The wild harvest of seafood, man’s last major hunting and
gathering activity, is at a critical point. Technology has enabled
harvesting to outpace the speed at which species can reproduce.
In response, the seafood industry is beginning to shift from wild
harvest to aquaculture, the production of aquatic plants and animals
under grower-controlled conditions. Aquaculture is growing rapidly
in many countries, particularly China, Chile, and Thailand. It is
also expanding in the United States—the estimated value of
U.S. production in 2001 was $935 million. Aquaculture accounts for
a growing share of U.S. seafood consumption as well.
Aquaculture has a number of advantages over wild harvest. Growers can more
easily maintain a steady supply of products. Farmed seafood is likely to be
more uniform in size and quantity, thus moderating price swings. Selective
breeding can be used to enhance disease resistance, increase growth rates,
or promote other desirable traits, such as better feed conversion. Finally,
consumers benefit from declining real prices as growers increase their efficiency
There are also a number of possible disadvantages to farmed seafood production.
These include waste disposal from intensive production sites, the introduction
of non-native species, and the destruction of coastal marsh areas for the development
of new production areas. Concerns have also been raised about possibly dangerous
levels of cancer-causing chemicals in farmed salmon.
Despite such concerns, the U.S. has become a major market for the
global aquaculture industry. U.S. seafood consumption has been
steady over the past decade at around 16 pounds per person per year, but
a growing share of the supply is being imported, much of it from
countries using aquaculture. In 2002, imports accounted for roughly
45 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. Seafood imports included
shrimp (946 million pounds), Atlantic salmon (413 million pounds),
and tilapia (148 million pounds). Most of the imported salmon and
tilapia and approximately half the shrimp were farm-raised, representing
over 1 billion pounds of aquaculture products with a value of $2.7
billion. To put these imports in perspective, the U.S. poultry
industry, the world’s largest poultry exporter, shipped 5.4 billion
pounds of poultry products, valued at $1.6 billion in 2002. Aquaculture
also supplies U.S. consumers with catfish from Vietnam, crayfish
and mollusks from China, and mussels from Canada and New Zealand.
For a number of countries, aquaculture has become a major part of their economies
and a growing source of foreign exchange earnings. For the U.S., the large
influx of imported aquaculture products has meant lower prices for consumers,
but lower returns for producers. In response, a number of anti-dumping suits
have been filed against foreign aquacultural producers.