Aquaponics is a food production system that couples aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish, snails or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) whereby the nutrient rich aquaculture water is fed to hydroponic grown plant, involving nitrifying bacteria for converting ammonia into nitrates.
As existing hydroponic and aquaculture farming techniques form the basis for all aquaponic systems, the size, complexity, and types of foods grown in an aquaponic system can vary as much as any system found in either distinct farming discipline.
Further information: Historical hydroculture Woodcut from the 13th century Chinese agricultural manual Wang Zhen’s Book on Farming showing rice grown in a floating raft planter system in a pond.
Aquaponics has ancient roots, although there is some debate on its first occurrence:
- Aztec cultivated agricultural islands known as chinampas in a system considered by some to be an early form of aquaponics for agricultural use, where plants were raised on stationary (or sometime movable) islands in lake shallows and waste materials dredged from the Chinampa canals and surrounding cities were used to manually irrigate the plants.
- South China and the whole of Southeast Asia, where rice was cultivated and farmed in paddy fields in combination with fish, are cited as examples of early aquaponics systems, although the technology had been brought by Chinese settlers who had migrated from Yunnan around 5 AD. These polycultural farming systems existed in many Far Eastern countries and raised fish such as the oriental loach , swamp eel, common carp and crucian carp as well as pond snails in the paddies.
- The 13th century Chinese agricultural manual Wang Zhen’s Book on Farming described floating wooden rafts which were piled with mud and dirt and which were used for growing rice, wild rice, and fodder. Such floating planters were employed in regions constituting the modern provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Fujian. These floating planters are known as either jiatian or fengtian , which translates to “framed paddy” and “brassica paddy”, respectively. The agricultural work also references earlier Chinese texts, which indicated that floating raft rice cultivation was being used as early as the Tang Dynasty (6th century) and Northern Song Dynasty (8th century) periods of Chinese history.
Floating aquaponics systems on polycultural fish ponds have been installed in China in more recent years on a large scale. They are used to grow rice, wheat and canna lily and other crops, with some installations exceeding 2.5 acres (10,000 m2). Diagram of the University of the Virgin Islands commercial aquaponics system designed to yield 5 metric tons of Tilapia per year.
The development of modern aquaponics is often attributed to the various works of the New Alchemy Institute and the works of Dr. Mark McMurtry et al. at the North Carolina State University, who devised an “Integrated Aqua-Vegeculture System” (iAVs) based on the combination of aquaculture and sand-based grow beds.Inspired by the successes of the New Alchemy Institute and McMurtry’s iAVs, other institutes soon followed suit. Starting in 1979, Dr. James Rakocy and his colleagues at the University of the Virgin Islands researched and developed the use of deep water culture hydroponic grow beds in a large-scale aquaponics systemOther institutes focused their research on “ebb and flow” systems (also known as “flood and drain”), which were partially based on the original ideas developed at North Carolina State University, but where coarse media (such as gravel or expanded clay) replaced sand, while bell syphons allowed an ebb-and-flow irrigation cycle, such systems are also known as “Speraneo Systems” because they are based on ideas developed in the 1990s by Tom and Paula Speraneo, owners of an aquaponics farm in Missouri.
The first aquaponics research in Canada was a small system added onto existing aquaculture research at a research station in Lethbridge, Alberta. Canada saw a rise in aquaponics setups throughout the ’90s, predominantly as commercial installations raising high-value crops such as trout and lettuce. A setup based on the deepwater system developed at the University of Virgin Islands was built in a greenhouse at Brooks, Alberta where Dr. Nick Savidov and colleagues researched aquaponics from a background of plant science. The team made findings on rapid root growth in aquaponics systems and on closing the solid-waste loop and found that, owing to certain advantages in the system over traditional aquaculture, the system can run well at a low pH level, which is favored by plants but not fish.
Parts of an aquaponic system
A commercial aquaponics system. An electric pump moves nutrient-rich water from the fish tank through a solids filter to remove particles the plants above cannot absorb. The water then provides nutrients for the plants and is cleansed before returning to the fish tank below.
Aquaponics consists of two main parts, with the aquaculture part for raising aquatic animals and the hydroponics part for growing plants. Aquatic effluents, resulting from uneaten feed or raising animals like fish, accumulate in water due to the closed-system recirculation of most aquaculture systems. The effluent-rich water becomes toxic to the aquatic animal in high concentrations but this contains nutrients essential for plant growth. Although consisting primarily of these two parts, aquaponics systems are usually grouped into several components or subsystems responsible for the effective removal of solid wastes, for adding bases to neutralize acids, or for maintaining water oxygenation. Typical components include:
- Rearing tank: the tanks for raising and feeding the fish;
- Settling basin: a unit for catching uneaten food and detached biofilms, and for settling out fine particulates;
- Biofilter: a place where the nitrification bacteria can grow and convert ammonia into nitrates, which are usable by the plants;
- Hydroponics subsystem: the portion of the system where plants are grown by absorbing excess nutrients from the water;
- Sump: the lowest point in the system where the water flows to and from which it is pumped back to the rearing tanks.
Depending on the sophistication and cost of the aquaponics system, the units for solids removal, biofiltration, and/or the hydroponics subsystem may be combined into one unit or subsystem, which prevents the water from flowing directly from the aquaculture part of the system to the hydroponics part. By utilizing gravel or sand as plant supporting medium, solids are captured and the medium has enough surface area for fixed-film nitrification. The ability to combine biofiltration and hydroponics allows for aquaponic system, in many cases, to eliminate the need for an expensive, separate biofilter.
An aquaponic system depends on different live components to work successfully. The three main live components are plants, fish (or other aquatic creatures) and bacteria. Some systems also include additional live components like worms.
Further information: RhizofiltrationA Deep Water Culture hydroponics system where plant grow directly into the effluent rich water without a soil medium. Plants can be spaced closer together because the roots do not need to expand outwards to support the weight of the plant.Plant placed into a nutrient rich water channel in a Nutrient film technique (NFT) system
Many plants are suitable for aquaponic systems, though which ones work for a specific system depends on the maturity and stocking density of the fish. These factors influence the concentration of nutrients from the fish effluent and how much of those nutrients are made available to the plant roots via bacteria. Green leaf vegetables with low to medium nutrient requirements are well adapted to aquaponic systems, including chinese cabbage, lettuce, basil, spinach, chives, herbs, and watercress. Spinach seedlings, 5 days old, by aquaponics
Other plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, have higher nutrient requirements and will do well only in mature aquaponic systems with high stocking densities of fish.
Other species of vegetables that grow well in an aquaponic system include watercress, basil, coriander, parsley, lemongrass, sage, beans, peas, kohlrabi, taro, radishes, strawberries, melons, onions, turnips, parsnips, sweet potato, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, and eggplant as well as the choys that are used for stir fries.
Fish (or other aquatic creatures)
Freshwater fish are the most common aquatic animal raised using aquaponics due to their ability to tolerate crowding, although freshwater crayfish and prawns are also sometimes used. There is a branch of aquaponics using saltwater fish, called saltwater aquaponics. There are many species of warm water and cold water fish that adapt well to aquaculture systems.
In practice, tilapia are the most popular fish for home and commercial projects that are intended to raise edible fish because it is a warmwater fish species that can tolerate crowding and changing water conditions. Barramundi, silver perch, eel-tailed catfish or tandanus catfish, jade perch and Murray cod are also used. For temperate climates when there isn’t ability or desire to maintain water temperature, bluegill and catfish are suitable fish species for home systems.
Further information: Nitrogen Cycle
Nitrification, the aerobic conversion of ammonia into nitrates, is one of the most important functions in an aquaponic system as it reduces the toxicity of the water for fish, and allows the resulting nitrate compounds to be removed by the plants for nourishment. Ammonia is steadily released into the water through the excreta and gills of fish as a product of their metabolism, but must be filtered out of the water since higher concentrations of ammonia (commonly between 0.5 and 1 ppm) can impair growth, cause widespread damage to tissues, decrease resistance to disease and even kill the fish. Although plants can absorb ammonia from the water to some degree, nitrates are assimilated more easily, thereby efficiently reducing the toxicity of the water for fish. Ammonia can be converted into safer nitrogenous compounds through combined healthy populations of 2 types of bacteria: Nitrosomonas which convert ammonia into nitrites, and Nitrobacter which then convert nitrites into nitrates. While nitrite is still harmful to fish due to its ability to create methemoglobin, which cannot bind oxygen, by attaching to hemoglobin, nitrates are able to be tolerated at high levels by fish. High surface area provides more space for the growth of nitrifying bacteria. Grow bed material choices require careful analysis of the surface area, price and maintainability considerations.
Plants are grown as in hydroponics systems, with their roots immersed in the nutrient-rich effluent water. This enables them to filter out the ammonia that is toxic to the aquatic animals, or its metabolites. After the water has passed through the hydroponic subsystem, it is cleaned and oxygenated, and can return to the aquaculture vessels. This cycle is continuous. Common aquaponic applications of hydroponic systems include:
- Deep-water raft aquaponics: styrofoam rafts floating in a relatively deep aquaculture basin in troughs. Raft tanks can be constructed to be quite large, and enable seedlings to be transplanted at one end of the tank while fully grown plants are harvested at the other, thus ensuring optimal floor space usage.
- Recirculating aquaponics: solid media such as gravel or clay beads, held in a container that is flooded with water from the aquaculture. This type of aquaponics is also known as closed-loop aquaponics.
- Reciprocating aquaponics: solid media in a container that is alternately flooded and drained utilizing different types of siphon drains. This type of aquaponics is also known as flood-and-drain aquaponics or ebb-and-flow aquaponics.
- Nutrient film technique channels: plants are grown in lengthy narrow channels, with a film of nutrient-filled water constantly flowing past the plant roots. Due to the small amount of water and narrow channels, helpful bacteria cannot live there and therefore a bio filter is required for this method.
- Other systems use towers that are trickle-fed from the top, horizontal PVC pipes with holes for the pots, plastic barrels cut in half with gravel or rafts in them. Each approach has its own benefits.
Since plants at different growth stages require different amounts of minerals and nutrients, plant harvesting is staggered with seedlings growing at the same time as mature plants. This ensures stable nutrient content in the water because of continuous symbiotic cleansing of toxins from the water.
In an aquaponics system, the bacteria responsible for the conversion of ammonia to usable nitrates for plants form a biofilm on all solid surfaces throughout the system that are in constant contact with the water. The submerged roots of the vegetables combined have a large surface area where many bacteria can accumulate. Together with the concentrations of ammonia and nitrites in the water, the surface area determines the speed with which nitrification takes place. Care for these bacterial colonies is important as to regulate the full assimilation of ammonia and nitrite. This is why most aquaponics systems include a biofiltering unit, which helps facilitate growth of these microorganisms. Typically, after a system has stabilized ammonia levels range from 0.25 to .50 ppm; nitrite levels range from 0.0 to 0.25 ppm, and nitrate levels range from 5 to 150 ppm. During system startup, spikes may occur in the levels of ammonia (up to 6.0 ppm) and nitrite (up to 15 ppm), with nitrate levels peaking later in the startup phase. In the nitrification process ammonia is oxidized into nitrite, which releases hydrogen ions into the water. Overtime a person’s pH will slowly drop, so they can use non-sodium bases such as potassium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide to neutralize the water’s pH if insufficient quantities are naturally present in the water to provide a buffer against acidification. In addition, selected minerals or nutrients such as iron can be added in addition to the fish waste that serves as the main source of nutrients to plants.
A good way to deal with solids buildup in aquaponics is the use of worms, which liquefy the solid organic matter so that it can be utilized by the plants and/or other animals in the system. For a worm-only growing method, please see Vermiponics.
The five main inputs to the system are water, oxygen, light, feed given to the aquatic animals, and electricity to pump, filter, and oxygenate the water. Spawn or fry may be added to replace grown fish that are taken out from the system to retain a stable system. In terms of outputs, an aquaponics system may continually yield plants such as vegetables grown in hydroponics, and edible aquatic species raised in an aquaculture. Typical build ratios are .5 to 1 square foot of grow space for every 1 U.S. gal (3.8 L) of aquaculture water in the system. 1 U.S. gal (3.8 L) of water can support between .5 lb (0.23 kg) and 1 lb (0.45 kg) of fish stock depending on aeration and filtration.
Ten primary guiding principles for creating successful aquaponics systems were issued by Dr. James Rakocy, the director of the aquaponics research team at the University of the Virgin Islands, based on extensive research done as part of the Agricultural Experiment Station aquaculture program.
- Use a feeding rate ratio for design calculations
- Keep feed input relatively constant
- Supplement with calcium, potassium and iron
- Ensure good aeration
- Remove solids
- Be careful with aggregates
- Oversize pipes
- Use biological pest control
- Ensure adequate biofiltration
- Control pH
As in most aquaculture based systems, stock feed often consists of fish meal derived from lower-value species. Ongoing depletion of wild fish stocks makes this practice unsustainable. Organic fish feeds may prove to be a viable alternative that relieves this concern. Other alternatives include growing duckweed with an aquaponics system that feeds the same fish grown on the system, excess worms grown from vermiculture composting, using prepared kitchen scraps, as well as growing black soldier fly larvae to feed to the fish using composting grub growers.
Aquaponic installations rely in varying degrees on man-made energy, technological solutions, and environmental control to achieve recirculation and water/ambient temperatures. However, if a system is designed with energy conservation in mind, using alternative energy and a reduced number of pumps by letting the water flow downwards as much as possible, it can be highly energy efficient. While careful design can minimize the risk, aquaponics systems can have multiple ‘single points of failure’ where problems such as an electrical failure or a pipe blockage can lead to a complete loss of fish stock.