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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.

Water Chemical Factors (continued)


Fish excrete ammonia and lesser amounts of urea into the water as wastes. Two forms of ammonia occur in aquaculture systems, ionized and un-ionized. The un-ionized form of ammonia (NH3) is extremely toxic while the ionized form (NH4+) is not. Both forms are grouped together as "total ammonia." Through biological processes, toxic ammonia can be degraded to harmless nitrates.

In natural waters, such as lakes, ammonia may never reach dangerous high levels because of the low densities of fish, But the fish farmer must maintain high densities of fish and, therefore, runs the risk of ammonia toxicity. Un-ionized ammonia levels rise as temperature and pH increase.

Toxicity levels for un-ionized ammonia depend on the individual species; however, levels below 0.02 ppm are considered safe. Dangerously high ammonia concentrations are usually limited to water recirculation system or hauling tanks where water is continually recycled and in pond culture after phytoplankton die-offs. However, the intermediate form of ammonia--nitrite--has been known to occur at toxic levels (brown-blood disease) in fish ponds.

Buffering Systems

A buffering system to avoid wide swings in pH is essential in aquaculture. Without some means of storing carbon dioxide released from plant and animal respiration, pH levels may fluctuate in ponds from approximately 4-5 to over 10 during the day. In recirculating systems constant fish respiration can raise carbon dioxide levels high enough to interfere with oxygen intake by fish, in addition to lowering the pH of the water.

The quantity of hydrogen ions (H+) in water will determine if it is acidic or basic. The scale for measuring the degree of acidity is called the pH scale, which ranges from 1 to 14. A value of 7 is considered neutral, neither acidic or basic; values below 7 are considered acidic; above 7, basic. The acceptable range for fish culture is normally between pH 6.5-9.0.

Alkalinity is the capacity of water to neutralize acids without an increase in pH. This parameter is a measure of the bases, bicarbonates (HCO3-), carbonates (CO3--) and, in rare instances, hydroxide (OH-). Total alkalinity is the sum of the carbonate and bicarbonate alkalinities. Some waters may contain only bicarbonate alkalinity and no carbonate alkalinity.

The carbonate buffering system is important to the fish farmer regardless of the production method used. In pond production, where photosynthesis is the primary natural source of oxygen, carbonates and bicarbonates are storage area for surplus carbon dioxide. By storing carbon dioxide in the buffering system, it is never a limiting factor that could reduce photosynthesis, and in turn, reduce oxygen production. Also, by storing carbon dioxide, the buffering system prevents wide daily pH fluctuations.

Without a buffering system, free carbon dioxide will form large amounts of a weak acid (carbonic acid) that may potentially decrease the night-time pH level to 4.5. During peak periods of photosynthesis, most of the free carbon dioxide will be consumed by the phytoplankton and, as a result, drive the pH levels above 10. As discussed, fish grow within a narrow range of pH values and either of the above extremes will be lethal to them.

In recirculating systems where photosynthesis is practically non-existent, a good buffering capacity can prevent excessive buildups of carbon dioxide and lethal decreases in pH. It is recommended that the fish farmer maintain total alkalinity values of at least 20 ppm for catfish production. Higher alkalinities of at least 80-100 ppm are suggested for hybrid striped bass. For water supplies that have naturally low alkalinities, agriculture lime can be added to increase the buffering capacity of the water.

Water hardness is similar to alkalinity but represents different measurements. Hardness is chiefly a measure of calcium and magnesium, but other ions such as aluminum, iron, manganese, strontium, zinc, and hydrogen ions are also included. When the hardness level is equal to the combined carbonate and bicarbonate alkalinity, it is referred to as carbonate hardness. Hardness values greater than the sum of the carbonate and bicarbonate alkalinity are referred to as non-carbonated hardness. Hardness values of at least 20 ppm should be maintained for optimum growth of aquatic organisms. Low- hardness levels can be increased with the addition of ground agriculture lime.

Other Metals and Gases

Other metals such as iron and sodium, and gases, such as hydrogen sulfide, may sometimes present special problems to the fish farmer. Most complications arising from these can be prevented by properly pre-treating the water prior to adding it to ponds or tanks. The range of treatments may be as simple as aeration, which removes hydrogen sulfide gas, to the expensive use of iron removal units. Normally iron will precipitate out of solution upon exposure to adequate concentrations of oxygen at a pH greater than 7.0.

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