On a hot October day, Durkee McMaster scooped up a net of quarter-sized tilapia from a round water nursery tank.

The tank is one of several at Desert Springs Tilapia, an aquaculture farm located in the central Arizona desert. With water in short supply and high demand, fish farming in this arid land may seem counterintuitive to sustainability.

On the contrary, Desert Springs is making great strides toward sustainable farming in a unique way.

The practice of aquaculture has become popular in the United States over the past 40 years, due in part to the overexploitation of global fisheries.

A 2010 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report said, “Never has the need for sustainable global fisheries been more apparent and never have global fish stocks been more threatened.

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Kevin Fitzsimmons, professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona, has worked in aquaculture for 25 years. He says the practice became popular in North America during the 1970s when people recognized that global fisheries were declining due to unsustainable practices, including trawling the ocean floor and overharvesting many species.

“Here in Arizona we use a lot of water for irrigation,” Fitzsimmons said. “It just made sense that we grow fish or shrimp in that water before we use it to irrigate field crops – so that all of the waste from fish goes out as fertilizer for the crops.”

McMaster and Tark Rush, former students of Fitzsimmons, co-manage and operate the Desert Springs Tilapia farm in Dateland. McMaster holds a degree in fisheries management from the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment. Rush has a degree in microbiology.