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Aquaponics: A Locavore's Fish Farm?
Julia Levitt, 16 Jul 09

2552598398_02192ce095_300.jpgIf we don't figure out a way to produce seafood sustainably, we may live to see a future when wild fish are too rare to eat. Fish farming has increased as an alternative to ocean fishing (nearly half of all fish eaten worldwide today are, in fact, farmed), but marine farming -- raising ocean-caught fish in netted coastal pens -- can be extremely problematic for nearby coastal ecosystems.

One solution can be found in emerging technologies that support indoor aquaculture -- systems for raising seafood in tanks in large enough volumes to replace a significant portion of ocean-based harvesting. It's worth repeating this quote from Ben Block's 2008 article, in which Yonathan Zohar, director of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute's Center for Marine Biotechnology, says,

"I'm a strong believer that in 20 years from now, most seafood will be grown on land. It can go to the Midwest, it can go into the inner city, it can go wherever."

Now, a growing group of urban agriculture enthusiasts are translating the practice of land-based fish farming to a very local level. Their system of choice is called aquaponics -- a symbiotic setup in which plants and fish are raised simultaneously in recirculating water. The two "crops" are complementary: fish waste fertilizes the plants, which naturally filter the water so that it stays clean even when many fish are raised in close quarters (one might even call it a form of heavily engineered polyculture).

According to The Globe and Mail, the practice of backyard aquaponics is now gaining popularity in Canada among amateur urban farmers who get -- and share -- most of their information in online forums.

According to the article, aquaponics "is popular in the Caribbean because of the heavy dependence on rainwater for crops." Aquaponics communities also exist in the U.S. and Australia, generally following and experimenting with an aquaponics model that has been around since the 1970s.

See one plant-filtered indoor fish farm in action in the video below from GOOD. Aquaculturist Martin Schreibman, distinguished professor emeritus of biology at Brooklyn College, presents his vision for "sustainable, responsible urban aquaculture: Fish farmed in the city close to where the product can be consumed."

Farmers, fishermen, restaurant owers and eaters need to remember, of course, that fish are part of a much larger and more complex system, and that simply swapping one more sustainably-farmed fish for another won't erase the problem. There's a much bigger backstory to address: a culture (in the U.S.) of over-serving and over-eating, a food industry in which an enormous percentage of the food produced worldwide is wasted, often unnecessarily.

Still, raising fish in tanks -- particularly if natural filtration systems can allow for antibiotic and hormone-free, low-waste production that conserves water -- is a promising step toward a future of more sustainable food choices. And if DIY types can engineer sustainable fish farms in their own apartments and backyards ... all the better.

Photo credit: flickr/Ryan Somma, Creative Commons license.

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Comments

One thing I would add is that the best species for aquaponics is tilapia, which can tolerate the density necessary for economic competitiveness, and which can live on a plant based diet. If confinement is engineered properly this species offers a way to significantly relieve pressure on the ocean fish which are consumed not just by humans, but more importantly the ones being fed to other food animals. Most people are unaware that fish farms are not a net >source< of fish, they are net >consumers< of fish, which are caught in the ocean to feed them. About four lbs of fish are required to get one lb of farmed salmon, and since only 1/3 of the salmon is meat, the actual conversion is even worse.

To take aquaponics to the next level, you can feed your tilapia a diet based on the larvae of the black soldier fly, which can be raised on many types of waste.

I am an aquaponic system designer in the Dallas area, and if anyone is looking for the best place to learn more, check out the UVI aquaponics program.


Posted by: Dave Pennington on 17 Jul 09

Looks like I should have previewed that last post. The sentence cropped should read "Most people are unaware that fish farms are not a net /source/ of fish, but /consumers/ of fish." 2.4 pounds of feeder fish are needed to produce a single pound of farmed salmon, and all carnivorous species have similar issues.


Posted by: Dave Pennington on 17 Jul 09

Trivial note: The first sentence in your second paragraph is not a complete sentence:

"For this reason, emerging technologies to support indoor aquaculture -- systems for raising seafood in tanks in large enough volumes to replace a significant portion of ocean-based harvesting."


Posted by: Don Pelton on 18 Jul 09

Projects like this also offer a potential re-use for old, abandonded warehouse or industrial spaces in the inner city, or empty big-box stores in the suburbs. It also creates local jobs, and can be incorporated into job training programs for those in need. Leveraging such projects in multiple ways allows them to apply for start-up funding from multiple sources, from EPA (brownfields grants) to public health to jobs programs. Incorporating renewable energy as well can take the project to an even greener level, and open doors for DOE seed money. The Obama adminsitration seems to be fond of such projects that tackle multiple problems at once, so perhaps we can hope to see more of such facilities across the US in coming years as we "muddle our way" to sustainability.


Posted by: Anonymous in Knoxville, TN on 20 Jul 09

One of my co-workers set up an aquaponics system with the help of students (we work at Vancouver Island University). It is actually the second system she has set up. We have been getting a lot of press about it, which is nice to see. Here's a link to a video with the first system she built, if you are interested.

http://tinyurl.com/l9ds8a


Posted by: cooljohng on 20 Jul 09

I would love to see aquaponics systems set up in backyards, but the species used need careful consideration. The waterways of Northern Australia are becoming overrun with Tilapia, which is an introduced species here. They outbreed the native fish species and are altering our aquatic ecostystems, damaging a very precious resource. Once present, they are extremely difficult (and costly) to eradicate. In Australia it is illegal to own, catch or breed these fish, with very good reason.

Tilapia may be fine in other parts of the world but there does need to be careful thought about this kind of project - sometimes unintended consequences can do a great deal of damage.


Posted by: penny on 20 Jul 09

A telephone repair tech told me this story. He works in a metro region in the Upper Mid-West on Lake Michigan. He went to a house that was several stories high to fix an phone outage. When he went into the basement, he stopped cold half way down the steps. The basement was about 4 feet deep in water. He went to the attic and found it knee deep in straw. The Asian immigrants were raising fish in the basement and geese in the attic. They lived on the floors between just as they had done in their previous home when they were in Asia. He never did figure out how to fix the phone outage as long as the phone was inside the house. It seems that raising fish in urban areas is already happening with out the filters, motors, etc.


Posted by: Marie Wagner on 21 Jul 09

I've been doing this for a while now on a very small scale. I have catfish in blue plastic barrels that get fed worms from the vermicompost bins. I have tilapia in a stock tank I got off of Craigslist for cheap. I feed the tilapia duck weed that I grow in kiddie pools. My planters are also kiddie pools, with styrofoam sheets floating on them for growing mats. I don't have any kind of electric pumps set up, just an old hand cranked pump that I found in a barn. It may have been for pumping fuel. I pump water up into a couple of barrels on stilts in the morning and night and let gravity circulate it for me. From top to bottom I have water tanks, planters, and fish tanks. Nice and easy.

I've eaten a few catfish already this summer. The meat is sweet and not muddy tasting like in the wild. My third batch of tilapia will be ready to harvest at the end of August. I still haven't eaten all of the frozen filets from the last batch. My greens have been prolific, but I'm ready for a little variety. I think I'm going to fill one of the planters with gravel so I can have some tomatoes and peppers.

This has been a very rewarding experience for me. I would recommend it to anyone who is the least bit handy and is interested. I have only invested about $200 in my setup, so really there is no reason not to do it.


Posted by: Kevin on 24 Jul 09

The aquaponic system pictured above is large and clunky. For household usage, both indoors and outdoors, Earth Solutions has designed several models of aquaponic systems in various sizes. They look like actual furniture and some models feature a see through aquarium, which delights children and adults alike. See the Little Tokyo model which Home Depot recently introduced on their website or click here:
http://www.earthsolutions.com/Farm-in-Box-Aquaponics_c_214.html


Posted by: Dianne Fishel on 28 Jul 09

The aquaponic system pictured above is large and clunky. For household usage, both indoors and outdoors, Earth Solutions has designed several models of aquaponic systems in various sizes. They look like actual furniture and some models feature a see through aquarium, which delights children and adults alike. See the Little Tokyo model which Home Depot recently introduced on their website or click here:
http://www.earthsolutions.com/Farm-in-Box-Aquaponics_c_214.html


Posted by: Dianne Fishel on 28 Jul 09

Dave, your comment "To take aquaponics to the next level, you can feed your tilapia a diet based on the larvae of the black soldier fly"...

Needs qualification... you can most certainly supplement your feed with black soldier fly...

But it's not a complete feed, certainly it has a high protein percentage - about equivalent to most commercial feeds, but it also extremely high in fat content.

And lacks many of the trace elements that are found in formulated feeds.

Tilapia, as pointed out by Kevin can also be fed duckweed, worms and - as is common practice in Thailand, leaves from the Moringa tree.

Research has also been done with regard to Lupins as a supplementary feed.

None of the above are however a complete feed in their own right, although a combination they may well form the basis of a feed that can substitue for the usual "fish meal" commercial pellet feeds.

As to the system pictured, and the comment that it's "clunky"... well any NFT style operation may appear that way, and certainly utilising NFT involves additional filtration steps as opposed to flood and drain.

As does the DWC style of floating raft systems used by the UVI model.

For backyard aquaponics systems, of all shapes and sizes, you can't go past looking at the Australian backyard aquaponics forum.

It's the biggest and most active forum in the world, and many of the developments within aquaponics and aquaponic systems are, or have been driven by members of the forum. Especially with regard to flood & drain.

My concern is that aquaponics is now become such a "buzz word", that the shysters, box movers and band wagon jumpers are all climbing onboard with over-priced, dinky di systems, usually based on no, or very limited experience, or understanding of the basic concepts.

The mums and dads that buy such systems, will sadly probably turn away from a potential sustainable food production system, because ultimately many of the fish farm in a box, or an "egg" type kitchen systems will fail...

Or at least fail to meet expectations and the "hype"... particularly with regard to the amount of produce that can be grown.


Posted by: John on 30 Jul 09

Here's a link to the backyard aquaponics forum...

http://backyardaquaponics.com/forum/

check out the "members systems" section....


Posted by: John on 30 Jul 09

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