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Water quality testing in Sweden’s First CSA Vertical Indoor Aquaponics System prototype in an NGO in Malmö, Henrique Sánchez 2015

Aquaponics is an innovative and sustainable food production system that combines aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water without soil) in a symbiotic environment [1]. In an aquaponic system, the waste produced by the aquatic animals serves as a nutrient source for the plants, while the plants act as a natural filter, cleaning the water for the animals [2]. In this sense, an aquaponics system is a productive constructed ecosystem.

History 

The concept of aquaponics can be traced back to the ancient Aztec civilization, where they used a system called “chinampas” to grow crops on shallow lakes [3]. However, modern aquaponics has been developed and popularized by several key figures, including:

  • Dr. James Rakocy who conducted extensive research at the University of the Virgin Islands and developed the “raft” system, which is widely used today [4].
  • Dr. Mark McMurtry who developed the “sand bed” aquaponic system at North Carolina State University in the 1980s [5].
  • Dr. Nick Savidov who pioneered the use of aquaponics in greenhouse settings and conducted research on the use of different fish species in aquaponic systems [6].
Layout of UVI Aquaponics System, Rakocy et al 2006

The Nitrogen Cycle in Aquaponics

The nitrogen cycle plays a crucial role in the success of an aquaponic system. Fish waste contains ammonia, which is toxic to fish in high concentrations. Beneficial bacteria, such as Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter, convert ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates, which are less harmful to fish and serve as a nutrient source for plants [7]. The plants absorb these nitrates, effectively cleaning the water for the fish.

Nitrogen Cycle in Aquaponics, Curso de Acuaponía PonicLabs 2019

Sustainability and Fish Feed Sourcing

One of the main challenges in aquaponics is the sustainability of fish feed sourcing. Most commercial fish feeds are derived from wild-caught fish, which can lead to overfishing and damage to marine ecosystems [8], also making aquaponics an extractive process. To address this issue, researchers are exploring alternative, sustainable feed sources, such as plant-based proteins and insect meal [9].

Machine for making alternative fish feed pellets for aquaculture and aquaponics testing and research, COST & EU Aquaponics Hub, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria 2015

Advantages and Drawbacks of Aquaponics

Aquaponics offers several advantages over conventional inorganic hydroponics:

  • Reduced water usage: Aquaponic systems use up to 90% less water than traditional agriculture [10].
  • Natural nutrient source: Fish waste provides a natural and balanced nutrient source for plants, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers [11].
  • Dual crop production: Aquaponics allows for the simultaneous production of both fish and plants, increasing overall yield and profitability [12].
Harvesting aquaponics fish from a pilot project near Reykjavik, Iceland, 2015


However, aquaponics also has some drawbacks:

  • Higher initial costs: Setting up an aquaponic system can be more expensive than traditional hydroponic systems due to the additional equipment and infrastructure required [13].
  • Complexity: Aquaponic systems are more complex to manage than hydroponic systems, as they involve the care of both fish and plants [14].
  • Limited fish species: Not all fish species are suitable for aquaponic systems, as they must be able to tolerate the specific water conditions and temperature ranges required by the plants [2].
Home aquaponics system with ornamental fish instead of edible fish, Henrique Sanchez, Sweden, 2015

Despite its challenges, aquaponics represents a significant step forward in sustainable food production. By combining aquaculture and hydroponics, aquaponics creates a near closed-loop system that minimizes waste and maximizes resource efficiency [16]. While issues such as sustainable fish feed sourcing and system optimization need further development, aquaponics has the potential to become an increasingly important tool in meeting the growing global demand for food while reducing the environmental impact of agriculture [17].

References:

[1] Rakocy, J. E., Masser, M. P., & Losordo, T. M. (2006). Recirculating aquaculture tank production systems: Aquaponics—integrating fish and plant culture. SRAC Publication, 454, 1-16.

[2] Somerville, C., Cohen, M., Pantanella, E., Stankus, A., & Lovatelli, A. (2014). Small-scale aquaponic food production: integrated fish and plant farming. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, (589), I.

[3] Crossley, P. L. (2004). Sub-irrigation in wetland agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values, 21(2-3), 191-205.

[4] Rakocy, J. E. (2012). Aquaponics: integrating fish and plant culture. Aquaculture production systems, 1, 343-386.

[5] McMurtry, M. R., Sanders, D. C., Cure, J. D., Hodson, R. G., Haning, B. C., & Amand, E. C. S. (1997). Efficiency of water use of an integrated fish/vegetable co‐culture system. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, 28(4), 420-428.

[6] Savidov, N. A., Hutchings, E., & Rakocy, J. E. (2007). Fish and plant production in a recirculating aquaponic system: a new approach to sustainable agriculture in Canada. Acta Horticulturae, 742, 209-222.

[7] Tyson, R. V., Treadwell, D. D., & Simonne, E. H. (2011). Opportunities and challenges to sustainability in aquaponic systems. HortTechnology, 21(1), 6-13.

[8] Naylor, R. L., Hardy, R. W., Buschmann, A. H., Bush, S. R., Cao, L., Klinger, D. H., … & Troell, M. (2021). A 20-year retrospective review of global aquaculture. Nature, 591(7851), 551-563.

[9] Voorhees, J. M., Barnes, M. E., Chipps, S. R., & Brown, M. L. (2019). Bioprocessed soybean meal replacement of fish meal in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) diets. Cogent Food & Agriculture, 5(1), 1579482.

[10] Al-Hafedh, Y. S., Alam, A., & Beltagi, M. S. (2008). Food production and water conservation in a recirculating aquaponic system in Saudi Arabia at different ratios of fish feed to plants. Journal of the world aquaculture society, 39(4), 510-520.

[11] Roosta, H. R., & Hamidpour, M. (2011). Effects of foliar application of some macro-and micro-nutrients on tomato plants in aquaponic and hydroponic systems. Scientia Horticulturae, 129(3), 396-402.

[12] Love, D. C., Fry, J. P., Li, X., Hill, E. S., Genello, L., Semmens, K., & Thompson, R. E. (2015). Commercial aquaponics production and profitability: Findings from an international survey. Aquaculture, 435, 67-74.

[13] Engle, C. R. (2015). Economics of aquaponics. SRAC Publication, 5006, 1-4.

[14] Goddek, S., Delaide, B., Mankasingh, U., Ragnarsdottir, K. V., Jijakli, H., & Thorarinsdottir, R. (2015). Challenges of sustainable and commercial aquaponics. Sustainability, 7(4), 4199-4224.

[15] Somerville, C., Cohen, M., Pantanella, E., Stankus, A., & Lovatelli, A. (2014). Small-scale aquaponic food production: integrated fish and plant farming. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, (589), I.

[16] Palm, H. W., Knaus, U., Appelbaum, S., Goddek, S., Strauch, S. M., Vermeulen, T., … & Kotzen, B. (2018). Towards commercial aquaponics: a review of systems, designs, scales and nomenclature. Aquaculture International, 26(3), 813-842.

[17] König, B., Junge, R., Bittsanszky, A., Villarroel, M… & Komives, T. (2016). On the sustainability of aquaponics. Ecocycles, 2(1), 26-32.

Disclaimer: The information above has been partially aided in its drafting and/or editing with LLM tools.

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