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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

Dissolved Gases

Dissolved gases are those which are in a water solution. An example of gas dissolved in solution is soda water which has large quantities of dissolved carbon dioxide. The most common gases are oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and ammonia. Concentrations are measured in parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per liter (mg/1), both units of measure are the same. (One ppm or mg/1 is the same as one pound added to 999,999 pounds to total 1,000,000 pounds).

Dissolved oxygen (DO) is by far the most important chemical parameter in aquaculture. Low-dissolved oxygen levels are responsible for more fish kills, either directly or indirectly, than all other problems combined. Like humans, fish require oxygen for respiration. The amount of oxygen consumed by the fish is a function of its size, feeding rate, activity level, and temperature. Small fish consume more oxygen than do large fish because of their higher metabolic rate. Meade (1974) determined that the oxygen consumption of salmon reared at 57 oF was 0.002 pounds per pound of fish per day. Lewis et al. (1981) determined that striped bass raised at 77 oF consumed 0.012-0.020 pounds per pound of fish per day. The higher oxygen requirement by striped bass may be attributed to the statement that the metabolic rate doubles for each 18o F increase in temperature.

The amount of oxygen that can be dissolved in water decreases at higher temperatures and decreases with increases in altitudes and salinites (Table 2).

At sea level and zero salinity 68.0F water can hold 9.2 ppm, while at 86.0F, saturation is at 7.6 ppm. In combining this relationship of decreased solubility with increasing temperatures, it can be seen why oxygen depletion are so common in the summer when higher water temperatures occur.

Fish farmer, in an attempt to maximize production, stock greater amounts of fish in a given body of water than found in nature. At times during summer it may be necessary to supply supplemental aeration to maintain adequate levels of dissolved oxygen. Whereas in recirculation systems the farmer must supply 100 percent of the oxygen needed for the fish and beneficial nitrifying bacteria.

To obtain good growth, fish must be cultured at optimum levels of dissolved oxygen. A good rule of thumb is to maintain DO levels at saturation or at least 5 ppm (Figure 6). Dissolved oxygen levels less than 55 ppm can place undue stress on the fish, and levels less than 2 ppm will result in death (possibly 3 ppm for hybrid striped bass and yellow perch). Some warmwater species such as tilapia and carp are better adapted to withstand occasional low DO levels, while most coolwater species cannot.

Fish are not the only consumers of oxygen in aquaculture systems; bacteria, phytoplankton, and zooplankton consume large quantities of oxygen as well. Decomposition of organic materials (algae, bacteria, and fish wastes) is the single greatest consumer of oxygen in aquaculture systems. Problems encountered from water recirculating systems usually stem from excessive ammonia production in fish wastes. Consumption of oxygen by nitrifying bacteria that break down toxic ammonia to non-toxic forms depends on the amount of ammonia entering the system. Meade (1974) determined that 4.0-4.6 pounds of oxygen are needed to oxidize every pound of ammonia. However, since other bacteria are present in pond and tank culture, a ratio of 6 pounds of oxygen to 1 pound of ammonia is recommended.

Oxygen enters the water primarily through direct diffusion at the air-water interface and through plant photosynthesis. Direct diffusion is relatively insignificant unless there is considerable wind and wave action. Several forms of mechanical aeration are available to the fish farmer. The general categories are:

1. Paddlewheels
2. Agitators
3. Vertical sprayers
4. Impellers
5. Airlift pumps
6. Venturia pumps
7. Liquid oxygen injection
8. Air diffusers

Mechanical aeration can also increase dissolved oxygen levels. Because of the lack of photosynthesis in indoor water recirculating systems, mechanical means of aeration is the only alternative for supplying oxygen to animals cultured in these systems. Oxygen depletions can be calculated, but predictions can be misleading and should never be substituted for actual measurements.
Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is commonly found in water from photosynthesis or water sources originating from limestone bearing rock. Fish can tolerate concentrations of 10 ppm provided dissolved oxygen concentrations are high. Water supporting good fish populations normally contain less than 5 ppm of free carbon dioxide. In water used for intensive pond fish culture, carbon dioxide levels may fluctuate from 0 ppm in the afternoon to 5-15 ppm at daybreak. While in recirculating systems carbon dioxide levels may regularly exceed 20 ppm. Excessively high levels of carbon dioxide (greater than 20 ppm) may interfere with the oxygen utilization by the fish.

There are two common ways to remove free carbon dioxide. First, with well or spring water from limestone bearing rocks, aeration can "blow" off the excess gas. The second option is to add some type of carbonate buffering material such as calcium carbonate (CaCO3) or sodium bicarbonate (Na2CO3). Such additions will initially remove all free carbon dioxide and store it in reserve as bicarbonate and carbonate buffers. This concept is discussed in further detail under alkalinity.


Dissolved gases, especially nitrogen, are usually measured in terms of "percent saturation." Any value greater than the amount of gas the water normally holds at a given temperature constitutes supersaturation. A gas supersaturation level above 110% is usually considered problematic.

Gas bubble disease is a symptom of gas supersaturation. The signs of gas bubble disease can vary. Bubbles may reach the heart or brain, and fish die without any visible external signs. Other symptoms may be bubbles just under the surface of the skin, in the eyes, or between the fin rays. Treatment of gas bubble disease involves sufficient aeration to decrease the gas concentration to saturation or below.

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