Disease and Species Health

Fish Aquaculture @TNC

Diseases of farmed species are risk factors for both the environment and marine farmers. Improperly cleaned or maintained cages, stocking species at an unsustainable density, leaving dead animals within the cage, poor water quality, and improper feeds and feeding protocols are some of the factors that can lead to diseases. In seaweed aquaculture, diseases like ice-ice can necessitate pausing farming until the disease is gone, resulting in economic losses for the farmer. ref Disease can be a major risk for wild species as open water where cages or pens are located is a potential pathway to transfer disease from within the cage to the nearby marine environments. If diseases within farmed species are not addressed, they can spread to wild species.

Disease can greatly impact the growth and overall condition of the farmed stock by reducing growth, increasing deformities, increasing mortalities, increasing harvest time, and reducing harvest biomass and profitability. It is more economically and environmentally sustainable to prevent diseases rather than mitigating the spread of diseases that have already occurred. ref

occurence of fish disease

Interaction of host, pathogen, and stress environment on the occurrence of disease. Source: The Fish Site

Stocking Density

A critically important concept to be aware of in aquaculture is stocking density, which is the total weight of farmed species in a certain volume of cage or pen. The weight is usually given in kilograms and the cage volume in cubic meters. For example, a floating net pen with dimensions of 5 x 5 x 3 meters (L x W x H) would have a total volume of 75 cubic meters, and it could be stocked with 2,000 fish of 100 g each. If the total weight of fish, or biomass, is 200,000 g, or 200 kg, then the stocking density would be 2.6 kg of fish for every 1 cubic meter.

Each cage or pen type, species, and environment will allow for different stocking densities, but a general rule is that there is an inverse relationship between stocking density and growth - the lower the stocking density, the quicker the marine animals will grow. Higher stocking densities (more fish present in the cage) will generally increase overall fish stress and potentially increase prevalence of diseases and parasites. It takes careful planning, observation, and record keeping to finetune the optimal stocking density in a specific cage or pen. ref


  • Use lower stocking densities to promote growth and minimize stress and disease
  • Minimize excess handling of the stock
  • Monitor the cage often for signs of animal stress and/or disease and adjust stocking densities accordingly
  • Monitor the cage for and immediately remove any mortalities


Cage Cleaning and Maintenance

Cage and net cleaning should be undertaken regularly between harvests and when needed. Depending on the selected site, nets will often accumulate “biofouling” or natural attachments from the local environment by algae, sponges, or even corals. The accumulation of marine organisms on the nets can reduce seawater flow within the cage or pen and reduce oxygen replenishment and the efficient removal of waste. Additionally, parasites that can grow and prey on the cultured species can attach to gear and nets. In sea cucumber farming, predators such as crabs can also accumulate in pens and greatly lower stock numbers. Pens should be frequently checked for holes that crabs can get through, and crabs found in the pens need to be removed. ref Management and operators need to regularly communicate about net maintenance and cleaning as lack of cleaning and maintenance can also lead to holes and breakage, which can cause escapes and reduced harvests. ref

Routine maintenance generally includes brushing nets underwater when nets are empty between stocking. Total and more in depth cleaning can include removing the nets from the cage and cleaning them on land by allowing them to dry under the sun for an extended period, spraying them with a high-pressure freshwater hose, or treating them with specific chemicals. It is important to kill and remove as much of the marine growth as possible and fully rinse off any chemicals before placing nets and cages back into the water. In addition to net cleaning and depending on the cage type, the floating systems and walking platforms must also be serviced and maintained.


  • Follow a regular schedule for monitoring and maintaining nets and cages
  • Minimize the use of chemicals and antimicrobials by manually cleaning nets with brushes and high-pressure hoses
  • Ensure that any farm vessels used to operate or monitor farm are being maintained to prevent gasoline or oil leaks or spills
  • Monitor the cage for and immediately remove any mortalities


Type of Feed

The use of whole fish, fish trimmings, or other animal parts to feed the fish in cages is highly discouraged. This manner of feeding is unsustainable, uneconomical, and can have lasting and damaging effects on the environment. Instead, feeding fish with commercially produced feed pellets is recommended. The pellets have the required nutritional components to promote growth, survival and overall condition of the farmed fish with a balance of protein, lipids, energy, minerals, and vitamins. Depending on the species that is being farmed there may exist a feed designed and tested for that specific finfish. It is important to observe the feeding behavior of the fish to avoid overfeeding. If overfeeding occurs, uneaten pellets sink to the seafloor potentially damaging benthic habitat. Additionally, any feed that does not get consumed by the farmed fish is wasted money - determining the right feed efficiency is a win-win for the farmer and the environment. ref


  • Use specialized pellet feeds, not whole fish or animal waste for feed
  • Closely monitor feeding and adjust feeding protocols to minimize any uneaten and wasted feed


Disease Mitigation

Cultured species health can be affected by many different environmental, nutritional, and infectious factors. It is the responsibility of the farm operator and manager to oversee the health of the cultured animals from the fry, seed, or larvae that are purchased to the matured species that is grown and harvested. As soon as any adverse behaviors or physical traits are noticed, immediate actions must be taken to determine and solve the underlying issue. If the operator or manager does not have the necessary technical training to accurately assess and cure possible ailments, it is the responsibility of the operator and manager to seek assistance. Aquatic veterinarians can be presented with visual evidence (photos or videos) so they can provide recommendations.


  • Ensure that the facility where the fry, larvae, or seed are sourced from abides by proper disease mitigation protocols and that the stock being received is disease-free
  • Regularly observe fish swimming and feeding behavior and note any abnormal behavior as it may indicate disease or poor fish health
  • If a disease outbreak is observed, communicate with an aquatic health expert or veterinarian to pinpoint the specific ailment and proper treatment
  • If possible, consult with an aquatic health expert or veterinarian at various level of operation and/or employ one as part of the operating team
  • Minimize use of and ensure that only legal chemicals and antibiotics are used
  • Vaccinate fish prior to stocking into cages, if available and necessary


Distance Between Farming Operations

Direction and speed of currents will determine which way and how fast waste is removed from a cage and potentially carried into an adjacent cage. Direction of the current can also mean that certain cages will be exposed to water with higher oxygen content, with downstream cages potentially receiving reduced oxygen. If cages are too close to each other, then there is a higher risk that a disease or parasite outbreak can quickly spread and affect neighboring cages and farming operations.


  • Optimize siting to minimize impacts to wild stocks and disease transfer among farms
  • To reduce the biosecurity risk of disease transfer from one farming operation to another, regulatory authorities should set minimum recommended distances between farms of >500 m ref



It is the responsibility of the farm operator and manager to oversee stock health and evaluate whether the cultured species have any diseases or parasites. In terms of fish behavior, the following traits can indicate disease or parasites: failure to feed properly, flashing (turning on their sides), rubbing on the bottom, and/or reduced vitality or gasping at the surface. In terms of physical signs, the following traits can indicate disease or parasites: blistered areas, swollen bellies, popped-out eyes, bloody areas on fins, discoloration or erosion of body parts, and/or excessive mucus or growths on the body. ref

In seaweed farming, epiphytes (organisms that grow on the surface of the algae) can block access to sunlight and nutrients and can attract grazers. If they are not removed immediately, epiphytes will grow and spread very quickly. Epiphytes can be more abundant when seaweed is under stress conditions or diseased because the seaweeds’ natural defenses are compromised. A common disease affecting seaweed is known as ice-ice. Stress (low salinity, extreme temperature, sun exposure) and malnutrition are the most common conditions leading to ice-ice. If ice-ice appears on cultivated seaweed, farmers should harvest the seaweed immediately, stop farming at that site until disease is gone, and source new seed from areas away from pollution or nutrient runoff.


  • Track and record the frequency and extent of all disease and mortalities
  • Develop a disease prevention and health monitoring plan and follow routine monitoring protocols
  • Develop biosecurity protocols to minimize the spread of disease to other cages or animals


Translate »