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Importance of Water Quality in Aquaculture

Fish perform all their bodily functions in water. Because fish are totally dependent upon water to breathe, feed and grow, excrete wastes, maintain a salt balance, and reproduce, understanding the physical and chemical qualities of water is critical to successful aquaculture. To a great extent water determines the success or failure of an aquaculture operation.

Physical Characteristics of Water

Water can hold large amounts of heat with a relatively small change in temperature. This heat capacity has far reaching implications. It permits a body of water to act as a buffer against wide fluctuations in temperature. The larger the body of water, the slower the rate of temperature change. Furthermore, aquatic organisms take on the temperature of their environment and cannot tolerate rapid changes in temperature. Water has very unique density qualities. Most liquids become denser as they become cooler. Water, however, gets denser as it cools until it reaches a temperature of approximately 39ºF. As it cools below this point, it becomes lighter until it freezes (32ºF). As ice develops,water increases in volume by 11 percent. The increase in volume allows ice to float rather than sink, a characteristic that prevents ponds from freezing solid. Far from being a "universal solvent," as it is sometimes called, water can dissolve more substances than any other liquid. Over 50 percent of the known chemical elements have been found in natural waters, and it is probable that traces of most others can be found in lakes, streams, estuaries, or oceans.

Water Balance in Fish

The elimination of most nitrogen waste products in land animals is performed through the kidneys. In contrast, fish rely heavily on their gills for this function, excreting primarily ammonia. A fish's gills are permeable to water and salts. In the ocean the salinity of water is more concentrated than that of the fish's body fluids. In this environment water is drawn out, but salts tend to diffuse inward. Hence, marine fishes drink large amounts of sea water and excrete small amounts of highly salt-concentrated urine (Figure 1). In fresh-water fish, water regulation is the reverse of marine species. Salt is constantly being lost through the gills, and large amounts of water enter through the fish's skin and gills (Figure 2). This is because the salt concentration in a fish (approximately 0.5 percent) is higher than the salt concentration of the water in which it lives. Because the fish's body is contantly struggling to prevent the “diffusion” of water into its body, large amounts of water are excreted by the kidneys. As a result, the salt concentration of the urine is very low. By understanding the need to maintain a water balance in freshwater fish, one can understand why using salt during transport is beneficial to fish.

Figure 1. Direction of water, ammonia, and salt movements into and out of saltwater fish. Saltwater fish drink large amounts of water and excrete small amounts of concentrated urine.

Figure 2. Direction of water, ammonia, and salt movement into and out of freshwater fish. Freshwater fish do not drink water, but excrete large amounts of dilute urine.

Sources of Water

Water is always a limiting factor in commercial fish production. Many of the negative chemical and environmental factors associated with most operations have their origins in the source of water selected. Final site selection has to be made based on both the quality and quantity of water available. The most common sources of water used for aquaculture are wells, springs, rivers and lakes, groundwater, and municipal water. Of the sources mentioned, wells and springs are considered to consistently be of high quality (see AS-486 for more information on water sources).

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