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Australian Fish Farmer: A Practical Guide to Aquaculture

Australian Fish Farmer: A Practical Guide to Aquaculture

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Australian Fish Farmer: A Practical Guide to Aquaculture

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28 ore
May 25, 2004


This is a practical guide for people in the aquaculture industry and for those about to enter it. Australian Fish Farmer covers current as well as potential aquaculture industries and provides practical skills that will allow people to solve everyday problems in the day-to-day management of aquatic stock.

This new edition reflects the considerable advances in technology, farming methods and commercial development. These aspects and more have been included in the revised edition, which also deals with financial and administrative management to provide the reader with sufficient information to operate a successful venture. The authors have drawn on their experience of designing and conducting aquaculture training programs and incorporated feedback, to ensure this publication is relevant and practical to Australian fish farmers.

May 25, 2004

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Australian Fish Farmer - John J. Mosig



What makes aquaculture work?

This chapter is about the key components that drive aquaculture and make it work. Topics covered include:

the importance of control over the whole system

the influence and need to identify limiting factors

how to maximise your production outcomes


water quality

the environment



Before we discuss what makes aquaculture work we should define aquaculture. Aquaculture is the production of aquatic organisms under controlled conditions.

The commercially minded might like to add: ‘the purpose of aquaculture is to produce aquatic organisms in an efficient manner so that the operator can make a profit’.

Sure, the fish are important, but the water quality and the matters that influence the stability and balance of the system are what you are managing. The fish are what you are growing. In other words, the reason you are managing those inputs is to achieve an outcome of having market-quality fish to sell. For management purposes, it is sometimes helpful to separate the two in your mind. You can’t achieve the latter without paying complete attention to the former.

In its purest form, aquaculture is intensive animal production, not far removed from intensive pig and poultry production, and in that sense a lot of the groundwork has already been done over the last 30 years by those food-producing sectors.

The key to aquaculture is water quality management. Get that right and many of the potential problems are minimised. The degree of control an operator has over water quality will determine the degree of control he or she has over the production from any given body of water.

Strictly speaking, rice growing is aquaculture, but this book will deal with the options offered by farming what is loosely called ‘seafood’: finfish, crayfish (crustaceans) and shellfish.

Aquaculture can range from a laid-back managed fishery to a full-on intensive animal production unit. The aquaculturist determines the level of the intensity. This book will cover the practical aspects of aquaculture production.

Once the practicalities are under control, the farmer has to look at the marketing side of aquaculture. Part of the art of farming is balancing the risks against the odds and the costs, and the more ways of monitoring the production trends the grower has at their disposal, the more accurate the predicted results will be. And from a marketing point of view, this is what it’s all about: knowing what you’ve got to sell at a given time in the future.

One point we would like to make though is that this book is a textbook, not a manual. Our purpose is to help you develop sufficient confidence in your own aquaculture judgement to be able to write your own manual for your own circumstances and your own management style.

What is a fish farmer?

Aquaculture is the art of culturing aquatic organisms. However, running a fish farm is a business and should be structured and operated as one. We cover all the elements of fish farming from setting up the business plan, through construction of the ponds, administration, post-harvest handling and preparation for sale to the actual marketing of the product.

We’ve included a description of a fish farmer so you’ll be able to grasp how many people you’ll have to be during this phase of your life. The following has been borrowed from the training notes of the Introductory Course in Commercial Warmwater Aquaculture (Aquaculture Services Australia Pty Ltd 1995). It later appeared in a column that appeared in Austasia Aquaculture, the national trade periodical, and takes a humorous look at ‘What is an Aquaculturist?’ by comparing the skills required by one person or family with the skills expected of a team of cricketers. The purpose was to highlight the range of attributes needed for the operation of a successful fish farm.

If you were in charge of the local cricket team you’d look to recruit players with natural ball skills and the ability to play in a position in which the team is weak. So, let’s look at recruiting an aquaculture team. Just like a cricket team, an aquaculture team has specialist positions that serve to make up team balance.

Aquaculture is about growing things in water so the first people we would pick for our champion aquaculture team would be the water experts: a plumber, a sewerage plant manager and an irrigation farmer. This group can be likened to the bowlers in a cricket team: if you can’t bowl the opposition out twice you can’t win. If your water quality can’t be maintained the game’s over: you lose.

The sewerage plant manager would have the skills to maintain water quality under the most overloaded conditions imaginable. He’s our strike bowler. Holding the water quality at a level that would maximise natural food production yet still maintain the water at a quality in which fish will thrive would be a piece of cake for someone with the training and experience of a sewerage plant manager.

The plumber would rig and maintain the plumbing in the purging/holding room and the hatchery, should one be part of the operation. The fish are at their most vulnerable when handled in high densities. It is important that the water management here is first class and is supported by back-up systems in case of breakdowns. Oxygen supply to the tanks is also critical and the plumber could take this on. Naturally, this team member would be invaluable should you be growing fish in a re-circulation system.

The irrigation farmer would be experienced in moving large volumes of water without which the grow-out ponds are inefficient. The plumber and the irrigation farmer would probably overlap in a few areas, which is what team play is all about really.

When it comes to system design, you may need some skills coaching from the earth-moving contractor, the re-circulation system designer or a surveyor for farm layout, or all three.

Fish farming is intensive animal production so we would select someone from the pig or poultry industries, as they would have the experience in this field. We are running a fish production unit so there should be an emphasis on production. This person is our opener. It is from here that the foundation of the innings is laid.

To play alongside the production manager we would select an inland angler: one who gets a feed whenever he goes out, one way or the other. This left-hand, right-hand combination would complement each other: the orthodox production manager would have the understanding that fish have to eat a balanced ration to grow and the more they can be made to eat, the more they will grow. The angler, on the other hand, would know that they may need a little coaxing and a little pampering to get them to eat as well as having a good feeling for the preferred comfort zone of the various species and their natural feed preferences. The team would rely on these two to produce the bulk of the early runs.

Nutrition is a specialist skill so we turn again to the specialist coaching skills department if we feel that we’re not up to scratch in that area. The feed industry has, or should have, nutritionists on the staff to help us with our run scoring technique.

Then there’s the heavy work: someone to bowl uphill into the wind all day to tie up an end; someone to hold off a hostile pace attack while the last recognised batsman secures the innings; someone to belt a quick 35 at the end of the innings. Somewhere on the team there will have to be players who can lift full tubs of water and fish while slogging through deep mud and up slippery banks. Some of the bullocking work can be removed from the system by innovative engineering but at any given time the work can be back breaking. Hauling nets will wrench your body out of shape in next to no time.

The erection of predator control netting requires the skills of a good fencing contractor at worst, an engineer at best, so we’ve got the talent scouts out for either of those, although a skills coach can be hired for this specialist short-term position.

Regular maintenance of motors, vehicles and equipment demand the attitude and knowledge of a mechanical engineer: the keeper. There’s nothing more time consuming than having to run into town every time something breaks down; like chasing a ball down to the fence every time it gets past the bat. And the little bits and pieces of off-the-shelf equipment that make life easy in other farming pursuits aren’t always available for aquaculture, so there would be a place in the team for an all-rounder: an innovative engineer; part bush mechanic, part bush carpenter, part Thomas Edison. In fact, ingenuity in all aspects of fish farming is something the coach should be instilling in the members of the team.

And speaking of the coach, this aquaculture cricket team of ours will also need a captain, a coach and a manager. Someone has to be in control of the day-to-day play, someone has to have an overview to plan strategy and someone has to hold it all together and make sure the players get to bed early and that all the gear is aboard the bus in the morning. The day-to-day problem solving and the development of the planning phases of the project will fall to this group. Without it the team is a bloody shambles.

The on-field team is only as good as the club it represents, so we’ll need to have in place a sound club administration so that the club is also financially successful. Someone to run the fund raisers, take care of the catering, sell the tickets to the games and market the image of the club in order to increase membership. This is the aquaculture equivalent of the growers’ association.

You may not be particularly gifted in each of these skills, but as long as you are aware of their importance you can learn the basics required to get you out of trouble; or more to the point to keep you out of trouble in the first place. Ask yourself how many of the places in the team you can fill off your own bat, and then consider who you would pick for the vacant positions.

Why would you go into aquaculture?

Basically there are no other species on this planet that will produce protein for human consumption more efficiently than fish. Nor, as nutritionists are discovering, is there a healthier form of protein. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in seafood, are claimed as a cure for everything from arthritis to mental wellbeing.

As cold-blooded animals, fish don’t require energy to maintain body temperature.

Being suspended by flotation bladders they burn up very little energy maintaining their vertical position compared with, say, a cow or a sheep; nor do they burn a lot of energy moving about in search of food and water.

This energy efficiency means that they are able to devote a good deal of the energy they consume to building body tissue and muscle. Food efficiency is measured in terms of food conversion ratio (FCR). The FCR quantifies the amount of food used to produce a unit of weight, usually a kilogram. It is expressed as a ratio to one. So a fish that eats 1.5 kg of food to produce 1 kg of weight gain would have an FCR of 1.5:1.

To provide some idea of how efficient fish are at converting food to saleable product, compare their FCR with that of other intensively farmed animals. In a feedlot, a steer converting at 10:1 will lose the grower money; 8:1 is considered the industry benchmark and 6:1 very good. Well-managed pigs in a temperature-controlled environment will convert a properly designed diet at the rate of 2:1 and chooks at 1.6:1. Fish under commercial conditions are considered efficient at 1:1 to 1.2:1. Anything above 1.5:1 in an intensive operation is regarded as borderline and anything above 2:1 as sub-economic. In efficient re-circulation systems under good management, some species have recorded better than 0.8:1 and a feed conversion efficiency of 1:1 would be considered the norm.

There is a downside to this. Fish diets are generally more than double and sometimes triple the price of those designed to feed monogastric animals or ruminants. However, this is compensated for by the value the market places on seafood.

Because of their natural tendency to school, fish can be produced at high densities thus enabling the fish farmer to produce a large volume of product from a small area.

As we touched on previously, fish have a very high acceptance in the market place. In fact some of the species cultured are amongst the luxury items on the dinner table. This is not necessarily a good thing as it tends to give a false impression of the realities of aquaculture and it can build up people’s hope of a new rural boom. Make no mistake – aquaculture is hard work. It’s farming in water, nothing more, nothing less. As long as we remember that, we can’t go far wrong.

It is only fair to ask the opposing question: ‘Why not aquaculture?’ The answer should be obvious: if it were easy, we’d all be doing it. Aquaculture is a high-risk occupation. As we shall discover, water is a dynamic and volatile environment in which to farm. The aim of this book is to provide an awareness of the risks involved and develop in the reader knowledge of how to minimise their impact.

How do you make aquaculture profitable?

The only proven way to culture aquatic organisms for profit is by following the basic principles of aquaculture and applying them to the business of running a fish farm.

The principles of aquaculture are based in science. Therefore the fish or yabby farmer has to operate within the boundaries imposed by the lores of biology, water chemistry and nutrition. The aquaculturist will have to know the scientific limitations these lores impose on his operation.

The product being grown is a live animal and as temperamental as any living organism. In some cases the aquaculturist has to keep more than one species thriving at the one time. In the case of a species dependent on live food, such as raising silver perch larvae or yabby juveniles, the grower will be managing a plankton bloom at the same time as a growing crop. The operator of a re-circulation unit will also be keeping two groups of organisms going: the fish in the tanks and the bacteria driving the nitrification cycle in a bio-filter. This can take some doing and demands hands-on management.

Then there’s the running of a business. While the commercial influences on the farm are dynamic and require adaptable management, recording and analysis entails painstaking care in recording and reviewing the day-to-day inputs of farm and stock management. This calls for flexibility, practicality and thoroughness. The marriage of those three qualities underwrites the success of the aquaculture enterprise.

What are the areas that influence production?

An area of influence is any point of the production process where a variation of conditions will influence the level of efficiency of the production unit.

As you will find, it is important to our management that we keep the areas of influence separate in our thinking. These areas of influence can be divided into five components:

Genetics: A fish can only perform to the maximum level of its genetic capability.

Water quality: Nothing stresses fish quicker than poor quality water. The maintenance of water quality is critical to the success of your fish farm.

Environment: The environment or climatic conditions: being cold-blooded animals, fish activity is governed by the ambient temperature.

Husbandry: Husbandry is the art of keeping your charges within the confines of their preferred comfort zone. This includes keeping them apart from predators and monitoring their health. It can also be described as the removal of stress from your production system. This is the area in which farming ability has the most influence. It is the area in which you will find most of your limiting factors, and is the area in which the farmer must take total responsibility.

Nutrition: The growth and wellbeing of any animal is greatly determined by their diet, and fish farming is no different. Diets must be designed to suit, as closely as possible, the nutritional profile of the animal being raised.

These five areas of influence are interdependent and an element that has a direct influence on one area is likely to have an indirect effect on one or more other areas. For instance deteriorating water quality will stress the fish, which in turn will reduce their appetite; a poor appetite will leave food uneaten in the system, thus further negatively influencing the quality of the water.

To further confuse the issue, the deteriorating water quality may be caused by feeding an inappropriate ration in the first place. This will create a situation in which some of the feed will be staying in the fish but a large percentage will be passed through the fish into the water as nutrient. This in turn will feed a plankton bloom that the grower has to manage or face deteriorating water quality.

A change of diet, a sudden weather shift, or the presence of predators could have the same effect on the fishes’ appetite and, ultimately, water quality, so you can see how important it is to recognise any change in pond behaviour and be able to identify the direct cause.

What are the factors that limit production?

A limiting factor is an element negatively influencing the performance of the systems, thereby limiting their output. The effect of a limiting factor may be found in more than one of the areas of influence but it will have a primary point of influence.

The most limiting factor in the chain of production will determine the level of efficiency of the whole unit.

For instance: if the genetic potential of the fish, through selective breeding, has been improved to 85% of what it could be; water quality management is spot-on at 95% of pure; the season is favourable with an early spring warm-up, a steady summer without too many heat waves and thunderstorms, followed by a beautiful long calm autumn, let’s say 80% of optimum; and the husbandry has the fish thinking that they’re in piscatorial heaven at 90% of what they would regard as ideal; but the nutrition is El Cheapo and only 50% of the nutritional value of the feed stays in the fish, the output of the whole operation would be 50%; and all the effort to bring the other areas of influence up to best-practice level will count for naught.

In fact the outcome would be less than 50% efficient, because the downward pressure the poor quality feed would place on water quality would, at some stage, make water quality the lowest common denominator overriding the influence of the poor quality feed.

As mentioned in the Introduction, aquaculture is complex, and keeping all the balls in the air at the one time is a challenging task on its own, without trying to hop on one leg blindfolded. Stick to the rules established over time and concentrate on removing limiting factors from your production system. Experimentation may be exciting, cutting-edge stuff, but it’s a gamble, and while it could be said that you don’t get anywhere without taking risks, consolidate the farm first.

What is the production manager’s role?

The role of the production manager can be defined as the art of getting the charges in his or her care to grow into healthy, marketable specimens as economically as possible.

The production manager is one of the most important people on the farm. It is their responsibility to produce the stock, the sale of which provides the reason for the farm existing in the first place.

What does the production manager do?

The daily routine of the production manager is made up of problems: problem prevention; problem identification; problem solving, and (as your expertise and confidence grow) problem anticipation.

Problem prevention

Problem prevention is based in planning and depends on sound knowledge of the areas that can present problems. The two things that will most concern the production manager are loss of production and loss of stock. The source of these headaches is usually poor water quality, poor nutrition and stress. Discounting predation, which is due to poor planning, and inefficient feed, which is due to poor understanding of nutrition, most problems can be prevented if the possible source of poor water quality and stress are considered in the planning and operational stages.

Problem identification

This is the art of husbandry. In most cases what you can best identify are the symptoms, but with experience you will become competent in identifying specific problems.

Symptoms can be related to any number of causes but an easy way to isolate the cause is to trace it back to its area of influence. Look systematically at each area of influence. To give an example:

Symptom: slowing of the growth rate although the fish appear healthy and vigorous. Possible causes:

Genetics? Could be the case if seedstock of the same species, but from different brood-stock, are performing better under similar circumstances. If the slowing growth rate is due to normal slowing due to the fish moving into a more mature stage of their development within the normal production cycle then the cause is unlikely to be genetic.

Climatic? If the temperature moved outside the species’ preferred range, this is likely to be a contributing factor, if not the only reason. Unless water temperatures have moved above or below the stress levels, fish will appear normal although their metabolism will not be functioning as efficiently as it would if temperatures were closer to their optimum ranges. That their feeding rate has fallen away somewhat would be an indicator of a thermal influence on the fishes’ activity level. Sudden shifts in climatic conditions, such as a severe frost or a summer cold spell, can also have an adverse effect on appetite. Fish love stability.

Water quality? Fish will lose their appetite in poor quality water and usually show signs of stress as the conditions deteriorate. The circumstances under investigation could be an early warning sign to an impending critical water quality problem. Dissolved oxygen levels may be low, thus depriving the fish of a key ingredient for growth.

Husbandry? Crowding beyond the preferred social density of the fish is a common cause of uneven growth rates and stunting. A given number of small fish in a given space may not be overcrowded, whereas the same number of larger fish in the same space is. Take a closer look at the fish. Put some scrapings from the scales under the microscope; there could be a health problem looming. The gills may be damaged by bacterial outbreak. The fish generally know before you when they’re feeling under the weather and go off their feed before they show symptoms of deteriorating health. This is not unlike the sore throat that heralds an oncoming cold in humans. Our health doesn’t take a nosedive until the cold hits properly, but we can feel the onset and dread the outcome. Then again it could be the presence of predators putting the fish off their feed as they’re usually skittish if predators are about. As we said before, this is the area in which you will find most of your limiting factors.

Nutrition? A slowing in growth rate without signs of stress could be attributed to a falling off in the nutrient value of the food, due to poor storage or a change in manufacturer. The fish may not be getting enough food, or, if relying on natural food, there may be a reduction in the available nutrition.

Problem solving

Problem solving is self-explanatory. If you can’t solve it yourself, don’t be afraid to seek expert advice. You could ask another, more experienced fish farmer, a government Extension Office or Fisheries scientist, a veterinarian or perhaps an animal nutritionist.

Problem anticipation

Problem anticipation is also self-explanatory. It is the single most cost-effective procedure on the farm. Recording the results of daily monitoring procedures, such as pH and dissolved oxygen trends, and observations, such as signs of the presence of predators, will go a long way towards enabling the production manager to stay on top of things.

As an example of observation: the discovery of a leaky pipe would allow the problem to be corrected before the whole bank collapses or a tank drains out overnight.

As an example of monitoring: in the case of water quality breakdown, there are signs of progressive deterioration and we’ll talk about them later in great detail.

The importance of water quality management

It would not be possible to talk about aquaculture without mentioning water quality management. Water quality underwrites the success of everything we do in fish farming and we’ll be referring to it constantly.

How are the fish managed so that they grow?

Nutrition is the key to growth.

The first tool the production manager must have in this phase of the operation is an understanding of what makes animals grow. The only way to make fish grow is to get them to take in more nutrition than they require for daily activities and body maintenance. The surplus nutrition is thus translated into growth. Achieving this with the least possible fuss and the least possible cost without compromising water quality is critical to the success of the operation.

The other aspect of nutrition is that it must be made up of, as close as possible within the confines of the knowledge of the time, the nutrient profile of the species being cultivated. We’ll be looking more closely at this and other aspects of feeding and nutrition in chapter 9.

A stress-free environment is essential for fish growth. A happy fish is a feeding fish; and a feeding fish is a growing fish. The numerous and varied factors relating to stress in your fish-growing systems will form an undercurrent throughout these chapters.

What are the tools of a successful production manager?

A production manager will use tools that are simple and relatively inexpensive. We’ll talk about these in more detail later but we want to touch on them now so you aren’t tempted to rush into any rash purchases.

The first and most valuable artificial aid to aquaculture production is a pen and notebook. Record everything that you observe and monitor. The data can be transferred to a computer program later.

Plankton net. This can be of the cast and haul variety or the hand-held shrimp net you will get from an aquarium shop. This will give you a cross-section of what’s living in your production system apart from fish.

Maximum–minimum thermometer to record periodic temperature movements.

A pH meter to record changes in pH.

A dissolved oxygen (DO) meter to measure the amount of oxygen available in the water for the fish.

General and carbonate hardness, phosphorus, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate test kits to measure the amount of these parameters in the water.

A 20 to 40 power microscope will prove to be more than useful when examining fish and crustacean’s gills, skin and organ tissues, and when viewing other pond life such as plankton. However, being able to magnify up to 400 magnification would provide a much better view of many of the items you’ll find in aquaculture.

Doubling – the power of prediction

Doubling is one of the handiest tools in the fish farmer’s kit. It will enable the grower to monitor growth performance in a meaningful way as well as project target dates.

‘Doubling time’ is the term used to describe the time it takes for a fish to double its size. For instance, if a silver perch is 100 g at the beginning of the month and 200 g 47 days later, it has been growing at the rate of 1.5% per day. This is called the Specific Growth Rate (SGR).

A 1 g fish will undergo nine doublings to reach 512 g. At a constant growth rate of 1.5% daily it would take 423 days. But it doesn’t quite work like that. Fish naturally grower quicker when they are younger and may well be increasing at an SGR of 5%, from 1 g to say 32 g. This would give them a doubling time of 14 days for the first five doublings, or, in terms of days, it would reduce the growing time over those first five doublings by 165 days.

The calculations in simple terms go like this.

From 1 g to 32 g is five doublings

At an SGR of 1.5% the fish would take 47 days to double their weight. Therefore they would take 235 days to reach 32 g from 1 g.

At an SGR of 5% the fish would take 14 days to double their weight. Therefore they would take 70 days to reach 32 g from 1 g.

Saving in grow-out time = 165 days.

From this example it can be seen what a valuable tool doubling is as a yardstick of the crop’s progress. This of course assumes optimum conditions during the entire growing season. This rarely occurs, except in the case of fish grown in environmentally controlled re-circulation systems.

By knowing potential growth rates and being able to monitor actual growth rates, the fish farmer is able to determine how far behind or ahead of schedule his stock are. This is crucial information in relation to assessing the status of the business at any given time or projecting it into the future.

Time lost by not maximising production opportunities is never recovered; and the most expensive time lost is when the fish are at their maximum SGR potential.

Table 1.1. Days of growth required to double the size of fish at a given daily weight gain.

This chart can be used to calculate the average SGR over the period in which it takes to double its size. For example: a fish that takes 35 days to double its weight will have a daily weight gain of 2% of bodyweight.

It can also be used to estimate the time it will take to bring a fish to a certain size if the SGR is known. For example: if a grower has a pond of 250 g fish growing at an SGR of 1.25% it will take him or her 106 days to get them up to 1 kg.

The time taken to double in size can be seen to increase dramatically as growth rates slow. This is why monitoring these parameters of nutritional uptake and growth is so important in a production-based industry.

SGR calculations

To calculate the specific growth rate (SGR) as a percentage of body weight gained on a daily basis from measurements taken over any given time, the following formula can be employed. For practical purposes, the SGR would be calculated as a series of short-term calculations, such as weekly, because the plotted results would graph as an exponential decay curve.

A general formula for calculating SGR is:

SGR = (W2 ÷ W1) to the power of (1 ÷ n) –1 x 100

where: W2 is the end weight in grams

W1 is the starting weight in grams

n is the time in days

For example: if a fish weighing 5 g weighed 10 g in 30 days, the gain in weight as a percentage of body weight as an average gain over the period would be calculated as follows.

You can always simplify matters by just multiplying the difference in weights over the given period by 100 and dividing the answer by the starting weight, but this will only provide the percentage gain over the given period, be it a week or a month, which is not quite the same as daily average weight gain.

Food Conversion Ratio

Food Conversion Ratios or FCRs are another important tool in the kit. It refers to the weight of food required to produce a single unit of fish. The most common unit used around the world is the kilogram. So if a fish consumes 1.5 kg of food to produce 1 kg of muscle and bone the FCR is 1.5:1. An FCR of 1.5:1 is regarded as an industry benchmark. If you aren’t approaching or bettering that mark there’s something wrong somewhere, either with the food, with the production system, with the fish or with the husbandry. To give you some idea of what can be achieved, commercial FCR values of less than 1:1 are being achieved on salmonid farms and in re-circulation systems.

As food costs should make up more than 50% of the farmer’s outlay on production costs, it is important that this input be closely monitored.

Aquaculture is simple

It’s been mentioned before: aquaculture is not rocket science. The authors have seen many people go into fish farming who insist on making it difficult for themselves by trying to invent an industry and not focusing on the simple things. The five limiting factors for instance. If you take the first letter of each section they spell GWQEHN.

One school of thought has accepted a translation of an old scripture found in an excavated Welsh Druid temple site to identify GWQEHN (pronounced ‘Gwen’) as the goddess of aquaculture to the ancients of that region. Hieroglyphic evidence from the Jordan Valley eerily also translates to GWQEHN suggesting a more ancient link with the Phoenicians who traded throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Not wishing to enter a theological argument, the authors welcome both sources and would like to suggest you make GWQEHN your guiding star in aquaculture. By applying the GWQEHN test to any farming problem you should be able to come up with its source. Once you know the source of a problem you’re more than half way to the solution.

Throughout the book GWQEHN’s wisdom will be highlighted to prompt you to remember key aspects of the art of aquaculture.

Aquaculture is all about balance, stability and control. Fish love a balanced environment and they love a stable environment. But you can’t have stability and balance without control. We’d like to leave you at the end of this section with this thought.

Before you incorporate any management procedure or add any infrastructure to your production system ask yourself: ‘How much more control is this going to give me over the stability and balance of my farm?’ Then quantify the value of the extra control in dollars terms before making the final decision.

GWQEHN says:

‘The key words in aquaculture are BALANCE and STABILITY.

Balance and stability cannot be achieved without CONTROL.’


Aquaculture production systems

This chapter briefly describes the structure and workings of each of the options available to the Australian aquaculturist and examine their advantages and disadvantages. Topics covered include:

finfish mariculture – floating cages

shellfish mariculture – subtidal

shellfish mariculture – inter-tidal



land-based mariculture

freshwater flow-through systems

freshwater static pond systems

freshwater re-circulation systems

freshwater cage culture.

It should be noted that, while the systems vary widely in design and application, the basic principles of aquaculture still apply in their management and GWQEHN remains the aquaculturist’s guiding star.

The production systems used to produce aquatic organisms are only part of the story. The aquaculture industry is also divided up into a number of geographic and climatic sectors. Australia ranges climatically from the tropics to cold temperate, from oceanic coastal environments to inland continental regions.

Seafood can be produced in inland waterways and purpose-built ponds, brackish estuarine areas or in full oceanic seawater. Farming in seawater is sometimes referred to as marine farming or mariculture.

In addition the range of species grown commercially falls into different categories again. Broadly speaking they are finfish, crustaceans, shellfish and plants. In actual fact Australia’s largest aquaculture industry is in the last sector: plants. It is also the world’s largest aquaculture sector. Rice is an aquatic organism and fits the definition as an aquaculture product, but it’s not seafood so we’ll leave it where it probably belongs – in the grain sector. Seaweed production in China is enormous; on a tonnage basis it dwarfs the production of animal flesh of all other aquaculture around the world. Even those categories don’t cover it all. Species like trochus and abalone are gastropod molluscs (snails). Trepang are holothurians (sea cucumbers).

Finfish mariculture – floating cages

The idea of a floating cage is simple: a net is hung from a flotation structure around its periphery. Fish are farmed inside the net.

Figure 2.1. Floating cages come in all sizes and shapes, from these large salmon cages to small fresh water-based production cages of <10m³. Shown here are the cages of a shore-connected salmonid farm on the Tamar River in Tasmania. Note the easy vehicular access and automated food delivery conduits to each pen.

The production of fish in floating offshore cages is relatively new. In Australia it was primarily associated with the production of Atlantic salmon and ocean trout although snapper, yellowtail kingfish, tuna, barramundi and mulloway are now being grown in ever-increasing numbers. It is a cheap and efficient way to produce fish. The underwriting factor in farming in an open environment in floating cages is often summed up with the catchphrase ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’. The ocean is so vast that the nutrient wastes of the metabolic process of growing fish are dispersed by the tides and currents and naturally neutralised by the biochemical organisms present in the sea. Depending on water movement and other conditions, biological wastes can be quickly dispersed and naturally processed. While it is common for there to be some effect directly under cages from falling faeces and uneaten food, impact is rarely detected a few tens of metres from the cages. By moving the cages to new sites on a regular basis, the farmer allows the natural environment to neutralise any adverse impact that may have occurred because of continuous occupancy.

Cages have increased in size over the years as the industry has been developed and more efficient engineering has emerged. It is conceivable that in the future submerged sea cages will be operating in open ocean conditions and ships that bring the food and supplies for the crews on the factory ship will return to shore loaded with processed seafood.

The disadvantages of this method to the average fish farmer are the establishment costs. Most of the world’s salmon production is carried out by corporations or very solid family companies.

The Tasmanian salmon and ocean industry was established in the early 1980s when the technology was being developed around the world. Private investors and government shared a vision of building a sustainable industry to grow seafood and create wealth and jobs for Tasmanians. Working together they identified the steps that would be necessary to achieve success and planned how these steps would be taken. The accomplishment of this project is now part of history and Tasmania is one of Australia’s premier seafood-producing regions.

As a sign of the vigour and energy in the aquaculture industry, production technology has moved ahead dramatically over the last couple of decades and some of the older salmon production operations have found themselves locked into high production costs while the world markets for salmon are soft as part of the global re-structuring and adaptation of new technology.

Access to sites is a problem as farmers prefer sheltered water, which brings them into conflict with other stakeholders in the natural resource such as professional and recreational fishers, boat users and conservationists.

Shellfish mariculture – subtidal

Shellfish can be grown subtidally, below the water’s surface. In Australia, species farmed subtidally include scallops, mussels, native flat oysters and pearl oysters. They are grown in baskets or on ropes suspended from longlines. Being filter feeders they grow by extracting nutrition from the plankton that comes to them on the tides and currents.

Demanding less capital than sea cage farming, this kind of farming nevertheless has a downside. Growers are dependent on natural food production over which they have no control and their operation is subject to the vagaries of the weather. They also have to compete with other stakeholders for access to suitable sites, such as recreational anglers, boat users and conservationists, but as with finfish farmers, more robust gear and new technologies will enable them to move their farms to more remote regions. However, this is likely to make the industry more expensive to enter.

Pearl farming is a specialist area as the marketing is far more sophisticated than normal seafood marketing, but scallop and mussel farming are relatively straightforward and the methodology required has as much to do with seamanship as technology.

It can be argued that filter-feeding bivalves present no threat to the environment. These animals are in fact are cleaning the algae created by shore-based pollution washed into the marine environment from domestic and agricultural activities. It can therefore follow that shellfish farming is part of the natural cycle, so access to water should be easier to attain.

Figure 2.2. Mussels are grown on ropes suspended from longlines. The bivalve molluscs filter feed on the nutrients available in the water column and present a very inexpensive way of producing seafood for the market.

Shellfish mariculture – inter-tidal

The best-known example of inter-tidal shellfish farming is the Sydney rock oyster. This world-class shellfish is grown on racks, on sticks or in baskets that are exposed by the outgoing tide and covered by the incoming tide. Like mussels and scallops, they are filter feeders. Farms are situated in estuaries to gain as much tidally exposed water as possible and to prevent their growing systems from being battered by high seas.

Appropriate technology keeps them in their comfort zone. Species such as oysters normally live attached to hard surfaces (something not always that common in estuaries where there are often high natural silt loadings). In the distant past, rocks were used. Later in NSW, spat was caught by letting it settle on sticks, and the sticks were placed on stakes in the inter-tidal zone. This technology is being replaced by ‘single seed’ where hatchery-bred stock are settled onto a small chip of shell or something similar. They grow free of any underlying surface. Single seedstock are grown in cages or trays, which keep predators out, and facilitates handling. If the trays are moved periodically (for example with the rise and fall of the tide) the stock is continually sorted and resorted, so that no particular individual is deprived of nutrition, or forced to grow slower than their peers.

See chapter 23 for more information on oysters.

Figure 2.3. Oyster farming is one of the oldest forms of aquaculture in Australia. The oysters feed when the tide is in and the exposure time helps harden the shells. This is what makes them such a good product for long-distance travel to lucrative markets in Asia, Europe and North America.


Ranching takes its name from the American word for grazing; and in principle it is very similar to the land-based operation. The essence of ranching is that the farmer assists the production of new stock (in aquaculture, this may well be in a hatchery or a nursery) then releases the young into the wild. After the appropriate amount of time, the stock are harvested and taken to market.

There are issues common to all ranching. How do you tell who owns the stock? In cattle ranching, brands were effectively used and in more recent times ear tags have been introduced. In aquaculture, solutions vary. Who owns the wild stock in the ranching? In cattle ranching, cleanskins belonged to whoever took them first. However, in many marine areas, commercial fishermen have paid good money to purchase a licence that gave them a property right, and they are understandably reluctant to cede that right.

Back in the 1970s, it was proposed in the US to ranch salmonids. A hatchery released the stock into the wild. At the end of the growing period, the urge to reproduce took the now grown-up fish back to the site of their hatching. They would swim right into a catching bay. No problems about determining who owned those fish! The idea was attractive, but never got off the ground (or into the water). One problem might have been that the farmers had no control over who caught the fish, even if the fishers were immediately outside the farm.

In more recent times, some members of the abalone sector have used ranching. There are different approaches practiced in different parts of the world but, in principle, growers breed their stock and put them out on an artificial reef. The artificial reef grows the weed (that before the creation of the artificial reef didn’t have a surface upon which to establish itself). The ranchers manage their stock just like you’d manage a mob of sheep on a sheep station; moving them onto a better section of the reef if they haven’t found it themselves, checking the health of the animals and so on. The farmers are only allowed to harvest hatchery-reared stock, which are easily identified from the different shell colouration due to the artificial diets they were raised on during their on-shore nursery stage.

Naturally the idea, being new, has everyone suspicious. The wild abalone dive sector has an enormous investment in their quotas and, at the time of writing, a 19 tonne Victorian quota was reputedly worth $8 million. You can build a lot of artificial reef for $8 million, and the industry understandably feels threatened. The conservation movement hasn’t warmed to the idea although artificial reefs have been shown to increase fish habitat. The recreational fishing bodies don’t seem to have allied themselves to the cause of the ranchers and the politicians have distanced themselves from the issue. However, the establishment of a network of distribution for illegally harvested abalone has increased the incidence of theft and ranching doesn’t seem as attractive as it once was.

Ranching has been proposed for trepang (sea slugs) in tropical parts of Australia. Trepang are easily spawned in a hatchery. They are on-grown in a nursery and the kid’s-finger-sized sluglets are placed out in the ocean. The idea is that the natural limit of production in the area is insufficient stock, and that placing lots of young there will increase production. It might make a difference, it might not, but the idea has its appeal.

By their very nature, it is impossible to mark trepang, so it is impossible to distinguish hatchery-produced stock from wild fish.

Another issue is that the areas that will be good for ranching trepang are the ones currently good for trepang fishing and commercial fishers don’t want to lose their livelihood. If aquaculture technologies are to be applied, the commercial fishers want to be the ones to apply it. The situation has a lot of parallels with the dispute about abalone ranching at the southern edge of the continent.

Feedlotting and conditioning

The practice of feedlotting is to take grown fish and to feed them up. By having stock in the best possible condition, the grower can command the best possible price from the market. If you have enough control, you can also have goods for sale when prices are at their best. The practice has been well established for beef, and can be applied to finfish.

Another aspect of feedlotting is that market entry can be timed to coincide with peak market values.

Yabbies, especially under the multiple waters licencing arrangement that apply in some states, can be held and fed in captivity until they moult. The old stained shell is discarded and replaced with a clean new shell lifting its market appeal dramatically.

Probably the most well-known seafood feedlotting operation is with tuna at South Australia’s remote Port Lincoln. Here bluefin tuna caught in the wild are held in sea cages, for all intents identical to the cages described earlier. They are fed, gain condition and are ready for shipment to Japan at the peak market times. Similar operations have been planned for yellow fin tuna and kingfish. See chapter 23 for more information.

Another form of feedlotting is being carried out with abalone and is based on growing abalone in cages set on the seafloor. The farmer grows the type of seaweed that abalone enjoy and feeds it to the abalone on the cages. The design of the cage ensures good tidal water exchange and that predators are kept out.

Feedlot operations can be expensive to establish and operate. There may be an opportunity to feedlot other commercial species but the value would need to be high to warrant the risk and the outlay. One group that would fall into this category would be rock lobster, and trials are under way in some states.

Fattening eels has been shown to be viable. This species reponds to feedlotting and the extra condition they put on enables the grower to sell them at a premium. This is a bonus on top of the weight gained through the feedlotting process.

Mariculture – land-based

A recent development in commercial aquaculture has been the land-based marine farm. Farms, under plastic houses or sheds, are established within pipeline and pumping distance of the sea. Seawater is pumped through a series of land-based tanks before being returned to the sea. The method underwrites the emergent abalone farming sector.

Land-based mariculture is very expensive. The systems are expensive to build. The water required is enormous and the pumping systems are huge. Everybody wants coastal real estate, so obtaining access to suitable sites can take time. An exorbitant outlay is required to deal with the application processes and also because of the need for expensive Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) required to address the concerns of local stakeholders. It is doubtful whether anything other than premium products, such as abalone and sea dragons, would fit the economic model.

Underneath a lot of Australia there is fossil seawater. If this comes to the surface, as is the case in many places where poor land management has raised the water table, the saline water is a pollutant and kills plants. However, a lot of the water (but not all) has the same ion profile as seawater, and some even is diluted to the same degree. It has been suggested that this water could be used for mariculture. The idea of taking a problem, and turning it around to create an asset, is very exciting and has caught the imagination of more than one research body. However, at this time it still remains in the realm of imagination. A few pilot projects have shown that some species, such as Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout, can survive in this water, but it is a far cry from a proven and risk-free form of aquaculture.

Limited water exchange brackish pond systems

Some species prefer an environment with salinity less than seawater but far from fresh. These species are raised in brackish water systems. Most prawn species fall into this category. An appropriate site will allow growers to control the salinity of their system by having good and secure access to both fresh and saline water, and, if necessary, will have the correct topography to build growing and freshwater holding dams. Often, these sites are found adjacent to estuaries.

Static ponds are ponds in which the production water is held and evaporation is replaced. The fish or crustaceans are raised in the pond and water quality is maintained by mechanical aeration and the application of water quality management protocols. One of those protocols may be to exchange some of the pond water to maintain water quality stability, and as a result some ponds may get more water exchange than others.

Because of evaporation and the need to constantly mix fresh and seawater to maintain the correct salinity levels, brackish water ponds tend to receive more water exchange than their freshwater counterparts.

Freshwater flow-through systems

Flow-through aquaculture systems are one of the oldest methods of fish farming in the world. The fish traps found in the lake beds of the Anabranch lakes system in far western NSW would have been a hunter–gatherer prototype for the earliest fish farms. The principle is simple. Divert the water from a permanent stream through a series of raceways in which the fish are held and fed. The incoming water brings oxygen to the fish and the outgoing water removes the by-products of metabolism.

Most trout farms operate on this basis and freshwater farming of trout has proven itself to be one of the most economic ways to produce fish.

Figure 2.4. One of the most successful forms of aquaculture around the world has been the flow-through system. This picture shows a grow-out raceway being stocked with fingerlings from nursery raceways.

Access to suitable sites is a problem in Australia, as we are not blessed with the bountiful river systems of other continents. The upper reaches of the rivers rising in the Great Dividing Range support some trout farms but even then they are vulnerable to El Niño events. It is feasible to incorporate flow-through systems in the many irrigation schemes around the country but to date nobody seems to have given it much thought.

Limited water exchange freshwater pond systems

Freshwater ponds with limited water exchange are operated in much the same way as their brackish water counterparts. The exchange rate may often not be as high as in the brackish ponds but the grower will have water exchange as an option for problem management. Should he or she be having a bad trot, the exchange rate will be higher than normal.

The catfish aquaculture of the Mississippi delta is based on this kind of pond culture.

Freshwater ponds are relatively inexpensive to build and can be incorporated into a diversified farm development program. They are of course subject to the vagaries of the weather, as is any outdoor system.

Most of the inland fish ponds in Australia utilise limited water exchange. In the southern half of the continent, they are generally referred to as ‘warm water’ ponds, because their water is warmer than that used to grow fish like trout. Warm water ponds are successfully used to grow silver perch, Murray cod, jade perch and barramundi.

Figure 2.5. An aerial shot of a typical inland pond system. This one is situated in the New England Tablelands of New South Wales.

Freshwater re-circulation systems

It is possible to continue to use the same water again and again, but the biological wastes from the growing process have to be removed. In the more extensive approaches to fish farming, natural biochemical processes work in the pond bed and water column; but in intensive re-circulation systems, the natural processes are facilitated by technology. The application of the technology enables the grower to carry stocking densities unimaginable in an open system.

The principles of re-circulation technology have been known for years and form the basis of any sewerage treatment plant. Over the last three decades the technology has been applied in aquaculture. Appropriately designed and engineered systems capable of dealing with the high loads placed on them have been able to produce commercial quantities of fish.

Re-circulation systems have a distinct advantage over other systems in that they can be adjusted so the fish are grown in their optimum conditions: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. The operator has maximum control over the stability and balance of the environment and water quality in which the fish are living. This eliminates some of the major instabilities in an aquaculture production system, allowing the operator to maximise the full growth potential of the stock being raised.

The downside is that re-circulation systems are expensive to build and expensive to operate. To date they have only been used to economic advantage to produce high value species such as Murray cod. Once the price of a species comes down, as it did in the mid-1990s for shortfin eels, the operator has to find another high priced species to grow. This option may not always be forthcoming.

There is a definite role for re-circulation systems in the hatchery and nursery stage where water quality is at a premium (the hatchery stage) or the growth of the fish is fast enough to warrant the outlay (the nursery stage).

Juvenile fish don’t take up a lot of room and their growth rates are inherently greater than more mature fish. For instance a 1 g fry might be growing at a specific growth rate

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