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The roots of fish farming go far back in history. Fish culturing began in at least 1000 B.C., possibly even earlier in Egypt and China. Ancient China introduced ornamental-goldfish breeding to Japan, which in turn developed ornamental-carp breeding. Ancient Romans were the first mariculturists, creating ponds for fish breeding that let in ocean water. Brackish-water fish farms existed in Java by about 1400 A.D. However, historically, the vast majority of food-fish has come from capture, not farming. Capture fisheries worldwide grew at rates of about 4 percent per year through most of the 20th century but increased by only 0.6 percent between 1986 and 1987 (to about 93 million metric tons). Since then, growth rates of less than 1 percent per year have been the norm. In a nutshell, the natural supply of fish is shrinking—natural waters are being "fished out"—while fish consumption is rising. Enter aquaculture.

U.S. aquaculture began in the 1920s and 1930s with some farming of minnows for bait and with growth of catfish, bass, and other food-fish farming in the 1950s, largely in the South. In 1975, U.S. aquaculture produced 130 million pounds of fish; by 1987, it produced more than 400 million pounds. Today, U.S. aquaculture produces catfish, crawfish, salmon, trout, oysters, ornamental fish, and other products. U.S. restaurants offer a wide range of fish and other organisms produced by aquaculture, including salmon, shrimp, catfish, crabs, clams, mussels, lobster, carp, sturgeon, cod, and mahi-mahi (dolphinfish). As capture yields have leveled off, aquaculture yields have grown at rates of nearly 6 percent per year or more, but have slowed somewhat in recent years. Today, aquaculture is a nearly $1.1 billion annual industry in the United States. Aquaculture now accounts for 50 percent of the fish consumed globally, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some hope aquaculture can help meet food needs in developing countries. Fish is a healthier source of protein than meat and requires less energy to produce (about two pounds of feed for one pound of catfish, versus eight pounds of feed for one pound of beef). Aquaculture can still be done simply and cheaply, such as in a pond, using farm waste as fertilizer. (Such setups, however, produce less desirable fish, like carp.)