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Water quality requirements and management

Article · January 1999

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Peter M Van Wyk John Scarpa

Zeigler Bros Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi


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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

Chapter 8
Water Quality Requirements and Management
Peter Van Wyk and John Scarpa
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution


Water used for aquaculture is more than just H2O. Water contains many ionic and non-ionic
elements that make up what is termed "water quality". The concentration of dissolved
inorganic ions, dissolved gases, suspended solids, dissolved organic compounds, and
microorganisms determine the suitability of the water for aquaculture. Simply put, a supply
of good water is essential in aquaculture and good water meets the specific environmental
needs of the organism to be cultured. Why is water quality so important? Water is the
environment in which aquatic organisms live. Their bodies and gills are in constant contact
with what is dissolved and suspended in the water. Therefore, water quality directly affects
the health and growth of the cultured organism. Poor water quality leads to stress, disease
and, ultimately, death.

Water quality is not a fixed characteristic of the water. The quality of the water is very
dynamic, changing over time as a result of environmental factors, and biological processes.
Initially, water quality is initially related to the source of the water. For example, if the
water comes from a well, it may be low in dissolved oxygen and high in ammonia, iron,
hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, or a combination of these. Depending on mineral
composition of the region, the source water may be hard and alkaline, or soft and acidic.
After the water is in a culture system, its quality may be altered by biological processes such
as photosynthesis, respiration, and excretion of metabolic wastes, as well as by physical
processes such as temperature and wind. Water quality may even be altered by management
strategies, such as overfeeding that leads to suspended solids and eutrophication of the
system. To be successful, an aquaculturist must regularly monitor the water quality variables
which are critical to the health of the organisms being cultured and understand the factors
which affect these variables.

Water quality requirements differ for different species and sometimes for different stages in
the life cycle of the same species. For example, the salinity requirements of the Pacific white
shrimp, Litopenaeus vannamei, are a function of developmental stage. Adult shrimp mature
and spawn in seawater with a salinity of at least 28 ppt. The early larval stages also require
seawater. However, postlarval shrimp migrate into estuaries, an environment which may
experience extreme fluctuations in salinity. By the time the shrimp become a PL12 they can
successfully acclimate to near freshwater conditions. Frequently early developmental stages
of a culture organism are more susceptible to certain toxic compounds than are older animals.
For example, the LC50 concentration of nitrite for postlarvae is about one-tenth of the LC50
concentration of nitrite for sub-adults. The aquaculturist must understand the water quality

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

requirements of each stage in the lifecycle of the culture species, and make sure that the
culture system provides water suitable for the stages being cultured.

Water Quality Testing During Site Selection

The chemical characteristics of the source water is one of the most important considerations
in choosing a site for an aquaculture enterprise. Some water quality parameters may be
easily adjusted to bring it within acceptable limits. For example, concentrations of toxic
dissolved gases, such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, can be economically reduced
to safe levels by passing the water through a degassing tower. High ammonia levels in the
source water can usually be reduced to safe levels by passing the water through a biofilter.
Other parameters can be modified, but at a significant cost. Salinity is a good example.
While it is possible to add prepared mixes of ocean salts to freshwater to make seawater, it is
not usually economical to do this on a large scale. However, if the salinity of the source
water is not too far out of range, chemical additions may not be prohibitively expensive.
Some water quality parameters cannot be economically modified, so the source water must
be within acceptable limits. High concentrations of toxic compounds such as pesticides,
herbicides, and heavy metals disqualify a site for aquaculture.

A full range of water quality parameters should be tested before deciding to build an
aquaculture facility on a given sit. Table 8-1 gives a list of water quality parameters that
should be tested and the acceptable limits for shrimp culture.
Table 8-1: Recommended Range of Water Quality Parameters for Shrimp Culture
Water Quality Parameter Recommended Range
Temperature 28 - 32 ºC
Dissolved Oxygen 5.0 - 9.0 ppm
Carbon Dioxide ≤ 20 ppm
pH 7.0 - 8.3
Salinity 0.5 - 35 ppt
Chloride ≥ 300 ppm
Sodium ≥ 200 ppm
Total Hardness (as CaCO3) ≥ 150 ppm
Calcium Hardness (as CaCO3) ≥ 100 ppm
Magnesium Hardness (as CaCO3) ≥ 50 ppm
Total Alkalinity (as CaCO3) ≥ 100 ppm
Unionized Ammonia (NH3) ≤ 0.03 ppm
Nitrite (NO2–) ≤ 1 ppm
Nitrate (NO3=) ≤ 60 ppm
Total Iron ≤ 1.0 ppm
Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) ≤ 2 ppb
Chlorine ≤ 10 ppb
Cadmium ≤ 10 ppb
Chromium ≤ 100 ppb
Copper ≤ 25 ppb
Lead ≤ 100 ppb
Mercury ≤ 0.1 ppb
Zinc ≤ 100 ppb
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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

The water from a prospective site should also be analyzed for pesticides. Shrimp, like
insects, are arthropods, and are very susceptible to insecticides. To the author’s knowledge,
the lethal limits of many of these pesticides have not been determined for penaeid shrimp.
However these pesticides are toxic to most aquatic organisms. Table 8-2 lists the range of
LC50 levels for a variety of other aquatic organisms, as well as the safe levels recommended
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Table 8-2: Toxicity of Pesticides to Aquatic Organisms and Safe Levels Recommended by
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Range of 96-hr LC50 Safe Level*

(ppb) (ppb)
Aldrin/Dieldrin 0.2 - 16 0.003
BHC 0.17 – 240 4
Chlordane 5 – 3000 0.01
DDT 0.24 - 22 0.001
Endrin 0.13 - 12 0.004
Heptachlor 0.10 - 230 0.001
Toxaphene 1-6 0.005
*Recommended safe levels by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In addition to testing the chemical composition of the water, bioassays may be used to
determine if the culture organisms can live in the water. Bioassays are tests that use living
organisms as indicators. To test the suitabilitity of water for aquaculture, the culture
organism is placed in the water being tested to determine the percentage of animals that
survive over a determined time period. Although many of the water quality requirements are
known for cultured organisms, the use of water quality data alone, unless exhaustively done,
may miss an essential parameter. Even after basic water quality parameters are identified,
including pesticide and herbicide presence, the results of a bioassay with the intended culture
organism is insurance that the site will be productive.

The water quality parameters measured and bioassay results only give an indication of the
potential for using a water source to culture marine shrimp. There are many variables (e.g.,
management, business plans, natural catastrophes) that will affect the success of such an
operation that are beyond the scope of water quality and bioassay tests. Following is a
discussion of individual water quality parameters for culturing the marine shrimp,
Litopenaeus vannamei, in freshwater. The parameter levels indicated have not all been
scientifically tested for culturing the Pacific white shrimp in freshwater, but are generally
accepted for culturing aquatic organisms or the Pacific white shrimp.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management


¾ (Requirement: >0.5 ppt or >300 ppm chloride)

Salinity is a measure of the total concentration of dissolved inorganic ions, or salts, in the
water. The salinity of seawater typically ranges from about 28 - 35 parts per thousand (ppt).
One part per thousand is equal to 1 gram of inorganic salts per liter of water. Freshwater is
usually defined as water that has less than 1 ppt of salinity. Estuarine water is a mixture of
freshwater and seawater and therefore the salinity of estuarine water is intermediate between
the salinity of seawater and freshwater. The salinity of estuarine water depends on the
relative amounts of freshwater and seawater in the mixture.

A mixture of salts contribute to the salinity of seawater. The most prevalent salt is typically
sodium choride (table salt, NaCl). Salts are compounds that when dissolved in water
dissociate into positively charged ions (called cations) and negatively charged ions (called
anions). The most common cations in seawater are sodium (Na+), magnesium (Mg++),
calcium (Ca++), and postassium (K+). The most common anions are chloride (Cl-), sulfate
(SO4=), bicarbonate (HCO3-), and bromide (Br-).

There are a variety of ways to measure the salinity of the water. Three methods for
measuring salinity are based on the effect of salinity on the physical properties of the water.

A refractometer is a device that measures salinity based upon the refractive index of the
water. Light waves passing through a thin film of water are refracted, or bent, by the water.
The amount of refraction, called the refractive index, is proportional to the concentration of
dissolved salts in the water. The higher the salinity, the higher the refractive index. A
refractometer consists of a prism positioned at the end of a viewing tube with a focusing
ocular lens. A drop of water is placed on the surface of the prism. A transparent cover plate is
placed over the water droplet and the prism pressing the water into a thin film. The salinity
is read by holding the refractometer up to a light source and viewing the amount of refraction
through the lens at the end of the viewing tube. The viewer will see a blue field over a
lighted white field, with a sharp horizontal border between the two fields. The prism has a
salinity scale etched into the glass that is visible when viewing through the viewing tube.
The salinity is read by reading the salinity on the scale at the point of the border between the
white and blue fields. A properly calibrated refractometer has an accuracy of ± 1 ppt of
salinity. It is a very easy way to measure salinity and works well for measuring salinities
from 2 or 3 ppt to full strength seawater. At lower salinities other measurement techniques
are required for greater accuracy.

Hydrometers are devices which measure salinity based upon the specific density of the water.
The density of water increases in a near linear fashion with increasing concentrations of
dissolved salts. The buoyancy of objects in the water is directly related to the density of the
water. A hydrometer is a device in which an object is floated in the water and the degree of
flotation is measured. How far the object sinks into the water is inversely proportional to the
salinity. A calibrated scale is etched into the object which allows the salinity to be read.
Hydrometers typically express salinity as specific density. Specific density is the ratio of the

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

density of the water to the density of distilled water. Seawater with a salinity of 35 ppt has a
specific density of 1.0282 at 4°C. Most hydrometers are not designed to measure small
variations of the salinity of seawater and, therefore, are not useful for measuring low

Conductivity meters measure the resistance of water to electrical flow, which is inversely
proportional to the salinity. As salinity decreases, the resistance to electrical flow increases.
The resistance is measured in µmhos cm-1 (pronounced micro moes per centimeter). A mho
is the reciprocal of an ohm, which is the unit in which electrical currents are measured. A
conductivity meter measures the electrical resistance to a current passing through the water
between the anode and cathode of an immersed electrode. Tables can be used to convert
specific conductivity measurements into salinity measurements.

If sodium chloride is the dominant salt in the water, the salinity can be estimated by the
concentration of chloride ions in the water. Chloride makes up approximately 55% of the
weight of inorganic ions in seawater at 35 ppt. Using this relationship, one can calculate the
approximate salinity in parts per thousand by dividing the measured chloride concentration
by 550. For example, if the chloride concentration was found to be 300 ppm (1 ppm = 1
mg/L or 0.001 g/L) the corresponding salinity would be 0.545 ppt (= 300/550). This is an
accurate and inexpensive method for determining the salinity for water with very low
salinities in which the dominant salt is sodium chloride. Chloride can be measured using a
titration method for which simple kits can be purchased from any aquaculture supply catalog.

Aquatic organisms may be classified according to their tolerance to changes in salinity.

Stenohaline organisms are adapted to a very narrow range of salinities, while euryhaline
organisms tolerate a wide range of salinities. Organisms that normally live in environments
with very stable salinities (e.g., freshwater lakes and open ocean) tend to be stenohaline,
while organisms that live in environments with variable salinities (e.g., estuaries) tend to be
The salinity requirements and tolerance to salinity variation may change throughout the life
cycle of an organism. This is the case for most species of penaeid shrimp. Adult shrimp
mature, mate and spawn in water with salinities between 28 and 35 ppt. Early larval stages
also require full strength seawater. Juvenile Litopenaeus vannamei, however, are estuarine
organisms and are extremely euryhaline, tolerating salinities ranging from less than 1 ppt to
nearly 40 ppt. The physiological capability of penaeid shrimp to osmoregulate (regulate their
internal salt and water balance) develops gradually while the shrimp are still in the postlarval
stages. The gill filaments serve as the primary osmoregulatory organ in shrimp. In low
salinity water the shrimp must selectively retain salts and excrete excess water. The gills
serve as the primary site for water excretion. The effectiveness of the gills as an
osmoregulatory organ is a function of the developmental stage of the shrimp. Shrimp in the
early postlarval stages have insufficient gill surface are to be able to osmoregulate effectively
at low salinities. The osmoregulatory capability of the shrimp improves dramatically once the
gills begin to branch, which usually occurs after PL6. By the time the shrimp are a PL12 the
gills have enough surface area to allow them to be gradually acclimated to near-freshwater
conditions (see Chapter 6).

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

Research at HBOI indicates that 0.5 ppt total salinity is probably the minimum level for the
Pacific white shrimp to survive and grow to a marketable size. Chloride ion concentrations
are the best predictor of the ability of shrimp to survive at least 24 hours in freshwater from a
particular source. Twenty-four hour survival rates of shrimp postlarvae (PL15+) decline
when chloride concentrations drop below 200 mg/L. Many other inorganic ions, including
sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and bicarbonate, are also required in some
minimum amount for normal growth and development of the shrimp, but at this time the
minimum requirements for these ions are not clear. It appears that total hardness (the
combined concentration of calcium and magnesium ions) needs to be above 150 mg/L.

Freshwater that has a low chloride concentration, or total hardness, may be made suitable for
shrimp culture by adding the deficient salts to the water. If the water is found to contain
insufficient chloride ion, the addition of solar or marine salt to your water may be the only
modification necessary to make your water suitable for culture. Solar salt may be used to
bring the salinity up to the levels required by the shrimp. Make sure that the salt that does
not contain yellow prussiate of soda, a non-caking agent that is highly toxic to the shrimp.
Marine salt is more expensive but contains other ions and trace elements that are necessary
for the health of the shrimp. Other compounds can be added to the water to supplement
hardness or alkalinity (see below).

To calculate the amount of salt needed, first subtract the amount of salt in your water from
0.5 ppt (if you wish to use a higher level, e.g., 0.75 ppt, you may). For example, if your
water was found to contain 38 ppm chloride you would first have to calculate your total
salinity (38 ppm/550 = 0.069 ppt). Therefore, 0.5 ppt minus 0.069 ppt = 0.431 ppt, which
corresponds to 0.431 g salt that will need to be added per liter of water. If your tank was
2500 gallons (9450 L), you would need to add just over 4 kilograms of salt to your system
(0.431 g/L x 9450 L = 4073 grams of salt). Additional salt will need to be added when new
water is added the system to replace water lost during backwash of filters. Perhaps the safest
way to do this would be to adjust the salinity of the replacement water in a reservoir before
adding the new water to the culture tank.


¾ (Optimal: 28-32oC/82-90oF)

Litopenaeus vannamei, like all crustaceans, is poikilothermic (cold-blooded). This means that
they are not able to regulate their body temperature. The shrimp's body temperature will
normally be in equilibrium with the water temperature. This has profound consequences for
the physiology of the shrimp because the rates of biochemical processes are temperature
dependent. According to Van Hoff's Law, a 10ºC temperature increase will roughly double
the rate of most biochemical reactions. This means that the temperature of the water directly
affects the metabolism of the shrimp. As temperature increases, the metabolic rate will
increase until a maximum rate is reached. As the temperature increases above that rate, the
metabolic rate will decline rapidly until the temperature reaches an upper lethal limit. Many
important processes are affected by the metabolic rate of the shrimp. The rates of feed

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

consumption, oxygen consumption, ammonia excretion, and growth are all directly related to
the metabolic rate of the shrimp.

Shrimp can survive over a wide range of temperatures. The lower lethal limit is
approximately 15ºC (59ºF), although shrimp may survive colder temperatures for a short
period of time. The upper temperature limit for L. vannamei is about 35ºC (95ºF) for
prolonged periods, or up to 40ºC for brief periods. The optimal temperature range is much
narrower. While shrimp will survive temperatures below 24ºC (75ºF) and above 32oC
(90oF), outside of this range the shrimp will be stressed and will not grow well. The
temperature range for maximum growth is even narrower, ranging from 28-32ºC (82-90ºF).

In tropical environments, temperatures are suitable for shrimp culture year round. The cool
winters in Florida limit the growing season for shrimp in outdoor ponds to about 220
days/year. Greenhouses can significantly extend the growing system, but the water must still
be heated to maintain optimal growing temperatures year round. Ideally, the water
temperatures within the culture tanks should be maintained within the temperature range for
maximum growth (28-32ºC). The daily variation in temperature should never exceed 4ºC.
Fluctuating temperatures are stressful for shrimp, as well as for the bacteria in the biofilters.

There are many different options for heating the culture tanks, including propane-powered
heat exchangers, solar-powered heat exchangers or water heaters, electrical immersion
heaters, and propane-powered space heaters. As a general principle, it is usually more cost-
effective to heat the water directly than it is to maintain water temperatures by heating the air
inside a greenhouse. Solar heating systems are very attractive because they are inexpensive
to operate. However, the initial capital cost may be high and they may not be able to
maintain temperatures during protracted periods of cold cloudy weather. Propane heat
exchangers and electrical immersion heaters provide the highest degree of temperature
control. If properly sized, these systems should be able to maintain temperatures to within
±1ºC. The operating costs of a propane heat exchanger system are likely to be cheaper than
the electrical costs for immersion heaters.

High water temperatures may become a problem during the summer months. In greenhouse
systems, thermostatically controlled extractor fans and shuttered windows provide air
exchange that helps cool the air temperatures within the greenhouse. Without air exchange
the air temperture within a greenhouse may be as much as 11ºC (20ºF) above ambient outside
temperaure. Air exchange alone, however, may not be sufficient to control water
temperatures in the summertime. Covering the outside of the greenhouse with a 90-95%
shade cloth will help maintain the water temperatures within an acceptable range even on hot
sunny days. The shade cloth will also limit the growth of algae within the culture system.
This may be considered a benefit from the standpoint that dissolved oxygen, pH, and
unionized ammonia concentrations fluctuate widely in systems with high algal densities.
Some producers, however, may want to maintain controlled blooms of algae within their
systems. These producers might benefit from installing evaporative cooling panels on the
opposite end of the greenhouse from the exhaust fans.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

Dissolved Oxygen

¾ (Optimal: > 5 mg/L or ppm)

Oxygen is required by shrimp for respiration, the physiological process in which cells oxidize
carbohydrates and release the energy needed to metabolize nutrients from the feed. If oxygen
is in short supply, the ability of the shrimp to metabolize feed will be limited, causing growth
rates and feed conversion to suffer. Best growth and feed conversion ratios (FCRs) are
obtained when dissolved oxygen (D.O.) levels are maintained at or above 80% of the
saturation level (see Table 8-3). As a general rule, no stress will be placed upon aquatic
organisms (including shrimp) if dissolved oxygen (D.O.) levels are maintained above 5 ppm.
Prolonged periods of low oxygen concentrations (less than 1.5 ppm) are lethal, although
shrimp can survive for short periods of time with as little as 1 ppm. If a level of 3 ppm or
lower is found, measures should be taken to correct the problem.

The solubility of oxygen in water is a function of temperature, salinity and altitude. As

salinity, temperature, and altitude increase, the solubility of oxygen in water decrease (see
Table 8-3). Freshwater at a temperature of 26oC (79oF) will have a D.O. of 8.1 ppm at
saturation, but at 30oC (86oF) can only hold 7.6 ppm at saturation. The solubility of oxygen
in seawater is significantly lower than in freshwater, but over a narrow range the influence of
salinity is not pronounced. The effect of altitude on oxygen solubility will be negligible in

Table 8-3: Solubility of Oxygen in Water (mg/L) at Sea Level as a Function of

Temperature and Salinity (after Stickney, 1979)

Temperature Salinity (ppt)

(ºC) 0 10 20 30 35
22 8.7 8.2 7.8 7.3 7.1
24 8.4 7.9 7.5 7.1 6.9
26 8.1 7.7 7.2 6.8 6.6
28 7.8 7.4 7.0 6.6 6.4
30 7.6 7.1 6.8 6.4 6.2
32 7.3 6.9 6.5 6.2 6.0
34 7.0 6.7 6.2 6.0 5.8

When the water is 100% saturated with dissolved oxygen, the rate of diffusion of oxygen
from the water into the air is exactly balanced by the rate of diffusion of oxygen from the air
into the water. Aquatic organisms and bacteria extract oxygen from the water for respiration,
reducing the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water. Water containing less than the
100% saturation concentration of oxygen is said to be undersaturated with oxygen. The
difference between the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water and the 100%
saturation concentration for the existing conditions of temperature, salinity, and atmospheric

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

pressure is called the oxygen deficit. The rate of net transfer of air into the water is
dependent upon the magnitude of the oxygen deficit. Water can can also become
supersaturated (>100%) with oxygen if air is injected into the water under pressure or from
photosynthesis in plants. Bubbling pure oxygen gas into the water can also supersaturate the
water with respect to oxygen. Supersaturation of water with nitrogen gas from air through
pipe leaks may lead to gas bubble disease and shrimp mortality.

The two biological factors that affect the D.O. level are respiration and photosynthesis.
Respiration removes oxygen from the water, while photosynthesis adds oxygen to the water.
The rate of oxygen consumption by respiration is dependent upon water temperature and the
total biomass of animals, plants, and aerobic bacteria in the system. Accumulation of solid
wastes within the system will dramatically increase the biomass of heterotrophic bacteria,
resulting in a very large oxygen demand. Careful attention should be paid to solids removal
(see Chapter 4) when designing your system to avoid this problem.

Phytoplankton (microalgae) carry out both respiration and photosynthesis. During the day,
the rate of oxygen production by photosynthesis generally exceeds the rate of oxygen
consumption by the phytoplankton. At night, photosynthesis does not occur so oxygen levels
will decline. In systems with heavy phytoplankton blooms oxygen concentrations fluctuate
widely on a diurnal basis (Figure 8-1). The oxygen demand of the algae may deplete the
oxygen in the culture tank during the early morning hours, especially after a period of warm,
overcast days. If the bloom crashes, bacterial decomposition of the dead algae cells will
result in a very high oxygen demand. Additional aeration, water exchange, or both may be
required to prevent loss of shrimp due to oxygen depletion.


12 Light Bloom
Dense Bloom

6 A.M. 12 A.M. 6 P.M. 12 P.M. 6 A.M.
Time of Day

Figure 8-1: Relationship Between Algal Density and Diurnal Dissolved Oxygen Fluctuations

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

There are several things that can be done to prevent excessive algal growth within the culture
system. The most effective method for controlling algal growth is to reduce the light levels
inside the greenhouse. Covering the outside of the greenhouse with a 90-95% shade cloth
will prevent heavy blooms from developing and will also prevent overheating of the
greenhouse during summer months. If a heavy bloom does develop in spite of these
precautions, then a heavy water exchange may be required to bring the bloom under control.

Dissolved oxygen concentrations should be closely monitored. Minimally, dissolved oxygen

concentrations should be measured twice a day: once early in the morning (before or soon
after sunrise) when oxygen levels are likely to be at their lowest point, and again in the late
afternoon when they are likely to be at their highest point. The frequency of monitoring
should be increased if D.O. levels drop below 4.0 mg/L.

A good dissolved oxygen meter is an essential piece of equipment since oxygen is such a
critical water quality parameter. Digital D.O. meters that automatically compensate for
altitude, temperature, and salinity work best. D.O. meters should be recalibrated each time
they are turned on and between measurements made at different salinities. D.O. meters are
calibrated with the probe in the air because the concentration of oxygen in the air is a non-
varying function of altitude and air temperature. Continuous oxygen monitoring and alarm
systems are a good investment. Aeration equipment can fail at any time. Rapid detection of
these failures may prevent total crop loss.

Most problems with dissolved oxygen can be avoided by providing for adequate aeration
when designing your production facility. The aeration requirements should be calculated
based on the maximum possible shrimp biomass anticipated for each system (see Chapter 4).
Remember that oxygen will be consumed not only by the shrimp, but also by the autotrophic
and heterotrophic bacteria and algae living in the culture system. As a rule of thumb, you
will need to transfer at least one kilogram of oxygen to the water for each kilogram of feed
that you give to the shrimp. At loading rates in excess of 4.0 kg shrimp/m3 (0.033 lbs
shrimp/gallon) it will be difficult to maintain dissolved oxygen concentrations above 5.0
mg/liter using airstones and a blower. Pure oxygen should be considered if higher loading
rates are anticipated. Pure oxygen can be supplied either by an oxygen generator or by a
liquid oxygen system.


¾ (Acceptable range: 7.0-9.0, optimal: 7.4-7.8)

pH is defined as the negative log of the hydrogen ion concentration. Because pH is the
negative log of the hydrogen concentration, low pH values indicate high hydrogen ion
concentrations, while high pH values indicate low hydrogen ion concentrations. The pH
scale ranges from 0-14. Each pH unit represents a ten-fold difference in hydrogen ion
concentration. Water with a pH of 7 has a hydrogen ion concentration of 10-7 moles/L, while
water with a pH of 8 has a hydrogen ion concentration of 10-8 moles/L. Aqueous solutions
with pH values less than 7.0 are considered to be acidic, while those with pH values greater
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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

than 7.0 are considered to be basic. A solution with a pH of 7.0 is considered to be neutral.
Freshwater usually has a pH near 7 whereas the pH of seawater is usually near 8.3.

Shrimp can tolerate a pH range from 7.0 to 9.0. Very acidic water (pH less than 6.5) or very
basic water (pH greater than 10.0) is harmful to the gills of the shrimp and growth rates will
be suppressed. Although the shrimp are not harmed by pH values in the range from 7.0-9.0,
in a recirculating culture system it is better to maintain the pH in the range from 7.2 - 7.8.
This is due to the relationship between pH and the concentration of ammonia within the
culture tank. Most species of nitrifying bacteria are adapted to a pH range of 7.2-7.8 so it is
within this range that biofilters function most effectively. Also, the fraction of total ammonia
nitrogen that is in the toxic, unionized form (NH3) is less than 5% when pH is less than 7.8.
At a pH of 9.0 approximately 50% of the total ammonia nitrogen is in the form of NH3.

The pH of water is strongly influenced by both respiration and photosynthesis. As a result of

respiration carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the water. Dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2)
combines with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). A series of reversible equilibrium
reactions occur which result in the formation of hydrogen ions, bicarbonate ions (HCO3–) and
carbonate ions (CO3= ):

CO2 + H20 ↔ H2CO3 ↔ H+ + HCO3– ↔ H+ + CO3= Eq. (8.1)

When carbon dioxide is removed from the water as a result of photosynthesis by aquatic
plants, the reactions described in Equation 8.1 occur in reverse (from right to left). Free
hydrogen ions in the water will react with carbonate and bicarbonate ions, reducing the
overall hydrogen concentration and raising the pH of the water. Thus, photosynthesis has the
effect of raising pH, while respiration has the effect of lowering pH. In systems with heavy
phytoplankton blooms pH fluctuates on a diurnal basis. During the day photosynthesis
consumes CO2 causing the pH to rise. In systems where phytoplankton blooms are
particularly heavy, or which have a low alkalinity, pH may rise above 9.0 in the afternoon.
During the night, respiration releases CO2 into the water causing the pH to fall. pH swings of
2 pH units are possible between early morning and late afternoon. pH swings of this
magnitude are stressful for both shrimp and the nitrifying bacteria in the biofilter.

Wide swings in pH can be minimized by maintaining adequate buffering capacity in the

water. Certain compounds, called buffers, are capable of releasing hydrogen ions into the
water at high pH levels and withdrawing hydrogen ions from the water at low pH levels.
The effect of these buffers is to dampen the fluctuations in pH that would otherwise result
from photosynthetic and respiratory processes. Alkalinity is a measure of the buffering
capacity of the water (see section on alkalinity for a more detailed discussion). Alkalinity
should be maintained above 100 mg/L as CaCO3 to minimize fluctuations in pH.

The nitrification process generates hydrogen ions and consumes bicarbonate ion (a source of
alkalinity). Over time, the net effect is a reduction in alkalinity and pH. The alkalinity
consumed by the biofilter should be replaced by the addition of liming compounds or
makeup water with a higher alkalinity.

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A variety of techniques may be used to measure pH. The simplest method is to dip a pH
indicator strip in the water and compare the resulting color with the color scale. This method
is suitable for quick analyses but is not as accurate as some other methods. Another simple
method that is only slightly more accurate, is a colorimetric test in which a few drops of a pH
indicator solution are added to a water sample and the resulting color change is matched to a
standardized color wheel. When a higher degree of accuracy is desired a pH meter should be
used. A pH meter measures the transmission of an electrical current through an aqueous
solution using a pair of glass electrodes. The electrical potential measured is related directly
to the hydrogen ion activity. pH meters must be calibrated frequently using buffer solutions
of known pH that bracket the pH of the solution being measured. Two point calibrations are
usually performed using pH 4.01 and 10.0 buffer solutions.

The frequency of measurement of system pH is a function of stocking intensity and pH

variability. High density systems and systems with a high degree of pH variability should be
monitored daily and occasionally twice a day. The daily measurement should be made at the
time of day when the pH is likely to be most critical. In systems with algae blooms, pH
should be measured late in the afternoon to determine the maximum daily pH, and
occasionally early in the morning to determine minimum daily pH. Usually the maximum
daily pH is the more critical measurement because ammonia toxicity is highest when the pH
is at its highest point. Ideally, pH and temperature should be measured whenever total
ammonia nitrogen is measured so that the concentration of unionized ammonia can be

Dissolved Carbon Dioxide

¾ (Acceptable: <20 ppm, Optimal <5ppm)

Respiration is the source of most dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) in the system water.
Dissolved carbon dioxide concentrations often bear an inverse relation to dissolved oxygen
concentrations. High concentrations of carbon dioxide interfere with the ability of shrimp to
extract oxygen from the water, reducing the tolerance of the shrimp to low oxygen
conditions. In extreme cases, shrimp may die from asphyxiation even when there is adequate
oxygen present in the water. The carbon dioxide produced by shrimp respiration must be
unloaded across the gills from the shrimp blood to the water. Unloading of CO2 at the gills
can only take place when the concentration of CO2 in the blood exceeds the concentration of
CO2 in the water. High CO2 concentrations in the water cause a buildup of CO2 in the blood
of the shrimp. High CO2 levels in the blood lower the blood pH which interferes with the
ability of the blood to unload oxygen at the tissues. Carbon dioxide has no detrimental
effects on shrimp at concentrations of less than 20 ppm. Concentrations in the range of 20-
60 ppm are not generally lethal, but do interfere with CO2 exchange across the gills and with
the tolerance of shrimp to low dissolved oxygen conditions. Carbon dioxide concentrations
above 60 ppm may be life threatening.

Carbon dioxide exerts an important influence on the pH of the water, as discussed in the
previous section. In systems with dense phytoplankton blooms carbon dioxide levels
decrease during the day and rise during the night. Maintaining a high alkalinity (>100 mg/L

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

as CaCO3) limits the pH shift resulting from the addition of CO2 to the water. In heavily
loaded systems the high rate carbon dioxide production can lead to low system pH levels.

The most effective way to prevent carbon dioxide levels from becoming dangerously high is
to "degas" the excess CO2. Degassing is accomplished by expanding the amount of water
surface area that is in direct contact with the air. Aeration of the water with airstones and
spraybars will usually provide sufficient degassing to control carbon dioxide levels in shrimp
culture systems. However, if very high stocking rates are used (≥ 300 shrimp/m2), a
degassing column may be required (see Chapter 4). In an emergency, carbon dioxide may be
removed by the addition of quicklime (CaO):

CaO + CO2 → CaCO3 ↓ Eq. (8.2)

However, the situation that led to the carbon dioxide level must be corrected or it will
reoccur. The quicklime should be added slowly to the water or the pH may rise too rapidly,
stressing the shrimp. Quicklime is very caustic, so care should be exercised when handling
this material.

Well water is typically low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide. Untreated well water
should not be added directly to the culture tank. A degassing column is the most effective
way of eliminating excess CO2 and aerating the water. In a degassing column, water is
sprayed over a bed of plastic media with a large amount of void space and air from a fan or
blower is introduced at the bottom of the column. The idea is to create a very high air:water
ratio to maximize the rate of diffusion of gases between the air and the water. Alternatively,
heavy aeration or spraying of the water into the air may be sufficient to aerate the water and
drive off the CO2.


¾ (Optimal: unionized form <0.03 ppm, chronic effects/lethality >0.1 ppm)

Ammonia is the principle nitrogenous waste-product excreted by shrimp and most other
aquatic organisms. Much of the nitrogen from protein in the feed that is added to a culture
tank is converted into ammonia. Most of the feed that is ingested by the shrimp is
assimilated and the proteins are metabolized by the shrimp. Ammonia, a major by-product of
protein metabolism, is excreted across the gills of the shrimp. Heterotrophic bacteria utilize
uneaten feed, fecal wastes or other decaying organic material as a protein source and convert
the protein nitrogen into inorganic ammonia, which is excreted. This process, in which
organic nitrogen from proteins is converted into inorganic nitrogen (NH3), is called
mineralization. Nearly 85% of the nitrogen in the feed fed to shrimp in the culture tanks will
end up as ammonia.

Ammonia levels in the culture tank must be carefully managed because ammonia can be
highly toxic to the shrimp. Ammonia exists in two different forms in the water: as unionized
ammonia (NH3) and as ammonium ions (NH4+). These two forms are usually present

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

simultaneously in the water and are transformed from one form to another in an equilibrium

NH3 + H20 ↔ NH4+ + OH- Eq. (8.3)

Only the unionized form of ammonia is toxic to the shrimp. The toxicity of ammonia is
partly a function of shrimp age. Postlarvae and small juveniles are are less tolerant of high
concentrations of unionized ammonia levels than are larger juveniles and adult. The 96-hr
LC50 concentration of unionized ammonia is about 0.2 ppm for postlarvae (Chen and Chin,
1988) and about 0.95 ppm for 4.87 gram adolescents (Chen and Lei, 1990). Shrimp health
and growth rates are not affected when unionized ammonia levels are maintained below 0.03
ppm. However, chronic exposure to elevated sublethal concentrations may have a number of
detrimental effects on the shrimp. Growth rates decrease and feed conversion rates increase.
High ammonia concentrations irritate the gills of the shrimp and may lead to gill hyperplasia
(i.e., swollen gill filaments) reducing the ability of the shrimp to extract oxygen from the
water. In additon, high ammonia levels in the water lead to an increase in the ammonia
concentrations in the blood. High ammonia concentrations in the blood reduce the affinity of
the blood pigment (hemocyanin) for oxygen. Together, these latter two effects reduce the
tolerance of the shrimp to low oxygen conditions. Chronic exposure to high ammonia
concentrations may also reduce the resistance of the shrimp to disease.

Ammonia is usually measured as total ammonia nitrogen (TAN). TAN is a measure of the
combined concentrations of unionized ammonia and ammonium ion. The fraction of TAN
that is in the unionized form is a positive function of both pH and temperature (Table 8-4).
The relationship between the unionized fraction of ammonia and temperature is nearly linear,
while the relationship with pH is logarithmic. The fraction of unionized ammonia at 30ºC at
pH values of 7.0, 8.0, and 9.0 increases from 0.008 to 0.075 to 0.449, respectively (Table 8-
4). This illustrates the importance of maintaining system pH below 8.0. This example also

Table 8-4: Proportion of Total Ammonia Nitrogen in the Unionized Form as a

Function of Temperature and pH
24 26 28 30 32
7.0 0.005 0.006 0.007 0.008 0.009
7.2 0.008 0.010 0.011 0.013 0.015
7.4 0.013 0.015 0.018 0.020 0.023
7.6 0.021 0.024 0.028 0.031 0.036
7.8 0.033 0.038 0.043 0.049 0.056
8.0 0.051 0.058 0.066 0.075 0.085
8.2 0.078 0.089 0.101 0.114 0.129
8.4 0.119 0.134 0.151 0.170 0.190
8.6 0.176 0.197 0.220 0.245 0.271
8.8 0.253 0.281 0.309 0.340 0.371
9.0 0.349 0.382 0.415 0.449 0.483
9.2 0.460 0.495 0.530 0.564 0.597
9.4 0.574 0.608 0.641 0.672 0.701
9.6 0.681 0.711 0.739 0.764 0.788
10.0 0.843 0.861 0.877 0.891 0.903

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

illustrates the importance of measuring pH and temperature whenever TAN is measured.

Without these values, the concentration of unionized ammonia cannot be calculated. The
following example explains how unionized ammonia is calculated from measurements of
TAN, pH, and temperature.

Example: You determine that the total ammonia nitrogen (TAN) in your system is 0.8 ppm.
The temperature is 28oC and the pH is 7.6. What is the unionized ammonia concentration?
On the table locate the column for 28oC and the row for pH of 7.6. Where these two cross is
the number 0.028. This number will be multiplied by your TAN (0.028 x 0.8 ppm) to yield
the unionized ammonia concentration (= 0.0224 ppm). This level is lower than the
acceptable level (<0.03 ppm) and no corrective action would need to be taken. However, if
the pH of the system were only 0.2 units higher (i.e., at 7.8) then the unionized ammonia
level would be 0.0344 and corrective measures may have to be taken.

Almost all ammonia testing methods yield the total ammonia nitrogen level. There are two
different analytical procedures that are commonly used to test for ammonia. The salicylate
method can be used for both fresh and saltwater samples. The Nessler method works best
with freshwater samples, but the procedure can be modified for saltwater use. Nevertheless,
we prefer the salicylate method because it is accurate and the exact same procedure is used
for both fresh and saltwater.

There are three basic mechanisms by which ammonia can be removed from a recirculation
system: water exchange, plant uptake, and nitrification. Water exchange is an effective way
to lower ammonia levels rapidly in an emergency, but should not be counted on as the
primary strategy for controlling ammonia levels. For water exchange to be effective, 50-
100% of the water would need to be exchanged per day. Such a high volume of effluent
would require enormous effluent treatment systems. However, when primary ammonia
removal systems fail, heavy water exchange may be the only way to save the shrimp.

Phytoplankton and other aquatic plants remove ammonia from the water and use it as a
nitrogen source for protein synthesis. Systems with high exposure to sunlight will develop
dense blooms of phytoplankton. As long as the phytoplankton population is increasing, the
phytoplankton will constitute an effective nitrogen sink. However, if the bloom crashes, a
large amount of the nitrogen tied up in the phytoplankton will be converted back into
ammonia as the dead algae cells are decomposed by heterotrophic bacteria. Dangerously
high ammonia levels typically follow crashes of phytoplankton blooms. Algal blooms can
be controlled by water exchange to prevent "overblooms" from developing.

Some recirculating systems depend upon aquatic macrophytes to control ammonia. In these
systems water from the culture tank is recirculated through a separate water treatment tank or
pond containing a large number macrophytes such as water hyacinths, water lilies,
bullrushes, etc. Ammonia is removed by the macrophytes and water low in ammonia is
returned to the culture tank. Hydroponic systems are sometimes combined with aquaculture
systems. In these systems the roots of vegetables or herbs absorb ammonia and other
nutrients from the water coming from the aquaculture system.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

The more traditional approach to ammonia control in recirculating systems is to promote the
process of nitrification within a biofilter. Nitrification is the sequential oxidation of
ammonium ion to nitrite and then to nitrate by autotrophic bacteria. Nitrosomonas spp.
convert ammonium ions to nitrite, while Nitrobacter spp. convert nitrite to nitrate. In
addition to oxygen, the nitrifying bacteria require bicarbonate ions, which they utilize as a
carbon source for cell growth.

The nitrification process is represented by the following equations (EPA, 1975):

55NH4 + 76O2 + 109HCO3– → 54NO2– + 57H2O + 104H2CO3 + C5H7NO2 Eq. (8.4)
400NO2– + NH4+ + O2 + 4H2CO3 + HCO3– + 195O2 → 400NO3= + 3 H2O + C5H7NO2
Eq. (8.5)

A biofilter is simply a device that provides a large amount of surface area for the nitrifying
bacteria to grow (see Chapter 4 for a more complete discussion of biofilter design and
operation). When a new system is started up, the biofilter will not be active. Before stocking
animals into the system, the biofilter will need to be conditioned. During the conditioning
period an inorganic source of ammonia, such as ammonium chloride, is added to the system.
The rate of addition of inorganic ammonia should equal or exceed the rate at which ammonia
will be generated by the quantity of feed that the animals receive on a daily basis
immediately after they are stocked. A source of inorganic nitrite, such as sodium nitrite, can
also be added to the system water to accelerate the conditioning process, but the Nitrobacter




0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35

Figure 8-2 : Changes in Concentration of Total Ammonia (NH3-N ), Nitrite (NO2-N) and
Nitrate over (NO3-N) Time During the Conditioning of a Biofilter.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

bacteria will colonize the biofilter even without the addition of nitrite. What is typically seen
during the conditioning period (Figure 8-2) is a gradual decline in the ammonia concentration
as the Nitrosomonas population becomes established. As the ammonia concentration falls,
the nitrite concentration rises. The nitrite levels will peak and then begin to fall as the
Nitrobacter population becomes established. The biofilter conditioning is complete when
both ammonia and nitrite levels can be maintained within acceptable limits even with daily
ammonia input equal to the amount that will be produced at the initial feeding rates.

Even with well-established biofilters, high ammonia levels may occasionally develop in a
culture tank. When this occurs, the cause of the problem must be quickly determined and an
appropriate response must be decided upon. While water exchange may provide immediate
relief from high ammonia conditions, corrective measures should be taken that address the
cause of the problem. Otherwise, ammonia levels will quickly return to high levels. There
are a number of reasons why the ammonia concentrations may be high.

Chronic overfeeding may lead to a buildup of uneaten feed in the culture tank and in sumps
and filters. In addition to causing high ammonia levels, decomposing feed in a tank can
serve as a substrate for Vibrio bacteria. These bacteria may infect and kill shrimp, especially
if high ammonia levels have weakened the disease resistance of the shrimp. If accumulations
of uneaten feed are observed in the tank, feeding rates should be reduced and excess feed
should be siphoned or vacuumed from the culture tank. If the shrimp are very small it may
not be possible to siphon out the feed without siphoning up some shrimp. An alternative way
of removing the accumulated solid wastes is to increase the flow rate through the tank and
brush the bottom of the tank to suspend the solid wastes so that they will be carried in the
flow to the drain. This may need to be done several times. Accumulated solid wastes in
sumps may also be source of ammonia production and biological oxygen demand (BOD).
Sumps should be siphoned or flushed out to remove these accumulations.

High ammonia levels may be indicative of a problem with the biofilter. The effectiveness of
the biofilter can be determined by measuring the efficiency of the biofilter. Biofilter
efficiency is a measure of the percentage of ammonia (or nitrite) removed by the biofilter in a
single pass:

 T.A.N. in – T.A.N. out 

Biofilter Efficiency =
 x 100% Eq. (8.6)
 T.A.N. in

Biofilter efficiency should be monitored on a regular basis (at least weekly) so that changes
in efficiency can be detected. Historical data allows changes in biofilter nitrification rates to
be detected. A number of conditions must be present for a biofilter to provide reliable
ammonia and nitrite control:

1. The water should be filtered to remove the majority of suspended solids before it
enters the biofilter. Solid wastes will smother the autotrophic bacteria and
provide a substrate for heterotrophic bacteria which will compete for space and
2. The oxygen level within the biofilter should be maintained above 2 ppm.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

3. The alkalinity of the water should be maintained above 100 ppm to minimize pH
fluctuations and to provide a source of bicarbonate ions for the nitrifying
4. Stable temperatures should be maintained, ideally between 28ºC and 32ºC.
5. Salinity should be kept as stable as possible.
6. Adequate shearing forces should be present within the biofilter to slough off
accumulations of dead bacteria and other organic material.
7. Avoid exposing a biofilter to antibiotics or other potentially toxic chemicals.

If biofilter efficiency has declined, the reason for the decline must be determined and the
problem must be corrected. Even after the condition causing a decline in nitrification rates
has been corrected, it may take awhile for the population of nitrifying bacteria to recover. In
the meantime it may be necessary to reduce feeding rates and increase the rate of water
exchange. If unionized ammonia levels are dangerously high, it may be necessary to reduce
the pH of the system by adding muriatic acid. This will reduce the percentage of the total
ammonia in the toxic unionized form. Acid should be added very slowly to the system to
avoid causing a pH shock to the shrimp or the biofilter bacteria. This would only make the
problem worse.


¾ (Acceptable: <1 ppm)

Nitrite is a product of the first step of nitrification, in which ammonium ion is oxidized by
Nitrosomonas bacteria to form nitrite. Nitrite can accumulate in the system if the second step
in the nitrification process, in which nitrite is oxidized by Nitrobacter bacteria to form
nitrate, occurs at a much slower rate than the first nitrification step. Nitrite is toxic to
penaeid shrimp. The toxicity of nitrite is influenced by shrimp age and the salinity of the
water. The 96-hour LC50 concentration of nitrite to Penaeus monodon postlarvae was
reported by Chen and Chin (1988) to be 13.6 ppm. The 96-hour LC50 for adolescent P.
monodon (5 grams) was reported by Chen and Lei (1990) to be 171 ppm. The LC50
concentration for adolescent L. vannamei appears to be much lower than for P. monodon. At
Harbor Branch we have observed mortalities approaching 50% in tanks stocked with 10 gram
L. vannamei at nitrite concentrations less than 20 mg/L. Nitrite is more toxic at low
salinities and low pH values than it is at higher values. To be safe, nitrite concentrations
should be maintained below 1 mg/L.

In fish, nitrite in the blood binds with hemoglobin to form methemoglobin. Methemoglobin
is unable to transport oxygen to the tissues so fish die from asphyxiation. If chloride
concentrations in the water are at least six times the concentration of nitrite, then nitrite is not
transported across the gill membranes and the toxic effects of nitrite are avoided. The
mechanism of nitrite toxicity is not well understood in shrimp, which have a different blood
pigment (hemocyanin) than fish. The mechanism may be similar, since high nitrite levels
reduce the tolerance of shrimp to low oxygen levels. Although a high chloride concentration
provides some protection against nitrite toxicity it does not provide complete protection.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

A well-conditioned biofilter with adequate surface area is the best protection against high
nitrite levels. Before stocking a new system, make sure that the nitrite peak has passed (see
above). Some types of biofilters do not seem to support good populations of Nitrobacter and
nitrite levels will tend to run high. This is especially true of bead filters and some
submerged, moving bed biofilters. Compared to Nitosomonas, Nitrobacter is not very
"sticky". When the biofilter media is agitated, Nitrobacter are dislodged and washed out of
the filter. Bead filter manufacturers are addressing this problem by using media with
recesses to protect the bacteria. Nevertheless, frequent backwashing reduces the Nitrobacter
population significantly. Reducing the frequency of backwashing can help minimize this

Whenever high nitrite levels are encountered, the cause of the problem must be determined.
Often the causes of high nitrite levels are the same as the causes of high ammonia levels (see
above). Often the two problems occur simultaneously. Water exchange and reduced feeding
rates can provide short term relief, but unless the root causes are remedied the problems will


¾ (Acceptable: <60 ppm)

The biofilter contains another nitrifying bacteria, Nitrobacter, that oxidizes nitrite to nitrate
(NO3). Nitrate is virtually non-toxic. Shrimp can survive nitrate levels as high as 200 ppm,
but it is not known if levels this high affect growth or disease resistance. Ideally nitrate
levels should be maintained less than 60 ppm. In general, your system should be balanced in
that nitrate levels may increase over the course of grow-out but not to a point that should
cause worry. Although most biofilters are oxidative reactors, there are portions of the
biofilter and elsewhere in a system where oxygen levels are virtually zero and anaerobic
bacteria thrive. Anaerobic bacteria utilize nitrate and convert it to nitrogen gas (N2) in a
process known as denitrification. During this reaction, nitrite may also be formed.


¾ (Acceptable: >150 ppm as CaCO3)

Hardness is the measurement of all divalent cations (i.e., those ions carrying a plus two
charge) of which calcium and magnesium (Ca++, Mg++) are the predominant species in water.
These two ions may be absorbed by shrimp through their gills and thus are important not
only in water quality but in the nutrition of the animal. Hardness is generally measured by
titration, although color strip indicators are available, and is expressed in terms of mg/L as
calcium carbonate. This expression helps in equalizing different water compositions (e.g.,
one with only calcium) for comparisons. Therefore, "total" hardness does not divulge the
ionic makeup of the hardness. For that, calcium hardness may be determined and the
difference assumed to be magnesium, although the only way to verify that would be through
expensive analytical chemistry procedures.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

You may be familiar with hardness since many water sources have to be treated to reduce
hardness so as not to build up scale in pipes and boilers. Water with a total hardness of 0-75
ppm is considered soft, 75-150 is moderately hard, 150-300 is hard and greater than 300 is
very hard. Seawater, in which shrimp normally grow, has a total hardness of approximately
6600. Yet, marine shrimp can be grown in water with moderate hardness (150) and may be
able to be grown in waters with even lower hardness levels, although no research has been
done to verify the possibility.

Hardness is often confused with alkalinity (describe later) because both are expressed in
similar terms (mg/L as CaCO3) and often hardness and alkalinity values are similar.
However, if the alkalinity is from sodium carbonate instead of calcium or magnesium
carbonates it is possible to have low hardness and high alkalinity. High hardness and low
alkalinity may occur in acidic well or surface waters. Low hardness can be increased with
agricultural limestone (calcium carbonate), agricultural gypsum (calcium sulfate), or food
grade calcium or magnesium chloride.


¾ (Acceptable: >100 ppm as CaCO3)

Alkalinity is defined as the sum of exchangeable bases reacting to neutralize acid when an
acid is added to water. In other words, alkalinity is the buffering capacity of water. This
buffering capacity is primarily due to bicarbonates (HCO3-), carbonates (CO3--), hydroxides
(OH-) or a mixture of these. As mentioned earlier in the section on pH, sufficient alkalinity
will help moderate pH swings from photosynthesis and respiration.

Since little water is exchanged in most high-density shrimp recirculating systems, alkalinity
should be maintained at relatively high levels (>100 ppm). Seawater has an average
alkalinity of 116 ppm (as CaCO3 ) and alkalinities in freshwater fish ponds typically average
about 40 ppm. Alkalinity in freshwater can range from 20-300 ppm as CaCO3. Alkalinity
can also be expressed as milliequivalents (1 meq/L = 50 ppm as CaCO3 = 2.92 grain/gallon
CaCO3). As with hardness, alkalinity may be increased with agricultural limestone (calcium
carbonate). Sodium bicarbonate may be used to increase alkalinity without increasing

Hydrogen Sulfide

¾ (Acceptable: None)

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a colorless, toxic gas with a distinctive odor similar to rotten eggs.
It is primarily derived from anaerobic decomposition of organic matter. It may be found in
well water or in pond bottoms composed of mud and other organic matter. Hydrogen sulfide
is highly toxic in the unionized form (similar to ammonia), however, the unionized form is
predominant at low pH (<8) and high temperature. At pH 7.5 approximately 14% of the
sulfide is in the toxic H2S form, at 7.2 about 24%, at pH 6.5 about 61%, and at pH 6 about
83% of total sulfide is in the toxic unionized form. Therefore, sulfide concentrations should

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

be less than 0.002 ppm. If you can smell it, then there is too much present and it will slow
growth and eventually kill most of your shrimp. Well water that contains hydrogen sulfide
must be vigorously aerated ("degassed") before use. There are a number of kits available to
test for hydrogen sulfide in your water.


¾ (Acceptable: <1.0 ppm, none preferred)

Iron is found in two forms, soluble (ferrous, Fe++) and insoluble (ferric, Fe+++) in well water.
Iron in and of itself is not toxic, but the oxidation of the soluble form to the insoluble leads to
the formation of precipitates that can irritate and clog the gills of shrimp, ultimately leading
to a reduced oxygen supply, asphyxiation and death. Soluble iron can be removed from
water by aeration and letting it oxidize to form a precipitate that can be removed by filtration
or settling before use in your system.


¾ (Acceptable: None)

A common mistake in talking about chloride is the use of the word chlorine. Chlorine and
chloride are two forms of elemental chloride, however, their effect on the health of your
shrimp is totally opposite. Chlorine is used for disinfection of systems and is toxic at
extremely low levels (<0.05 mg/L). Municipal water sources contain at least 10-fold higher
levels if not higher (0.5 - 2.0 mg/L). The addition of untreated municipal water to your
system or the accidental introduction of chlorine into your system can have devastating
results. Chlorine can be removed by using sodium thiosulfate at a rate of 7 mg/L for each 1
mg/L of chlorine.

Chloride is the ion discussed at the beginning of this section that is the predominant ion in
the composition of salinity and functions in osmoregulation.

Selected Literature

Ammonia by Ruth Francis-Floyd and Craig Watson. IFAS Fact Sheet FA-16 by IFAS,
University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 4 pp.

Aquaculture Engineering by Frederick W. Wheaton. 1977. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New
York, NY, 693 pp.

Crustacean Farming by Daniel O'C. Lee and John F. Wickins. 1992. Halsted Press of John
Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY, 392 pp.

Fundamentals of Aquaculture by James W. Avault, Jr. 1996. AVA Publishing Co., Baton
Rouge, Louisiana, 889 pp.

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Chapter 8 – Water Quality Requirements and Management

Interactions of pH, Carbon Dioxide, Alkalinity and Hardness in Fish Ponds by William A.
Wurts and Robert M. Durborow. 1992. SRAC Publ. No. 464, Southern Regional
Aquaculture Center, IFAS, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 4 pp.

Joint Action of Ammonia and Nitrite on Tiger Prawn Penaeus monodon Postlarvae by Jiann-
Chu Chen and Tzong-Shean Chin. 1988. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society 19:

Marine Shrimp Culture: Principles and Practices by Arlo W. Fast and L. James Lester. 1992.
Elsevier Science Publ. Co., Inc., New York, NY, 862 pp.

Practical Manual for Semi-intensive Commercial Production of Marine Shrimp by Jose R.

Villalon. 1991. TAMU-SG-91-501 by Texas A&M University Sea Grant College Program,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, 104 pp.

Principles of Warmwater Aquaculture by Robert R. Stickney. 1979. John Wiley and Sons,
Inc., New York, NY, 375 pp.

Toxicity of Ammonia and Nitrite to Penaeus monodon Juveniles. by Jiann-Chu Chen and
Shun-Chiang Lei. 1990. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society 21: 300-306.

Understanding and Interpreting Water Quality by Michael McGee. IFAS Fact Sheet FA-2 by
IFAS, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 4 pp.

Water Quality in Ponds for Aquaculture by Claude E. Boyd. 1990. Auburn University,
Auburn, Alabama, 482 pp.

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