It is common to read headlines that decry aquaculture's detrimental effects on the environment and yet difficult to find news stories about its importance as a provider of livelihoods worldwide. Aquaculture notably affects people and societies far beyond obvious contributions to food security or any positive or negative environmental impacts. Globally, 18.7 million people currently work as fish farmers and, as with fisheries, this figure increases by three- to fourfold if secondary and postharvest employment is included (FAO 2016). The income earned by each of these employed individuals supports up to four dependents (Smith et al. 2010). Increased training of women and greater participation in the workforce have followed. Employment figures mirror trends of increasing production data over the past years as well. Fish farmers now represent one third of all employees involved in fish production. In 2000, 12.6 million fish farmers composed just one quarter of that global total. Macroeconomic benefits derived from export earnings are also self-evident (Smith et al. 2010), but these impressive numbers do not tell the whole story.

Even when aquaculture activities do not return the same economic benefit per unit effort as fishing, aquaculture job demands differ fundamentally from fishing and seasonal (self-)employment, thereby creating distinct advantages (Irz et al. 2007). Aquaculture jobs offer a certainty of location, which allows fish farmers to make choices about family position and housing that improve household stability. This brings many advantages over fishing in terms of access to education, health provision, and appropriate housing (Fatunla 1996). Furthermore, regularity of working hours allows individuals to incorporate further education and other beneficial planned activities into their daily lives (Slater et al. 2013). While fisheries may offer higher returns at times of plenty, aquaculture returns are generally more predictable in both time and value. With this advantage, individual farmers are able to make informed financial planning decisions and investments.

Aquaculture can, however, cause unwanted societal effects when it produces boom and bust cycles or otherwise collapses, for example, due to disease outbreaks, food safety recalls, or natural disasters. Equally rapid commercial aquaculture development can impact more traditional societies by, for example, leading to increased levels of debt. Disturbances in societal resilience and reduction in social capital can be associated with shifts toward high-capital aquaculture. Resource conflicts can rapidly arise when traditional users feel that aquaculture is encroaching on their “patch” (Orchard et al. 2015). However, most of these defined disturbances to traditional societies are typical for fast-expanding industries, not aquaculture alone.

Most insights into aquaculture's societal effects come from developing nations. In industrial nations, aquaculture is known to bring jobs and infrastructure, particularly to isolated rural areas. Many aquaculture industries in developed nations suffer from low availability of high-paying jobs combined with a lack of appropriately trained staff willing to work in menial positions for low wages. Nonetheless, job retention in isolated areas helps stabilize community structure and drives secondary industry and services (Neiland et al. 1991). Unfortunately, few sociological studies have been conducted on aquaculture in developed nations. The research focus remains on economic and societal conflict around resource use, environmental concerns, and potential recreational/leisure conflicts. Much of this information has led to increasingly onerous and costly regulatory response (Abate et al. 2016; van Senten and Engle 2017). In developed nations, increasing importance is thus being assigned to social license, or “the demands on and expectations for a business enterprise that emerge from neighborhoods, environmental groups, community members, and other elements of the surrounding civil society” (Gunningham et al. 2004). Objective, stakeholder-led studies on the social and economic impacts of aquaculture (both positive and negative) could help establish a better understanding of and consequently greater trust in aquaculture activities in both developed and developing countries (Leith et al. 2014). Scientists act as catalysts for stakeholder dialogue when such studies are conducted and positively affect social license and science policy when they effectively communicate the diverse benefits of application.

An enhanced research effort to address the economic and social impacts of aquaculture in systematic and comprehensive ways is clearly needed. There is compelling evidence that affirms aquaculture to be a global economic powerhouse that provides livelihoods and can be a driver of positive social development. It brings jobs to isolated and underprivileged areas in industrial and developing nations and almost universally offers significant societal benefits in terms of access to food, infrastructure, education, and healthcare. Yet, a great deal of contextual variability around aquaculture in communities remains (Stevenson and Irz 2009) and many important questions are still unanswered. It is important for aquaculture researchers, extension specialists, those who work in international development, and policy makers to understand these benefits and communicate them to the broader scientific and research community.

Recently, articles related to economic aspects of aquaculture (Tokunaga et al. 2015; Dresdner and Estay 2016; Huang et al. 2016; Kumar et al. 2016; Hernandez et al. 2017) have been published in the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society. These have principally focused on production economics; only one addressed social welfare associated with aquaculture from the perspective of effects on income inequality (Haque and Dey 2016). Remaining important questions that warrant investigation may include: Which infrastructures benefit from the presence of aquaculture in a region and which do not? Do communities develop new traditional roles around aquaculture? Can aquaculture facilities become part of a cultural landscape, like vineyards or orchards? How can potential conflict with tourism be overcome? What are the short- and long-term health implications of aquaculture? How does aquaculture affect various demographic segments of populations, such as women, immigrants, and various minority groups, in both developed and developing countries? The Journal of the World Aquaculture Society therefore welcomes original manuscripts that take steps toward answering these fundamental questions.