Is Aquaculture Really More Sustainable than Fishing?

By Jake Marks

Fishing is one of the oldest and most commonly practiced methods of food production. Global demand for fish, with over 3.2 billion people relying on fish as a protein source,[1] has driven the practice of wild-catch fishing to become commercialized and a more intense process. This expansion and advancement of fishing methods has created rampant environmental harm by destroying marine habitats, devastating marine species, and disrupting the food web leading to further species disturbances.[2] As we have begun to recognize the negative environmental impact the fishing industry is leaving, attempts at creating more sustainable alternative methods of acquiring fish for consumption. The most prevalent alternative has been aquaculture, which is the “cultivation of aquatic organisms in controlled aquatic environments.”[3]Aside from being a potentially more sustainable option than wild-catch fishing, aquaculture is also designed and practiced as a method of attempting to increase seafood production to meet the growing population’s demand. However, many industrial shifts leave unintended consequences, so the shift from commercial fishing to aquafarming poses an important question: Is aquaculture really more sustainable than fishing?

            Aquaculture certainly provides non-environmental benefits for humans. From a food security perspective, 33% of wild-caught fisheries globally are overexploited and another 60% are at capacity,[4] so aquaculture is a very necessary additional seafood production method that ensures we can continue to feed a growing population. There are more 800 million people globally without food security,[5] so some could argue that despite overfishing we still are not getting enough fish and need to find methods to produce and supply more. It also creates jobs and economic opportunity in coastal areas where wild-catch fishing is becoming obsolete due to regulations or because it is not productive enough. For example, many fisheries have had to downsize or shut down in the Outer Banks due to overly restrictive regulations, which has devastated several communities.[6]

Aquafarming also has certain advantages over commercial fishing from an environmental standpoint. It does not have nearly the same negative impacts on marine environments as traditional fishing methods, mostly because it is in a contained environment. Bycatch of non-targeted species and the destruction of marine habitats are essentially eliminated as problems.[7] The development of aquaculture also provides relief for wild marine populations that are no longer being overfished as heavily, such as white abalone and Olympia oysters in California.[8] This helps to preserve biodiversity, and marine species can even grow within aquafarms.

Although aquaculture does have beneficial environmental, social, and economic impacts, it also has potential to be quite harmful if carried out in an unsustainable way. Aquafarms are confined spaces, which often build up with feces, pesticides, and other harmful substances that affect the species within the aquafarm as well as contaminating the adjacent areas. “A 2-acre fish farm can produce as much waste as a town of 10,000 people”,[9] and similarly to human waste this ends up contaminating the ocean and killing marine life. Aquafarming also inadvertently contributes to more industrial fishing, as 20% of the fish harvested from the ocean are used to feed farm fish.[10] So while posed as a sustainable alternative, aquaculture is not necessarily ecologically friendlier than industrial fishing if it is not properly maintained.

To answer the question posed on the sustainability of fishing and aquaculture, my vague yet honest conclusion is…it depends. If upheld with proper policy and practices, aquaculture can help give the ocean a well-needed break from human destruction and a chance to heal. However, if the focus is solely on economic and food production without environmental consideration, aquaculture may create the same devastation that commercial fishing has caused due to the same neglectful prioritizations. Fortunately, feasible practices exist that may help ensure the sustainability of aquafarming. Relocating aquafarms to either inland or offshore sites eliminates the possible contamination of surrounding ecosystems.[11]Recirculating aquaculture systems can be used inland and create healthier conditions for the species within the farm. Offshore, there is less biodiversity and vaster areas that help dilute waste and mitigate the harm on other species.[12]From a consumer perspective, buying more sustainable seafood incentivizes more sustainable practices whether that be in aquaculture or traditional fishing. Looking at policy that can help advance sustainable aquaculture, aquafarms within the US should comply with the National Ocean Policy to ensure the protection and restoration of the oceans and marine life.[13] Coastal states should be given additional funding and attention for research and policy testing, as they are the ones most greatly affected by the transition and will be most involved in the aquaculture industry. Given that aquaculture is still relatively new, we also need more scientific research on the sustainability of aquaculture and its environmental and economic effects in order to continue advancing it as a sustainable alternative to wild-catch fishing. If done the right way, aquaculture could be a global solution that brings economic, societal, and environmental goals into u

[1] Moloney, Ellis. “Study reveals a huge potential for aquaculture in the Caribbean | Fisheries and Aquaculture | News.” ECO Magazine, 15 Jan. 2019,

[2] “Plenty of Fish?” United Nations Climate Change, 10 June 2022,,degrades%20habitats%2C”%20says%20Hubbard.

[3] “What Is Aquaculture?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,

[4] “How Can We Make Farmed Seafood More Sustainable?” World Wildlife Fund, 2019,—both%20marine%20and,can%20escape%20into%20surrounding%20waters.

[5] “How Sustainable Aquaculture Nourishes Both Oceans and Plates.” Medium, 11 Oct. 2023,’s%20primary%20benefit%20lies,significantly%20mitigate%20this%20negative%20effect.

[6] “Wanchese Fish Co. Closure Marks Shift in North Carolina’s Commercial Fishing Landscape.” National Fisherman, 12 Mar. 2024,

[7] “How Sustainable Aquaculture Nourishes Both Oceans and Plates”

[8] “Aquaculture in California.” California Sea Grant,

[9] Equality, Animal. “4 Ways the Fishing Industry Is Destroying the Planet.” Animal Equality, 20 Feb. 2024,

[10] “How Can We Make Farmed Seafood More Sustainable?” 

[11] “5 Ways to Net a Sustainable Future for Aquaculture.” World Economic Forum, 7 Feb. 2020,

[12] “5 Ways to Net a Sustainable Future for Aquaculture.”

[13] Fisheries, Noaa. “Summary of NOAA Marine Aquaculture Policy.” NOAA,,the%20Stewardship%20of%20the%20Ocean%2C.

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