Handling Ammonia Spikes in Shrimp Farming

Excessive ammonia is one of the biggest challenges to overcome in shrimp aquaculture. As farmers seek to increase profits and intensify production, the problem of ammonia toxicity is more relevant than ever before, leading to high mortality and severe economic losses. This article looks at the impact of ammonia on Pacific white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei), and practical ways for farmers to prevent its excessive build-up on their farms.

Ammonia is a nitrogenous waste produced from feed input and microbial decomposition of organic matter in water columns. Shrimp feed is usually high in nitrogen. In L vannamei culture, sometimes only 22 percent of the Nitrogen input is converted to harvested shrimp. 57 percent is discharged into the environment and 14 percent remains in the sediment. The microbial decomposition of excess feed, shrimps’ fecal solid, microbial populations, and dead phytoplankton all contribute to the ammonia to the nitrogen cycle in the culture water.

Much of routine aquaculture management is dedicated to controlling the forms and concentration of the total ammonia concentration as nitrogen, or what is usually called total ammonia nitrogen (TAN). TAN is composed of the fractions of two forms of ammonia – namely unionized ammonia (NH3) and ionized ammonium (NH4+). The ionized ammonium is relatively non-toxic while the unionized ammonia is toxic to the cultured shrimp.

How do ammonia concentrations impact shrimp?

Ammonia is toxic to L vannamei because high concentrations can damage the gill, hepatopancreas, and possibly the gut lining. This damage may affect various aspects of shrimp health – such as respiration, metabolism, immunity, osmotic regulation, nutrient absorption, excretion, molting, and growth. As a result of these physiological and immune impacts, high ammonia may allow pathogens to take hold, leading to mortality.

Besides its toxicity, TAN is concerning because it influences the carrying capacity of shrimp ponds. The carrying capacity is defined as the maximum biomass of cultured shrimp that the pond can support without breaching the limit of impacts to the cultured organisms and their surrounding environment.

Ponds with high stocking densities will feed more and so tend to have higher TAN concentrations over time, which will lead to lower carrying capacity.

As ammonia build-up increases, so too does the total oxygen demand that the organisms in the pond require. This may increase beyond what the pond infrastructure can replenish through photosynthesis or aeration. With elevated ammonia concentrations, the pond environment becomes stressful for the shrimp and leads to lost appetite and growth stagnation.

What drives ammonia toxicity?

The toxicity of ammonia and the equilibrium of unionized to ionized ammonia is driven by factors including pH, temperature, salinity, alkalinity, and dissolved oxygen. The ideal pH of water for shrimp aquaculture is between 7 to 8.

The rise of temperature would cause the fraction of unionized ammonia in TAN to increase. This often creates difficult management decisions as optimal growing conditions coincide with higher fractions of NH3 than would be achieved with lower pH and temperatures.

Dissolved oxygen and alkalinity are important as they improve the chemical and physiological process efficiency under stress conditions. They are also vital in supporting the removal of ammonia via the aerobic nitrification processes.

Nitrification is the conversion of ammonia to nitrite and nitrate. Nitrate is comparatively less toxic than ammonia and nitrite. Ammonia is converted into nitrite and then nitrate by nitrifying bacteria. Nitrosomonas bacteria convert ammonia to nitrite and Nitrobacter bacteria convert nitrite to nitrate. Oxygen is required for nitrification to take place and alkalinity of over 120 is recommended to support the growth of nitrifying bacteria. Poor levels of aeration in ponds can cause ammonia build-up to reach toxic levels.

How to prevent ammonia build-up?

To prevent ammonia issues in shrimp ponds, proper management is needed to keep the concentration below the maximum threshold or lethal concentrations. The following are the important parameters for preventing ammonia concentrations from increasing.

  • Weekly measurements

Weekly measurements are recommended to prevent ammonia build-up. When problems such as disease or low dissolved oxygen occur, daily measurements are highly suggested to do. Measurements can be taken with easy-to-use field kits, an on-site laboratory, or a third-party laboratory. It’s recommended to use a laboratory test occasionally with field tests to check reliability and accuracy. TAN, nitrite and nitrate, alkalinity, DO, salinity and pH should be measured at the same time.

  • Feeding regimes

The main source of ammonia in shrimp culture comes from the feed inputs. One way to prevent ammonia build-up is proper to feed management through feeding regime planning. Feeding regimes specify the diet, amount, and schedule.

The diet refers to specified feed types, for example, live feed or artificial feed – and the protein content, which determines the amount of ammonia released into the water. The amount refers to the feeding rate used in the system. The feeding rate must take into account the amount of biomass and target of average daily growth (ADG), while the feeding schedule must consider the time and portion of the feed at each feed hour.

Feeding regimes need to take into account the needs of shrimp growth and the capacity of the water and pond bottom environment. This is done to prevent overfeeding, which leads to ammonia build-up in the water.

  • Maintaining alkalinity

Alkalinity is a measure of the ability of the water body to neutralize acids and bases and thus maintain a fairly stable pH level and a stable water environment. The maximum pH fluctuation should not exceed 0.5. It is important to maintain a stable pH at a safe range because it affects the metabolism and other physiological processes of culture organisms. The optimum alkalinity range is 120-200 ppm.

  • Keeping pH steady

Water pH is an important factor of ammonia ionization, which determines the toxicity of the ammonia itself. The pH of culture water should be maintained at the optimum pH range between 7.7 to 8.3 units.

  • Managing salinity

Salinity affects the ionic strength of the culture water, which determines the proportion of ammonia ionization, which also determines the toxicity of the ammonia itself. A study on P semisulcatus found that salinity determines growth and ammonia tolerance of culture organisms. Therefore, the culture water should be kept at an optimum salinity range between 25 to 35 ppt.

  • Dissolved oxygen

Adequate amounts of dissolved oxygen can help maintain the nitrification process, which is important for removing ammonia from culture water. The nitrification process balances the concentrations of ammonium, nitrate, and ​nitrite for better shrimp growth. The suitable dissolved oxygen range needed to prevent ammonium build-up is >5 ppm.

How to address ammonia problems?

A farm that already has excessive ammonia concentration will be shown by various behavioral or physical anomalies – even stocks mortality – in the cultured shrimp and therefore some important countermeasures are needed. These may act as immediate treatment and may help to prevent further problems, such as a disease outbreak.

  • Physical treatment

One of the ways to decrease the ammonia concentrations in shrimp ponds is to dilute the water, usually via water exchange or water circulation. This not only decreases the ammonia concentration but also creates a better environment for the shrimp.

Daily water exchange of 10 to 40 percent from the total volume of water can be done until ammonia concentrations reach a safe level. A thorough water management SOP should be applied when exchanging water, especially where water exchange exceeds 15 percent.

  • Increasing alkalinity

The increase in ammonia could be caused by the fluctuation of pH levels, which is caused by low alkalinity. If the alkalinity is low, add about 12.5 ppm bicarbonate compounds such as CaO, CaCO​, CaMg(CO3)​ , or NaHCO​ to the water every two to three days until the alkalinity reaches the optimum range of 120 to 200ppm.

  • Maintaining bacterial amendments

To maintain shrimp health, probiotics need to be added to the water body. This will create a competitive environment for opportunistic pathogens. The commonly used probiotics in shrimp farming are Bacillus ​sp​, Lactobacillus ​sp, and Pseudomonas ​sp.

  • Reducing and replacing feed inputs

Overfeeding is one of the main sources of ammonia in the water body. Consequently, when an ammonia problem appears, the amount of feed should be reduced by 30 to 40 percent. Besides, under high ammonia concentrations, shrimp appetite is reduced and feed reduction will prevent overfeeding.

Other than reducing the number of stock feeds, ammonia concentrations in culture water can be reduced by replacing the feed. Replacing the current feed with one containing lower nitrogen or protein content will reduce the nitrogen input to the water body.

Use different strategies to manage ammonia

Ammonia is a significant factor that could limit the amount of shrimp production tremendously. Its build-up can reach toxic levels and affect shrimp health and water quality. This may lead to a reduction in farm productivity, economic losses, and shrimp mortality.

However, ammonia build-up can be prevented by maintaining important water parameters – such as alkalinity, pH, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. Should an ammonia problem arise, some countermeasures could be implemented. This includes physical treatment, increasing nitrification rate and alkalinity, adding probiotics, and maintaining a proper feeding regime.

Embracing up-to-date science, proper technology and expert support can help shrimp farmers manage their ammonia problems while increasing productivity and profits.


Ana Menezes, Nathanael Hishamunda, Leonard Lovshin, and Elisabeta Martone (2017) Doing aquaculture as a business for small and medium-scale farmers. FAO (http://www.fao.org/cofi/46057-06d2c57a8b209c8cbe2a72b68ff1b0b86.pdf)

Dominic Joseph Schuler (2008) Acute Toxicity of Ammonia and Nitrite to White Shrimp (L. vannamei) at Low Salinities https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/bitstream/handle/10919/32453/SchulerThesis.pdf?sequence=3)

Jackson et al (2003) Nitrogen budget and effluent nitrogen components at an intensive shrimp farm. Aquaculture (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0044848603000140?via%3Dihub), Volume 218, Issues 1-4

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