Nutrient Impacts of Finfish Aquaculture

Impacts to the environment around finfish farms can occur when nutrient inputs exceed the capacity of the ecosystem to assimilate them. Uneaten feed and fish wastes are the main sources of excess organic nutrients from finfish farms. However, many potential environmental impacts and risks can be avoided with prudent farm siting, proper management, and modern technologoies. Modeling interactions between farm production and environmental processes can guide decisions about industry location and practices to prevent exceeding a site’s ecological carrying capacity.

Back to top

Water Quality

The primary potential water quality effects from fish farms include dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus, turbidity, lipids and dissolved oxygen fluxes. When farms are sited in well-flushed water, enrichment to the water column is generally not detectable. Nutrient spikes and declines in dissolved oxygen are sometimes seen following feeding, but there are few reports of long-term risk to water quality. Better feed formulation and feeding efficiency have resulted in decreased nutrient loading at fish farms.

Phytoplankton response to nutrient loading at fish farms is generally considered to be low risk. Other factors besides nutrients, such as light availability and water temperature, often control natural variability in phytoplankton productivity. Naturally occurring nutrient fluxes from coastal ocean upwelling, or from land- and ocean-based sources, are often high relative to loads from aquaculture.


Back to top

Benthic Impacts

Benthic impacts result where organic nutrients in uneaten feed and fish waste accumulate on the seafloor and do not decompose quickly enough to keep up with the supply. Accumulation of waste is unlikely at farms over erosional seafloors, and those sited in well-flushed areas. Under these more dispersive conditions, wastes are spread away from the immediate farm area, aerobically decomposed, and assimilated by benthic organisms. Conversely, depositional sites tend to accumulate waste. In this case, fallowing allows chemical and biological recovery of sediments on a regular schedule. Fallowing generally takes months but can take a couple of years under extreme conditions for bottoms to return to pre-farm status.


Back to top

Management Tools

Fish farms in the United States must monitor discharges to both the benthic environment and the water column according to the Clean Water Act, and follow effluent limitations set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental impact models now allow regulators to assess the suitability of sites, to understand the risks and benefits of potential fish farms, and to estimate the limits of fish biomass for sites.

Good site selection is key in minimizing the impacts of fish farms nutrients to the water column and benthic environment. Fallowing and integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA) are two other tools that can be used to further reduce environmental impacts. Fallowing is the practice of relocating or not re-stocking fish pens or cages to allow the sediment below to undergo natural recovery. Under ideal conditions, farms should not require fallowing.

IMTA is the practice of culturing species from multiple trophic levels that allow for assimilating of fish wastes, thus reducing environmental discharge. The most commonly selected species for IMTA with marine fish are seaweeds, oysters and mussels.


Back to top

NOAA Research

  • The CAPES Program, part of the National Ocean Service's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, assesses aquaculture environmental interactions to support sustainable caostal aquaculture development. CAPES's spatial planning and ecoforecasting tools help coastal managers make informed and confident decisions regarding aquaculture in the coastal zone.
  • The Northeast Fisheries Science Center's Milford lab is investigating the biological, chemical, and physical effects of existing aquaculture activities, such as hydraulic dredging or fixed gear, on habitat and ecology. They are also exploring the ability of shellfish to extract nutrients from the environment, thus improving water quality.
Back to top

Tools & Resources

An analysis of the environmental concerns and recommendations related to marine cage culture around the world.
An information model to asses the operaitons and impacts of fish farms in both water column and benthic environments.
A particle tracking model used to predict the flux of waste material from fish farms and the benthic community impact of that flux.
Back to top

Key Publications

Price, C. S., and J. A. Morris, Jr. 2013. Marine cage culture and the environment: Twenty-first century science informing a sustainable industry. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS-NCCOS -164, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Silver Spring, MD. 158 p.

Black, K. D., P. K. Hansen, and M. Holmer. 2008.Salmon aquaculture dialogue: working group report on benthic impacts and farm siting. World Wildlife Fund, Washington DC. 54 p.

Rensel, J. E., and J. R. M. Forster. 2007. Beneficial environmental effects of marine finfish mariculture. Final report to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA Award #NA040AR4170130, Washington, D.C.

Brooks, K. M., A. R. Stierns, C. V. W. Mahnken, and D. B. Blackburn. 2003. Chemical and biological remediation of the benthos near Atlantic salmon farms. Aquaculture 219:355-377.

Pearson T. H., and R. Rosenberg. 1978.Macrobenthic succession in relation to organic enrichment and pollution of the marine environment. Oceanography and Marine Biology: Annual Review 16:229-311

Back to top