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Sustainable Fish Farming: 5 Strategies to Get Aquaculture Growth Right

This post is an installment of WRI’s blog series, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” The series explores strategies to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050. All pieces are based on research being conducted for the forthcoming World Resources Report. Check out more posts in this series.

The world’s appetite for fish is steadily growing. Finfish and shellfish currently make up one-sixth of the animal protein people consume globally. As the global wild fish catch peaked in the 1990s, aquaculture—or fish farming—has grown rapidly to meet world fish demand, more than doubling production between 2000 and 2012. New research shows that aquaculture production will need to more than double again between now and 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population.

The question is: Can aquaculture grow sustainably?

WRI partnered with WorldFish, the World Bank, INRA, and Kasetsart University to explore this question. Our new paper, Improving Productivity and Environmental Performance of Aquaculture, examines aquaculture’s environmental footprint today and explores various scenarios of aquaculture growth to 2050. It uncovers several strategies that can lessen aquaculture’s environmental impacts while also ensuring that fish farming provides employment and nutritious food to millions more people.

Aquaculture’s Impacts: Encouraging Trends, but Challenges Remain

On average, farmed fish convert feed to edible food as efficiently as poultry, making them an attractive option for expanding the global animal protein supply. However, as with all forms of food production, aquaculture isn’t without its environmental impacts.

As aquaculture began to boom in the 1990s, several concerns emerged such as the clearing of mangroves to make way for shrimp farms in Asia and Latin America, increased use of fishmeal and fish oil made from wild marine fish, and the generation of water pollution and shrimp and fish diseases. The aquaculture industry has greatly improved performance over the past 20 years, producing more farmed fish per unit of land and water, lowering the share of fishmeal and fish oil in many aquaculture feeds, and largely stopping mangrove conversion.

However, doubling aquaculture production without further increasing the industry’s efficiency could lead to a doubling of environmental impacts. And unless the aquaculture industry is able to boost productivity, the limited availability of land, water, and feed may constrain its growth.

Getting Aquaculture Growth Right: 5 Approaches

Our report recommends five approaches to help get aquaculture growth right:

  1. Invest in technological innovation and transfer. Aquaculture is a young industry—decades behind that of livestock farming. Improvements in breeding technology, disease control, feeds and nutrition, and low-impact production systems are interlinked areas where science can complement traditional knowledge to improve efficiency. These sorts of innovations—whether led by farmers, research institutions, companies, or governments—have been behind productivity gains in every part of the world. For example, in Vietnam, a breakthrough in catfish breeding around the year 2000—complemented by widespread adoption of high-quality pelleted feed—unlocked a boom in production growth and intensification. Vietnamese catfish production grew from 50,000 tons in 2000 to more than 1 million tons in 2010, even though the country’s total catfish pond area only doubled during that time.

  2. Focus beyond the farm. Most aquaculture regulations and certification schemes focus at the individual farm level. But having many producers in the same area can lead to cumulative environmental impacts—such as water pollution or fish diseases—even if everyone is following the law. Spatial planning and zoning can ensure that aquaculture operations stay within the surrounding ecosystem’s carrying capacity and can also lessen conflicts over resource use. Norway’s zoning laws, for example, ensure that salmon producers are not overly concentrated in one area, reducing disease risk and helping mitigate environmental impacts.

  3. Shift incentives to reward sustainability. A variety of public and private policies can give farmers incentives to practice more sustainable aquaculture. For example, Thailand’s government has provided shrimp farmers operating legally in aquaculture zones with access to free training, water supply, and wastewater treatment. The government has also provided low-interest loans and tax exemptions to small-scale farmers—helping them adopt improved technology that increased productivity, reducing pressure to clear new land.

  4. Leverage the latest information technology. Advances in satellite and mapping technology, ecological modeling, open data, and connectivity mean that global-level monitoring and planning systems that encourage sustainable aquaculture development may now be possible. A platform integrating these technologies could help governments improve spatial planning and monitoring, help the industry plan for and demonstrate sustainability, and help civil society report success stories and hold industry and government accountable for wrongdoing.

  5. Eat fish that are low on the food chain. Fish farming can ease pressure on marine ecosystems if farmed fish don’t need large amounts of wild fish in their diets. Consumers should therefore demand species that feed low on the food chain—“low-trophic” species such as tilapia, catfish, carp, and bivalve mollusks. In emerging economies, where consumption of low-trophic species is still dominant, emphasis should continue with these species even as billions of people enter the global middle class in coming decades. At the same time, because fish are a major source of nutrition for more than a billion poor people in the developing world, growing aquaculture to meet the food and nutritional needs of these consumers will be essential.

With the global wild fish catch stagnant and the human population increasing, aquaculture is here to stay. The world, therefore, needs to get its growth right—and ensure that fish farming contributes to a sustainable food future.

LEARN MORE: WRI’s most recent installment of the World Resources Report recommends five approaches to improve the productivity and environmental performance of aquaculture. Download the working paper here.


Thank you for an overall excellent paper and webinar. Congratulations. I only have one issue to address and it relates to recommendation # 5. Eat fish that are low on the food chain. I believe this is based on the idea that fish low on the food chain will consume diets even lower on the food chain, thus avoiding much of the loss as nutrients and energy transfer from tropic level to tropic level. While this logic holds for wild fish, it does not in an aquaculture context because we have control over what fish in aquaculture eat. The assumption that carnivores must eat meat is not nutritionally or physiologically true. It is entirely possible, and becoming common even commercially, to use protein and energy from primary producers to feed top level aquatic carnivores by using modern feed formulation and manufactures techniques. In fact, because carnivores typically have acid digestion and more complex digestive systems they can be more efficient than herbivores in terms of protein and energy efficiency (exceeding the 30% protein efficiency numbers you report). Focusing on what is in the diets of fish is more important than the niche occupied by the fish in the wild ecosystem. Freed from having to focus on low tropic level fish, we can provide the seafood that people want to eat rather than what aid organizations think they ought to eat. The aid literature is full of case studies where food was provided that was nutritious but not desired by the local population and invariably failed in it’s mission to improve the nutritional status of the target population. If I were to rewrite # 5, I would focus on development of fish feeds made from ingredients with small environmental footprints, not the tropic level of species being cultured.

Hi Michael – thank you for your thoughtful and detailed comment.

To clarify a bit, Recommendation 5 in the blog post (and our paper, where we go into further detail) is mostly about maximizing the global (farmed + wild) food fish supply, given the constraint of a limited supply of forage fish. Because the supply of forage fish has been relatively constant for decades and is not expected to increase, raising farmed fish that eat lower shares of forage fish in their diets would make the best use of this scarce resource from a food security standpoint.

However, you make the valid point that farmed fish themselves are increasingly eating lower on the food chain. As you note, feed formulations are improving and the shares of fishmeal and fish oil in salmon, shrimp, marine fish and other aquaculture diets have been falling over the past 20 years and are expected to keep falling in the future. We include this important nuance in our paper (see, for instance, Figure 9, Box 6 in Recommendation 1, endnote 63, Case Study 6 on Norwegian farmed salmon in the appendix). But it seems this nuance got lost in Recommendation 5 in the paper, and certainly in the even shorter blog post. Thanks for bringing it to our attention and for keeping the conversation going.

Excellent article. Aquaculture projects for new development require market and feasibility studies. Feasibility Studies for Inland Super Intensive, Ocean Bound or Processing Systems including Canneries, Fisheries are frequently requested. Feasibility study is an essential tool, when conducting a new business . But its really sensitive to many factors. We need to answer questions such as : Is there a demand for this kind of business ? What are our biggest competitors ? Am i eligible to compete ? Feasibility study must contain in depth analysis, which evaluates potential risk factors.

Wert-Berater, Inc. provides feasibility studies worlwide for all types of projects. We have numerous industry professionals and milions invested in information, thus we are able to cover all NAICS industries.t

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Thank you for an overall excellent paper . Congratulations. Recognizing the importance of fish to food security and it's nutritional value, which should be done to maintain or even improve that contribution now and in the long term, given the challenges that both fisheries and aquaculture are face in terms of sustainability and governance.The solution is the development of sustainable aquaculture, that generates less pollution, generates jobs, and ensure food self-sufficiency by 2050. The world must develop the aquaculture sector as this sector presents the only alternative for feeding the world's population.

Thanks for sharing this information here. Aquaculture demand is gradually increasing year by year with respect to the growth of population. The increase in production of fish is to overcome or fulfill the food demand of people all around the World. The graph shows everything and by the year 2050 one can expect the rise in demand of aquaculture production.

All the 5 strategies mentioned for Aquaculture growth are very innovative and widely appreciable. All those are useful to cover up the needs of people by quality fish farming with the growth of population year by year. Improved farming certainly helps people to get the maximum out of their aquaculture farm. The 5th strategy “Eat Fish that are low on food chain” is something interesting and also useful one. Wild fish growth is one of the prime reasons for low fish production, because they kill the fishes when they are small. So, we have to eat more wild fishes to increase the aquaculture production.

Thank you for this excellent blog. I am actually a student doing her IB. As part of the international baccalaureate we are required to write a 4000 word extended essay. I have chosen to write mine based on how important it is to develop sustainable fish farming in light of growing population by combining both biology and economic analysis. The information you have shared helps me immensely!

Why can't forage fish such as mehaden be grown..? Also what about pens far offshore that possibly drift behind large boats. Also there are fast growing species like the black Sea bass off of the Carolinas that need to be examined. I think there is still not enough thinking outside of the box.

Excellent paper....and a lot to think about how produce more fish, economically and socially acceptable ways

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