Georgofili World

Newsletter of the Georgofili Academy

Aquaculture: birth and modernity

A traditional marine activity, fishing is carried out in natural bodies of water (seas, lakes, rivers). Of the approximately 250,000 existing aquatic species, just over 1,200 are used (FISHSTAT, FAO Database), with 20 species accounting for 80% of the world’s production. Thousands of other species are used by small fishermen. Today the demand for fish cannot be satisfied merely with the catch because the fish populations would be drastically impoverished. Aquaculture tackles this problem by producing aquatic animals and plants in facilities controlled for habitat, reproduction, and diet. Today it is one of the fastest-growing production activities and the market for other fish products could grow in response to increased demand for quality proteins, especially from fish, which is not satisfied by natural fishing grounds. Fish consumption in this cultural and social milieu is traditional. It is increasingly a source of wealth and work, also for the related industries that produce advanced technologies (materials, facilities, etc.)
The use of technologies to favor the development of aquatic populations (fish, mollusks, and crustaceans) was already implemented by the ancient Mediterranean civilizations (Egypt, Greece and Sicily). In an Egyptian tomb dating back to 2500 B.C. there is the depiction of a man gathering tilapia fish in a pond. The Piazza Armerina mosaics recall how the Romans (as well as the Phoenicians and the Etruscans) fattened moray and other eels. Horace stated that Taranto’s sea produced the best oysters; Sergio Orata started to farm them in Campania in the 1st century B.C.  Villas in Puglia also had pools where fish were raised. China carried out carp breeding in ponds in the 5th century B.C. In the Middle Ages, fish farming in ponds began to be important in Europe, especially for monasteries that could thus have food suitable to the periods of abstinence required by religion. In the same period, fish (bass, gilthead bream and grey mullet), carried by the currents, were farmed in the brackish or saltwater lagoons and ponds along the coasts of southern Europe. Starting in the 17th century, the increased human population was also reflected in the fresh-water fish that started to diminish. In 1741, the German S. L. Jacobi set up the first hatchery of river trout on which artificial insemination was carried out. A century later, this discovery was implemented in Europe and the US to restock rivers impoverished by the industrial revolution and studies extended to other fish species (char, whitefish, Atlantic salmon, and rainbow trout). In 1800, natural environments began to be restocked with hatchery fries (salmon in the Baltic Sea and sole in the North Sea) so as to maintain the fishing economy.  The Bourbon family ordered faggots placed in Lake Fusaro and on the sea bottom in Taranto that were covered with small oysters. They were then transferred for farming on underwater rock piles. 
Until the mid-20th century, aquaculture services were inadequate both in terms of diet and for the epizootics that struck the open-air fish farms, with progress limited to the salmonids that were easy to farm in captivity. The discovery of hormonal induction for gamete production in both males and females opened new prospects, and allowed the development of intensive rainbow trout farming starting in the 1960s. In those same years, Japan experimented with a floating cage that enabled Atlantic salmon to be studied and farmed in a marine environment. Intensive salmon farming underwent significant development in the Europe of the 1970s and 1980s as did flatfish farming in the 1990s and 2000s. 
Today, European fish farming has been greatly diversified both as regards species and quality. Besides the rainbow trout, other freshwater species are being intensively farmed: whitefish, tilapia, brown trout, brook trout, Arctic char, and Siberian sturgeon. While traditional fishing is decreasing, aquaculture is growing more than 10% a year. With 40% of the fish for food consumption, it is the animal production sector undergoing the largest growth worldwide for both the quantity produced and the number of farmed species as well as for the businesses, turnover and coastal surface under concession.  In 2010, the FAO estimated world fishing production at 90 million tons and, in 2011, it exceeded land animal production by 4 million tons. In 2013, OECD and FAO predicted that aquaculture products for the current year (2015) would exceed fishing, the greatest growth in freshwater rather than in saltwater species. In the same year, ISMEA informed us that 35% of fish produced (especially trout, bass and gilthead bream, but also sturgeon, eels, umbra, and dassie) accounted for 66% of aquaculture revenues. Mollusks (mussels and clams) had greater economic importance, accounting for 65% of the quantity produced in 2007. However, there was a 4% decrease between 2011 and 2012. In recent decades, the business in Italy underwent robust development. However, although Italy was the number one producer of prized species (especially bass and gilthead bream) in Europe during the 1980s, today it is the fifth largest because of the sharp collapse in the last few years. In addition, the southern Mediterranean countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Turkey are investing in aquaculture and will become strong competitors for an Italy that is already dependent on imports due to the growth in domestic consumption and the stagnating fishing industry.