The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has defined aquaculture as, "the farming of aquatic organisms, including fish, molluscs, crustaceans, and aquatic plants" (1). Other definitions include "the rearing of aquatic organisms under controlled or semi-controlled conditions" and "underwater agriculture" (2). The list of organism groups mentioned in the FAO definition is not complete. Aquaculturists have also been involved in the production of echinoderms (sea urchins), cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish), reptiles (alligators, sea turtles, freshwater turtles), and amphibians (frogs). Aquaculture is an inclusive term that encompasses fresh, brackish, marine, and even hypersaline waters. The term mariculture is more restrictive in that it is usually defined as referring to aquaculture in saline environments.

Public sector aquaculture has historically involved production of aquatic animals to augment or establish recreational and commercial fisheries. More recently, it has also come to include attempts to recover threatened or endangered species by maintaining them in captivity and producing new generations that will ultimately be used to stock the waters where the species has become depleted. Public sector aquaculture is widely practiced in North America and to a lesser extent in other parts of the world. The FAO definition of aquaculture indicates that farming implies ownership of the organisms being cultured, which would seem to exclude public sector aquaculture.

Going hand in hand with attempts to recover endangered species are enhancement stocking programs aimed at releasing juvenile animals to build back stocks of aquatic animals that have been reduced due to overfishing. Examples of enhancement programs currently in existence include the stocking of cod in Norway, flounders in Japan, and red drum in the United States.

The bulk of global production from aquaculture is utilized directly as human food, with public aquaculture playing a minor role or being absent in many nations. Private aquaculture is not only about human food production, however. In some regions, well-developed private sector aquaculture is involved in the production of bait and ornamental fishes and invertebrates. The birth of aquaculture may have, in fact, been associated with attempts to produce ornamental fish to please royalty. Such might be the case with the development of colorful koi carp in China (koi are a colorful form of common carp, Cyprinus carpio).

Aquatic plants are cultured in many regions of the world. In fact, aquatic plants, primarily seaweeds, account for nearly 25% of the world's aquaculture production (3). Seaweed is widely used as food in the orient and elsewhere and can be found in many items that people use in their daily lives. Extracts from seaweed are important components of many pharmaceuticals, automobile tires, toothpaste, ice cream, and a wide variety of other products.

As implied, the origins of aquaculture may be rooted in China and could, in fact, go back some 4000 years. The ancient Egyptians may also have been early, if not the first aquaculturists. Pictographs in the tombs of the pharaohs can be interpreted to indicate that tilapia (fish native to North Africa and the Middle East) were being raised, possibly as food or display fish for the royal court. Regardless, Asia dominates the world in aquaculture production today (4). In North America, the culture offish began in the nineteenth century and grew rapidly in the public sector after the establishment of the U.S. Fish and Fisheries Commission in 1871 (5). Private aquaculture existed as a minor industry for many decades, coming into prominence in the 1960s. Since then the United States has become one of the leaders in aquaculture research and development, although production, while significant at nearly 400,000 metric tons by 1996 (6), amounted to only about 2% of the world's total of 34 million metric tons.

The U.S. commercial aquaculture industry is dominated by channel catfish, trout, salmon, minnows, oysters, mussels, clams, and crawfish. A number of other fish and invertebrates are also being reared. Included are tilapia, striped bass and hybrid striped bass, red drum, goldfish, tropical fish, and shrimp. In the public sector, hatcheries produce large numbers of such species as salmon, trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, sunfish, crappie, northern pike, muskellunge, walleye, and catfish for stocking or growout.

Global aquaculture production continues to grow annually, but increasing competition for suitable land and water, problems associated with wastewater from aquaculture facilities, disease outbreaks, and potential shortages of animal protein for aquatic animal feeds are becoming increasingly important. New technology, including the application of molecular genetic approaches to improving performance and disease resistance in aquaculture species, along with the development of water reuse (recirculating) systems, the establishment of offshore facilities, and the expansion of enhancement programs may provide the impetus for a resurgence in growth of the industry.

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