In these kinds of systems fish production per unit of surface can be increased at will, as long as sufficient oxygen, fresh water and food are provided. Because of the requirement of sufficient fresh water, a massive water purification system must be integrated in the fish farm.
A clever way to do this is by combining hydroponic horticulture and water treatment. The exception to this rule are cages which are placed in a river or sea, which supplements the fish crop with sufficient oxygenated water.
The cost of inputs per unit of fish weight is higher than in extensive farming, especially because of the high cost of fish feed, which must contain a much higher level of protein (up to 60%) than cattle food and a balanced amino acid composition, as well.
However, these higher protein level requirements are a consequence of the higher food conversion efficiency (FCR—kg of feed per kg of animal produced) of aquatic animals. Fish like salmon have FCR’s in the range of 1.1 kg of feed per kg of salmon whereas chickens are in the 2.5 kg of feed per kg of chicken range. Fish don’t have to stand up or keep warm and this eliminates a lot of carbohydrates and fats in the diet, required to provide this energy. This frequently is offset by the lower land costs and the higher production costs which result from the high level of input control.
Essential here is aeration of the water, as fish need a sufficient oxygen level for growth. This is achieved by bubbling, cascade flow or aqueous oxygen. Catfish, for instance can breathe atmospheric air and can tolerate much higher levels of pollutants than trout or salmon, which makes aeration and water purification less necessary and makes them a species especially suited for intensive fish production. On some Catfish farms about 10% of the water volume can consist of fish biomass.
The risk of infections by parasites like fish lice, fungi, intestinal worms (such as nematodes or trematodes), bacteria (e.g., Yersinia spp., Pseudomonas spp.), and protozoa (such as Dinoflagellates) is similar to animal husbandry, especially at high population densities. Intensive aquaculture does have to provide adequate water quality (oxygen, ammonia, nitrite, etc.) levels to minimize stress, which makes the pathogen problem more difficult.
This means, intensive aquaculture requires tight monitoring and a high level of expertise of the fish farmer.
Very high intensity recycle aquaculture systems (RAS), where there is control over all the production parameters, are being used for high value species. By recycling the water, very little water is used per unit of production. However, the process does have high capital and operating costs. The higher cost structures mean that RAS is only economical for high value products like brood stock for egg production, fingerlings for net pen aquaculture operations, sturgeon production, research animals and some special niche markets like live fish.
Raising ornamental cold water fish (goldfish or koi), although theoretically much more profitable due to the higher income per weight of fish produced, has never been successfully carried out until very recently. The increased incidences of dangerous viral diseases of koi Carp, together with the high value of the fish has led to initiatives in closed system koi breeding and growing in a number of countries. Today there are a few commercially successful intensive koi growing facilities in the UK, Germany and Israel, but they have definitely dropped off in popularity.
Some producers have adapted their intensive systems in an effort to provide consumers with fish that do not carry dormant forms of viruses and diseases.