Exploring this Job

Contact the American Fisheries Society for information about careers in aquaculture. Also, read Aquaculture North America and visit its Web site ( to learn more about the issues of the industry. Any hands-on experience you can get, even in high school, will be helpful in landing a job. Through a "shadowing" project, you may be able to spend some time in a local hatchery at the side of an aquaculturist. Volunteering at one of the 70 federal fish hatcheries nationwide, or a state hatchery, is an option. Contact local hatcheries, go meet the people there, and find out about applying for a job. Experience at a pet shop that sells different varieties of salt-water fish, or at a state aquarium, can also give you insight into the industry.

The Job

The term aquaculturist typically is used to describe someone who raises fish for profit. This is not a conservation job; while aquaculturists may have a degree in fish biology or other fish science, just like some of the people working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Biological Resources Discipline of the U.S. Geological Survey, other federal agencies, or for federal or state fish hatcheries, they do not share those agencies' goal of protecting rare and endangered species.

Technically speaking, aquaculture can be done in fresh water, brackish (salty or somewhat salty) water, seawater, flooded fields, rice paddies, and other waters. Practically speaking, limited areas in the United States are appropriate for aquaculture. U.S. aquaculture is focused in the South (catfish), the West (salmon), and a few other areas (like bait farms in Arkansas). There must be markets for the products, capital to develop the site, appropriate water supplies, and proper structures for handling effluent. Conditions must be right; for example, catfish production in the South is successful because of the warmer waters, longer growing season, and other factors. Fish farms range in size from a few acres to 50 acres or more and typically focus on one type of fish (such as trout or catfish) or shellfish (such as clams, shrimp, or oysters). Rearing may be done in earth ponds, concrete ponds, or pens in seas, lakes, or ocean waters.

Fish farming differs significantly from regular farming. Raising fish is more complicated because of their aquatic environment. Also, intensely confined animals tend to be more susceptible to disease; many of these fish are in a confined space. Raising fish is more like a feedlot raising penned animals than a rancher raising cattle in open range lands. Raising fish also requires closer monitoring than raising farm animals.

A primary goal of aquaculture is to increase fish production beyond what's possible in nature. In recent years, there has been a lot of research to determine which fish are most suited to fish farming, what to feed them and in what quantities, what conditions will optimize production and quality, and other areas. Biologists and other research scientists have experimented with things like crossbreeding for better genetics (such as for increased egg production). Commercial feeds and supplements have been developed to boost fish size. Aquaculturists also have been working on least-cost feeding formulas, or ratios of lowest-costing food to highest quantity and quality fish, for better profits. Experiments with the effects of light on growth, with limiting feeding, and other research studies also have been conducted. Since confined fish may be more susceptible to diseases, researchers also have developed drugs such as fluoroquinolone for FDA approval.

In fish farming, eggs are stripped from the female fish, fertilized by milt from the male fish, and placed in moist pans or hatchery trays. These are put in incubators to spawn the eggs. Resulting fingerlings are put in the rearing ponds or other waters for further growth. They may be fed high-protein food or cereal with vitamins or minerals so they will achieve good size and quality. Aquaculturists also might monitor water quality, add drugs to fight disease, and otherwise optimize growing conditions. Once the right size is reached, which can take up to three years or more, the fish are removed from the water, counted, weighed, and loaded into a truck or dressed and packed in ice for shipment to the buyer.

In shellfish farming, clams, oysters, and other shellfish are cultivated in specially prepared beds near the shoreline and then harvested. Tide flats are laid out and dikes created to control water drainage at low tide. The spawn of oysters or other shellfish, known as spat, are sown in the beds and may be covered with sand or broken shells. When the tide is up and the beds are covered with water, the beds may be dragged with nets to remove crabs, starfish, or other predators. Workers also might pour oil around the beds to discourage predators from getting the crop. At low tide, workers walk into the bed and collect full-grown shellfish for packing and sale.

Positions within the fish farm operation may include a manager or superintendent, supervisors, and workers. A manager or superintendent heads the operation, helping to establish policies and procedures and conferring with biologists or other scientists on optimal feeding and other conditions. They also may handle hiring, firing, payroll, and other personnel matters; monitor budgets and costs; and do other administrative work. Supervisors oversee the spawning, rearing, harvesting, and other day-to-day farming activities. They might train workers, prepare reports, and help monitor quality control. Workers may be called assistants, attendants, bed workers, or similar titles, and they do the labor-intensive parts of the fish farming operation.

Scientists working within the fish farming operation, or in research facilities supporting aquaculture, include fisheries biologists and harvest management biologists. They focus on fish living habits, relationships, growth, rearing, stocking, and the like.

Some aquaculturists work in universities trying to find ways to improve aquaculture production. For example, experiments done at Auburn University's College of Agriculture have shown that limiting feed actually can increase fish weight and protein amount. Since aquaculture is still not that well developed in the United States, researchers and economists also have developed feasibility studies, focusing on the potential viability of different types of aquaculture for various regions.