In the last 50 years, the planet’s population has exploded from 4 billion to nearly 8 billion people, but arable farming land has only increased by 13% globally in that same period. Feeding that population boom has in part happened through an increase in fish consumption. In fact, the average person’s diet was comprised of about 20 pounds of fish per year in 1961, but today, people eat about 45 pounds of fish annually.

Increasingly, that fish is provided by fish farming facilities both at home and abroad. Today, fish farming is a booming industry in which more and more independent farmers are investing.

What Is Fish Harvesting?

Fish harvesting, or fish farming, involves breeding captive fish for sale and public consumption. Nearly half of the catfish consumed in America today, for instance, has been bred and raised in captivity by fish farmers, who create a safe environment in which to grow them and care for them.

Some fish farms happen in bodies of water where they’re cordoned off from the wildlife with cages or nets, but many happen on private property in pens and tanks and ponds. Fish farming has become a major life-changing investment for millions worldwide, particularly throughout Asia, where farmers raise the stock for sale but also for feeding their families. One reason for fish farming's popularity is that it’s such a scalable project, as farmers will ideally start small and build onto it as time goes on and their capabilities and knowledge grow.

Open-ocean and waterway fish farming can be very lucrative, but it can also be riskier if it means infecting the natural fish stocks with any sort of malady that comes up in the farmed stocks. Many regions don’t allow farms on or adjacent to public waterways. If they do, these are typically the more economical fishery startups. Inland fish farms can require aeration, filtration and other sometimes-costly systems unless they're begun in existing ponds.

Ecological Risks

For those who are considering a fish farming future, it’s important to understand what’s at stake when running a fish farm. Having genetically weak fish, sick fish or invasive-species fish escape into the wild is potentially disastrous for the local wildlife, like how Atlantic salmon have gotten into the mix with Pacific salmon on the West Coast.

It’s important that would-be fish farmers take the time to really understand the challenges of running a farm and the safety measures that will allow them to do so responsibly.

Because regional laws are changing quickly and commercial fish farming systems are on shifting sands, consider small-business operations, particularly closed-loop systems. A closed-loop system is fantastic for biodynamic farms and those who are in agricultural communities or even those who are just growing for their own consumption. In these systems, the fish-excrement-filled water is used as fish fertilizer on plants, and the plants then filter the water before it runs off to a catchment system and is then used again for the fish tanks, hence the closed loop.

Fish Stocks for Fish Farming

In the United States, the fish and seafood that do the best in commercial and independent fisheries include tilapia, catfish, salmon, trout, crawfish, crab, shrimp, koi and ornamental fish. Sport fish stocks do well in farming and have done so for decades, such as bass, bluegill, shad, minnows and other fingerlings.

Bait fish is popular in many places and can vary depending on where you are located since the bait fish needed for sport fishing near you will be different than elsewhere. Oklahoma, for instance, is a great place for raising golden shiners, fathead minnows and goldfish as bait.

The southern states love their catfish, but it’s the channel catfish that has proven to be among the hardiest of species for farming. Location influences the stock one can use in fish farming because climate will decide whether the fish will survive in the winter. For instance, while the marine penacid shrimp is a hot commodity in the fish farming world, it can’t survive in temperatures below about 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and indoor tanks won’t work because they have a penchant for cannibalism, so this means someplace like Oklahoma won’t work but New Orleans will.

Fish Farming Materials and Resources

Ponds require specific soil types and slopes, so many properties are not suited for building a pond. It’s best to consult with aquaculture experts on the viability of any property on which you’re hoping to install a pond.

Existing ponds on your property may be easy to stock with fish, but it is recommended that you still consult with local experts to find out what the best fish stocks would be for your region, climate and even your particular pond’s ecology.

Electrical supply and reliability are critical to most fish farming enterprises. Other supplies you’ll need include:

  • Feed appropriate to your fish stock

  • Fuel for running the operations

  • Medicines because the odds of illness spreading through your stock are higher than you may expect

  • Diagnostics equipment and supplies for measuring pH balance and other needed maintenance

Building a Pond

To create a pond, you need:

  • A digger (hired, rented or borrowed works just fine, of course)

  • Sand for lining the pond to reduce tarp tears

  • A tarp liner on top of the pond that is compatible and nontoxic for fisheries

  • Geotextile fabric to lay over the tarp to protect it from damage since it will secure the water for the pond and reduce the need to refill the water

  • For some soil types, it may be possible to use sodium bentonite clay instead of liners, which is more sustainable and more affordable

Fish Farming Equipment

The list of materials and equipment you may require is vast and far more comprehensive than what can be listed simply, but it’s also specific to the situation in which you will work. A fish farming scenario could cost just hundreds of dollars for harvesting for your family to over $1 million for a commercial enterprise, and it really depends on your goals. Some requirements you can anticipate include:

  • Pipes and plumbing requirements are extensive for anything above ground, and you’ll need a surplus on hand for repairs because of pipes failing or clogging, meaning fish will die.

  • Back-up generators are critical because power failures mean aeration systems fail, which can be fatal in minutes for crowded tanks.

  • For hobby farms looking to stock a pond, cage culture can be good, as a single cage measuring just 3 by 1.5 by 1.5 feet can accommodate up to 100 pounds of fish. Submersible nets may work for pond aspirations as well.

  • For tanks or stagnant water, aerators and diffusers are needed to circulate oxygen and diffuse air as bubbles for better dispersion for the fish.

  • Filtration is critical for tanks, unnatural bodies of water and any other above-ground method of fish farming since it regulates the quantities of things like ammonia and nitrites and nitrates in the water.

Should You Farm Fish?

There’s a mistaken belief that fishermen make good fish farmers, but the reality is that this is best suited for farmers, particularly those who have raised animals before. Aquaculture and pisciculture are sciences, and much rides on understanding formulas, repairing equipment, operating heavy equipment, working in tough conditions and being willing to do hard, physical labor on a regular basis. Even old-school skills like weathering the changing seasonal climate and sudden storms will come into play and can challenge even the most seasoned of agricultural experts.

Fish farming is not a get-rich-quick scheme, but for those who are committed to working hard, who enjoy nature and wildlife and who understand the business of farming, it can be a good business with a promising future. Start small, get the process right and then grow in a manageable way. It’s especially great if fish farming can be done in addition to other agricultural efforts on a hobby farm.