Challenges: Illegal aquaculture farming

GS Paper II & III

News Excerpt:

Recently, the Madras High Court, recognising that illegal aquaculture farms were causing damage to agricultural activities and the environment, ordered the closure of all illegal aquaculture farms in the state of Tamil Nadu within six months.


  • It is breeding, raising, and harvesting fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants. Basically, it's farming in water.
  • This includes production for supplying other aquaculture operations, for providing food and industrial products, for stocking sport fisheries, for supplying aquatic bait animals, for stocking fee-fishing operations, for providing aquatic organisms for ornamental purposes, and for supplying feedstocks to the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. 

Key Points:

  • The court ordered the prosecution and punishment of all offenders as contemplated under the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act, 2005, which prescribes punitive measures for carrying on coastal aquaculture without registration.
  • This order is a step towards acknowledging the environmental damage that results from illegal aquaculture. 
    • While this decision of the court is commendable, environmental damage is only one concern associated with under-regulated aquaculture. 
    • Risks to human health are another dimension of this issue.

India’s aquaculture sector:

  • India is the third largest fish producer in the world. 
    • In 2022-23, 16.25 million metric tonnes (MMT) of fish and seafood were produced in the country.
    • Out of the total fish produced in India, fish production from aquaculture (or fish farming) alone was 12.12 MMT in 2021-22.
  • As India witnesses a Blue Revolution, its aquaculture sub-sector is growing by leaps and bounds. 
    • Its sheer size and contribution to the economy make effective regulation of this sub-sector crucial.

Risks to human health:

  • In the absence of adequate regulation of the aquaculture sub-sector, its rapid growth not only endangers our environment but also public health. 
    • Several studies have shown a crucial link between how fish in aquaculture are reared and their impacts on human health.
  • When aquaculture is under regulated, there are frequent disease outbreaks. Bacterial, fungal, parasitic and viral infections affecting fishes in Indian aquaculture have been reported time and again. 
    • For instance, in October last year, India’s first tilapia parvovirus (TiPV) was reported in Ranipet district of Tamil Nadu, making India the third country to report the occurrence of TiPV after China and Thailand.
  • Even though diseases in fishes lead to huge financial losses for farmers, they seldom get the attention that diseases like bird flu and swine flu get.
  • To deal with frequent disease outbreaks, antimicrobials are used indiscriminately (and often prophylactically). 
    • As a result, there is a severe risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in fish consumers, something that is increasingly being recognised by many health experts in India.

What causes frequent disease outbreaks?

  • Many diseases in aquaculture are the result of intensification of cultural practices without a basic knowledge of the complex balance between the host, the pathogen and the environment.
  • The rapid under-regulated development of the aquaculture sub-sector and its expansion into intensive and semi-intensive methods of production have resulted in fish being raised in high stocking densities (overcrowding) and high stress conditions.
  • This increases the occurrence and spread of infectious diseases. In addition to higher stocking densities, poor aquaculture practices like inadequate water quality, poor nutritional status and the mismanagement of disease prevention and reporting protocols are also responsible for high disease and infection incidence and mortalities in fishes.

Inadequacies of current regulatory framework

  • The current legal and regulatory landscape surrounding aquaculture leaves a lot to be desired. 
    • Even as the National Surveillance Programme for Aquatic Animal Diseases, a programme for early detection of diseases, entered its second phase in 2023, the more comprehensive Aquatic Animal Disease and Health Management Bill, 2019 has been in limbo for over four years.
  • Since ‘fisheries’ is a state subject, the onus of enacting regulation also lies on the respective state fisheries departments. 
    • However, most states have not mandated various important aspects of aquaculture, like stocking densities and water quality parameters, for most species, especially those that are consumed domestically, which puts the health of Indian fish consumers at risk.
  • Additionally, existing regulations are woefully inadequate in preventing and dealing with disease outbreaks as they fail to mandate and enforce global best practices within the Indian aquaculture industry.
    • This also disproportionately affects Indian fish consumers because there is a discrepancy between how fish reared for domestic consumption and those meant for export are regulated. 
    • The stocking densities and water quality parameters of commonly exported fish such as tilapia, shrimp, sea bass and pangasius are better regulated to ensure compliance with the stringent norms of the importing countries.

Way Forward:

  • Enacting the Aquatic Animal Disease and Health Management Bill, 2019 into law, sooner rather than later, would be a major step forward.
  • Due to the strong link between human health and fish health, better regulatory frameworks could be a win-win for all. 
    • Laws and policies regulating aquaculture need to incorporate the spirit of One Health (achieving optimal health for people, animals and our environment) and ensure that fish health forms the bedrock of sustainable, humane and safe aquaculture practices.
  • This would mean mandating optimum stocking densities and crucial best aquaculture practices for extensive production systems and even more stringent regulation and enforcement for intensive and semi-intensive production systems.
  • Additionally, better monitoring of the entire value-chain, regular farm inspections and surveillance and building the capacity of farmers to ensure prompt disease reporting are needed for mitigation of health risks from aquaculture.
  • While keeping the species and production system in mind, mandating stocking densities for the most domestically produced and consumed fishes, like Indian major carps, could be a good first step in protecting the health of fishes and therefore the health of consumers by keeping AMR in check.


While the Madras High Court order is a step in the right direction, a lot more operational controls need to be mandated in aquaculture to minimize its hazardous health impacts. There is an imminent need for aquaculture laws and policies to recognise the interconnectedness between fish health and the health of fish consumers.

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