

Lujan M. y C. Chimbor. 2016. Bioflocs: Tendencia en la producción acuícola sustentable. AquaHoy. 

NACA/FAO, 2001. Aquaculture in the Third Millennium. Subasinghe, R.P., Bueno, P., Phillips, M.J., Hough, C., McGladdery, S.E., & Arthur, J.E. (Eds.) Technical Proceedings of the Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium, Bangkok, Thailand. 20-25 February 2000. NACA, Bangkok and FAO, Rome. 471pp. 

Rabanal H. 1988. History of Aquaculture. ASEAN/UNDP/FAO Regional Small-Scale Coastal Fisheries Development Project. 

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