A (Very) Brief History of Aquaculture

This is the second in a series on aquaculture. This week-aquaculture is ancient and, in a few paragraphs, we race through 4500 years of its history.

When we think of raising food in the ocean, seaweed is not usually first to mind. However, a substantial portion of the world’s aquaculture is seaweed. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 24 million tonnes of seaweed were raised world wide in 2012.

Seaweed consumption can be dated back at least to 2000 years BCE. It’s culture first occurred rather recently in Japan in the early 1600s (The nori you eat with your sushi is the sort of seaweed that began Japanese seaweed aquaculture.) Since then, it has since moved throughout the world but it is centered in Asia.

Fish aquacultural practice has been around for quite some time. Relative to terrestrial agriculture, it’s the new kid on the block having made its first appearance roughly 8000 years after agriculture on land first began.

Somewhere around 3500 to 2500 BCE aquaculture originated (at least) twice, with carp being grown in China and tilapia in North Africa. Pliny the Elder recorded mullet and bass being grown on the estates of wealthy Romans around 100 BCE. Later in central Europe aquaculture radiated from what is now the Czech Republic.

Chinese carp aquaculture began with the fish ponds being placed adjacent to silkworm farms. Wastes from silk production provided the feed for the carp and this began the practice of polyculture. This proved to be a very good production model.

Other parts of Asia used integrated agricultural production. Circular systems were created where waste products from fish operations fed plants and the leftovers from plant production fed fish. Though we don’t know exactly when it began, in Thailand co-raising fish within rice paddies is probably as old as rice culture itself dating back some 1500 years.

Integrated farming was also at the center of agriculture in Hawaii. The original migrants to Hawaii brought with them many of the plants and animals that would become their food supply. The most important of these was taro whose place in the Hawaiian diet was similar to wheat in Europe or rice in China. Taro is grown in ponds and the earliest Hawaiians seeded those ponds with mullet and other fish to the benefit of both taro and fish. Mullet ate insets pests on the taro and some of the taro leaf stems as well. Both of these led to better growth of taro raised with fish than without.

Shellfish. Probably the earliest shellfish aquaculture was oysters raised in Greece about 400 BCE. The Greeks found that juvenile oysters (spat) would adhere to pottery shards spread where oysters bred. The pottery could then be moved to more convenient locations where the oysters would grow to maturity. Italians followed the Greeks with their own oyster culture some few hundred years later actually growing the oysters on individual estates.

Mussels are the other bivalve shell fish that has been domesticated for a long time. Their farming can be traced back to the 1200s in France where they were grown on retired fishing nets.

Shrimp farming is, relatively, rather new. It began when shrimp would move into paddies as the fields were being laid out. Farmers would then block routes through which the shrimp could leave. Farms where the shrimp were deliberately introduced dates back to 1920s Japan and the 1970s mark the beginning of focused shrimp farming that we would recognize today.

Surprisingly, some of the ways aquaculture occurred in antiquity are not so far different from today (fish and rice co-culture for instance). As you’d imagine many are different and, next, we will take a look at just how seafood is raised.

©2016 Scott Nichols