Rearing marine organisms for food has been a widespread practice since ancient times. However, large-scale farming of molluscs, crustaceans and bony fishes has rapidly gained momentum since the early 1980s, with 20% of the world’s seafood harvest now farmed; this is projected to increase to 25% by 2000 (Douglas 1995; Crowley 1995). Expansion of world markets contemporaneous with depletion of wild stocks has resulted in very rapid growth of this industry.
Land-based aquaculture takes place in tanks and ponds, while water-based culture systems generally employ screened cages or moored net pens of widely varying designs (Kuo and Beveridge 1990) in salt water (mariculture) or fresh rivers.
Aquaculture is performed as either an extensive or intensive practice. Extensive aquaculture entails some form of environmental enhancement for naturally produced species of fish, shellfish or aquatic plants. An example of such a practice would be laying down oyster shells to be used as attachment substrate for juvenile oysters. Intensive aquaculture incorporates more complex technology and capital investment in the culture of aquatic organisms. A salmon hatchery that uses concrete tanks supplied with water via some delivery system is an example. Intensive aquaculture also requires greater allocation of labour in the operation.
The process of intensive aquaculture includes the acquisition of broodstock adults used for production of gametes, gamete collection and fertilization, incubation of eggs and juvenile rearing; it may include rearing of adults to market size or release of the organism into the environment. Herein lies the difference between farming and enhancement aquaculture. Farming means rearing the organism to market size, generally in an enclosed system. Aquaculture for enhancement requires the release of the organism into the natural environment to be harvested at a later date. The essential role of enhancement is to produce a specific organism as a supplement to natural production, not as a replacement. Aquaculture can also be in the form of mitigation for loss of natural production caused by a natural or human-made event—for example, construction of a salmon hatchery to replace lost natural production caused by the damming of a stream for hydroelectric power production.
Aquaculture can occur in land-based facilities, on-bottom marine and freshwater environments and floating structures. Floating net pens are used for fish farming, and cages suspended from raft or buoy flotation are commonly used for shellfish culture.
Land-based operations require the construction of dams and/or excavation of holes for ponds and raceways for water flushing. Mariculture can involve the construction and maintenance of complex structures in harsh environments. Handling of smolt (for bony fishes) or tiny invertebrates, feed, chemical treatments for water and the animals being raised and wastes have all evolved into highly specialized activities as the industry has developed.
Hazards and Controls
Fish farming operations afford many injury risks, combining some of those common to all modern agriculture operations (e.g., entanglement in large machinery, hearing loss from prolonged exposure to loud engines) with some hazards unique to these operations. Slips and falls can have particularly bad outcomes if they occur near raceways or pens, as there are the dual added risks of drowning and biological or chemical contamination from polluted water.
Severe lacerations and even amputations may take place during roe-stripping, fish butchering and mollusc shelling and can be prevented by the use of guards, protective gloves and equipment designed specifically for each task. Lacerations contaminated by fish slime and blood can cause serious local and even systemic infections (“fish poisoning”). Prompt disinfection and debridement is essential for these injuries.
Electrofishing (used to stun fish during survey counts, and increasingly in collection of broodstock at hatcheries) carries a high potential for electrical shock to the operators and bystanders (National Safety Council 1985) and should be done only by trained operators, with personnel trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on site. Only equipment specifically designed for electrofishing operations in water should be employed and scrupulous attention must be paid to establishing and maintaining good insulation and grounding.
All water poses drowning risks, while cold waters pose the additional hazard of hypothermia. Accidental immersions due to falls overboard must be guarded against, as must potential for ensnarement or entrapment in nets. Approved personal flotation devices should be worn by all workers at all times on or near the water, and some thermal protection should also be worn when working around cold waters (Lincoln and Klatt 1994). Mariculture personnel should be trained in marine survival and rescue techniques, as well as CPR.
Repetitive strain injuries may also occur in butchering and hand-feeding operations and can be largely avoided by attention to ergonomics (via task analysis and equipment modifications as necessary) and frequent task rotations of manual workers. Those workers developing repetitive strain injury symptoms should receive prompt evaluation and treatment and possible reassignment.
Sleep deprivation can be a risk factor for injuries in aquaculture facilities requiring intensive labour over a short duration of time (e.g., egg harvest at salmon hatcheries).
Diving is frequently required in construction and maintenance of fishpens. Predictably, decompression illness (“bends”) has been observed among divers not carefully observing depth/time limits (“dive tables”). There have also been reports of decompression illness occurring in divers observing these limits but making many repetitive short dives; alternative methods (not using divers) should be developed for clearing dead fish from and maintaining pens (Douglas and Milne 1991). When diving is deemed necessary, observing published dive tables, avoiding repetitive dives, always diving with a second diver (“buddy diving”) and rapid evaluation of decompression-like illnesses for possible hyperbaric oxygen therapy should be regular practices.
Severe organophosphate poisoning has occurred in workers incidental to pesticidal treatment of sea lice on salmon (Douglas 1995). Algicides deployed to control blooms may be toxic to workers, and toxic marine and freshwater algae themselves may afford worker hazards (Baxter 1991). Bath treatments for fungal infections in fish may use formaldehyde and other toxic agents (Douglas 1995). Workers must receive adequate instruction and allotment of time for safe handling of all agricultural chemicals and hygienic practices around contaminated waters.
Respiratory illnesses ranging from rhinitis to severe bronchospasm (asthma-like symptoms) have occurred due to sensitization to putative endotoxins of gram-negative bacteria contaminating farmed trout during gutting operations (Sherson, Hansen and Sigsgaard 1989), and respiratory sensitization may occur to antibiotics in medicated fish feeds. Careful attention to personal cleanliness, keeping seafood clean during butchering and handling and respiratory protection will help ensure against these problems. Workers developing sensitivity should avoid subsequent exposures to the implicated antigens. Constant immersion of hands can facilitate dermal sensitization to agricultural chemicals and foreign (fish) proteins. Hygienic practice and use of task-appropriate gloves (such as cuffed, insulated, waterproof neoprene during cold butchering operations) will reduce this risk.
Sunburn and keratotic (chronic) skin injury may result from exposure to sunlight. Wearing hats, adequate clothing and sunscreen should be de rigueur for all outdoor agricultural workers.
Large quantities of stored fish feeds are often raided by or infested with rats and other rodents, posing a risk for leptospirosis (Weil’s disease). Workers handling fish feeds must be vigilant about feed storage and rodent control and protect abraded skin and mucous membranes from contact with potentially contaminated feeds and soiled pond waters. Feeds with known contamination with rat urine should be handled as potentially infectious, and discarded promptly (Ferguson and Path 1993; Benenson 1995; Robertson et al. 1981).
Eczema and dermatitis can easily evolve from inflammation of skin macerated by constant water contact. Also, this inflammation and wet conditions can foster reproduction of human papillaviridae, leading to rapid spread of skin warts (Verruca vulgaris). Prevention is best accomplished by keeping hands as dry as possible and using appropriate gloves. Emollients are of some value in the management of minor skin irritation from water contact, but topical treatment with corticosteroids or antibiotic creams (after evaluation by a physician) may be necessary if initial treatment is unsuccessful.
Demand for fresh water can be extremely high in all of these systems, with estimates centring on 40,000 litres required for each 0.5 kg of bony fish raised to maturity (Crowley 1995). Recirculation with filtration can greatly reduce demand, but requires intensive application of new technologies (e.g., zeolites to attract ammonia).
Fish farm discharges can include as much faecal waste as that from small cities, and regulations are rapidly proliferating for control of these discharges (Crowley 1995).
Consumption of plankton and krill, and side effects of mariculture such as algal blooms, can lead to major disruptions in species balance in the local ecosystems surrounding fish farms.