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Fish in the profits

May 14, 2014  By Dave Harrison

There are a lot of “hot topics” in our website analytics, showing the areas of greatest interest by web visitors.

There are a lot of “hot topics” in our website analytics, showing the areas of greatest interest by web visitors.

(L to R) Charlie Shultz, Dr. Nick Savidov and Jason Oziel.



“IPM,” “energy,” “irrigation,” “recycling” “nutrients,” “retail” and “rootzone” are a few of the leading search topics at

Oh, and “aquaponics.”

It’s also among the front-runners.

Any aquaponics story posted to our website or Facebook page attracts considerably more attention than most other topics. A 2008 feature on an international aquaponics conference presentation by Dr. Nick Savidov of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development still finds its way into our “top 10” list of viewed stories in our monthly Google analytics on a fairly regular basis.

It’s a production process that’s slowly – and steadily – developing a following. But it hasn’t yet broken through in great numbers at the commercial stage.

What exactly is aquaponics? According to the online Oxford Dictionary, it’s “a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water.”

The Aquaponic Gardening Community posted this definition on their website. “Aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, re-circulating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish wastes to plant nutrients. This is an environmentally-friendly, natural food growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture and hydroponics without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizers.”

U.S. and Australian growers are increasingly looking into aquaponics.

The European Union is also taking notice, and putting big dollars into research. A new EU project is working to develop an innovative aquaponics system that will offer “almost emission-free, sustainable food production,” according to a news release.

The $9.2-million, four-year project will be based on the earlier German ASTAF-PRO project (“Aquaponics system for emission-free tomato and fish production in greenhouses”).

There are currently only a handful of commercial aquaponic operations in Canada. However, specialists we talked to say there are many hobbyists working with it in hopes of going commercial. Others are finalizing plans to develop commercial operations, with at least two large projects now in the works.

The good news is that a lot of the groundwork has been done, and research is continuing. Canada is a world leader in aquaponic research, and has been for more than a decade.

Dr. Nick Savidov, a senior research scientist with the Bio-Industrial Opportunities Branch of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, is among the country’s lead researchers. He began his interest in aquaponics in 2001 while visiting the aquaculture facilities at Lethbridge College.

“Initially, my interest to aquaponics was purely academic,” Savidov recalls. “I spent much part of my scientific career studying nutrient uptake mechanisms in agricultural crops in application to hydroponics. I was just curious to see if plants could adapt and grow in conditions where fish effluent became a main nutrient source for plants.”

In 2002, he and colleague Eric Hutchings, a provincial aquaculture specialist, began work on a major study at the Brooks facilities of AARD.

Savidov soon saw the potential of developing integrated farming systems for food production that minimize the use of resources and have an ultra-low environmental impact.

The growing interest in aquaponics has sparked considerable research in Canada. Lethbridge College Aquaculture Centre of Excellence, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Vancouver Island University, and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development are a few examples.

Savidov and his colleagues have achieved considerable success in improving the technology, with yields matching or exceeding those of conventional greenhouse production in many crops. Perhaps the most important finding was their discovery of a mechanism that led to the gradual transformation of integrated fish/plant system into a self-regulating, self-sustainable ecosystem.

In a June 2013 presentation to an Aquaculture Canada conference in Guelph, Savidov noted that “every start-up aquaponics facility, given there is no interference by chemicals, antibiotics or antiseptic equipment, will invariably become populated by numerous micro-organism communities. This microbial colonization process can last from a few months to years and eventually yields an established “mature aquaponics” (system). At this endpoint, aquaponics is, in fact, a self-regulating artificial ecosystem. As a result, stable trophic interactions are created that serve to link all living system components. A mature aquaponics ecosystem is characterized by stabilized water parameters and increased productivity.”

Micro-organisms play a crucial role in natural ecosystems, Savidov explains,  “but they are almost entirely neglected in modern agricultural practices, including hydroponics.”

Another important finding was with enhanced root growth in aquaponics. “We reported it for the first time.”

It was speculated that PGPR, or plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria, might have been responsible. This research is underway at the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta.

A third important observation was with the absence of sodium and calcium build-up in the mature aquaponics system, which is so characteristic for recirculating hydroponic systems.

“This feature allowed us to re-use the same water for the entire 12-year duration of the project, including a commercial trial at Red Hat Co-operative in 2011-2013, without ever discharging it.”

Interest in aquaponics continues to grow, Savidov notes. There are many smaller “backyard” operations, he says, that are mainly geared to farmers’ markets.

However, greenhouse growers and aquaculture producers are taking more interest. “The main objective of our aquaponics projects in Brooks was to design and test a prototype for commercial greenhouse growers in Canada.”

There are major aquaponics farms in Australia (in Cobbity) and in the U.S., including the 90,000-square-foot Viridis operations in Santa Cruz, California.

Savidov is continuing to work on a number of zero-waste recycling technologies, including aquaponics. Another project involves an aerobic bioreactor supplied with concentrated oxygen that is used to mineralize solid waste in the Generation 4 Aquaponics system at Brooks.

Future plans include development of a hybrid aquaponics system that could use a variety of organic feedstocks in addition to fish manure.

“The advantage of this system,” Savidov explains, “is that the wider variety of the organic feedstock will make the operation more flexible and will shorten the period from the start-up to full-mode production.

He is also continuing to work with biochar for both filtration applications and as a growing media in integrated farming.

Last fall, about two dozen delegates attending a national aquaponics conference in Edmonton toured Savidov’s aquaponics trials at AARD‘s Crop Diversification Centre North in Edmonton, taking extensive notes and photos.

Helping host the visit was Charlie Shultz, an aquaponics researcher at Lethbridge College, along with and Jason Oziel, a director with Noa Fisheries, the conference organizers.

 “We’ve got representation from almost every province of Canada, along with delegates from the U.S.,” Oziel noted during the CDCN tour.

Other Noa workshops have attracted participants from as far away as the Bahamas and Saudi Arabia. A three-day conference at the University of British Columbia in February was also well attended.

The workshops are greatly appreciated by growers. “There is so much information on the Internet that is incorrect and just doesn’t work.”

Oziel has been studying aquaponics for the past five years. He travelled to the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), home to one of world’s most advanced aquaponics research centres, and attended sessions led by renowned specialists Dr. James Rakocy, Donald Bailey and Charlie Shultz.

(UVI is hosting four, three-day aquaponics workshops this year, and all sold out early.)

Noa now supplies hormone-free tilapia to growers, and hosts training workshops throughout Canada. “We want people to get it right the first time,” says Oziel.

Interest in aquaponics is “growing exponentially. We receive many calls daily from people asking for advice on how to build systems, or wanting to know about upcoming workshops, or who are ordering fish.”

Aquaponics is a great tool for the “buy local” movement, both for consumers and for growers. “People are more aware of where their food comes from and are looking for locally grown. “

And growers like the fact they can receive an income from both products – the vegetables and the fish.

Charlie Shultz says aquaponics got its start in Alberta around 1994, but the movement began “rolling” about 1999 when two students from Alberta received formal aquaponics training at UVI. (One was a private producer, the other a fish specialist from AARD).

“As a result of this training,” says Shultz, “UVI was contracted to build a replica of their model aquaponic system inside a greenhouse at CDC South in Brooks.”

Since then, a number of Alberta researchers have transformed the UVI system to one that is sustainable in cold climates.

“The adaptations,” explains Shultz, “include better use of greenhouse space, efficient oxygenation systems, enhanced mineralization of waste fish solids creating a zero-discharge aquaponic system that requires no inputs other than fish feed. It requires no additional nutrient supplements.”

Shultz was at UVI in 1999 when the Alberta students arrived on campus. He worked at the centre for 14 years.

When Rakocy retired, Shultz moved to a more “temperate climate” and landed in the graduate program at Kentucky State University. He studied lighting options for indoor aquaponic production.

With the growing demand for fresh produce in winter months, he wanted to determine whether aquaponic food production was viable in northern climates.

In 2013, he accepted a position at Lethbridge College as an aquaponics researcher. The school has been studying aquaponics for 10 years, primarily looking at system design, suitable crops (fish and plants), and food safety.

His current position is funded by NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) for two years.

Some of the objectives of this position are to:

Provide a liaison between researchers and the industry.

Determine “bottlenecks” for producers and help them ease through those concerns (food safety, fish regulations, organic certifications, pest control, etc…).

Provide education opportunities through short courses.

Develop a college credit-based course available to students at Lethbridge College (the first credit course in Canada).

Help subsistence farmers produce local, fresh food year-round.

Aquaponics can also play a strong role in northern communities, where fresh food is often not available, “and when it is available, the quality is poor because of the distances it had to be shipped in.”

Shultz often teams up with Savidov in conference presentations.

“It is great to see so much interest in aquaponics across all regions of Canada,” says Shultz. “I anticipate a rapid increase in commercial systems around the country and an exponential increase in hobby and school systems.”

As noted earlier, commercial aquaponics is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. One of the most innovative projects recently launched is the Urban Organics project in a former brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is one of two USDA certified organic aquaponics facilities in the U.S. The website clearly and cleverly illustrates its urban farming philosophy and leading edge technology.

Among U.S. specialists is Dr. Robert Handler, the operations manager of the Sustainable Futures Institute (SFI) and a senior research engineer at Michigan Technological University.

For the past two years, he has been operating the Michigan Tech aquaponics system with Dr. Nancy Auer (Biological Sciences), where the system has been a resource for outreach and education across a number of groups on and off campus.

As an environmental engineer, he was initially drawn to aquaponics by the concept of productively using waste from one system as a valuable resource in another system.

“It’s a very elegant concept,” he says. “And as an educator, aquaponics has a lot of great biology, chemistry, engineering and other concepts packed into an especially compelling design.”

The system is adaptable to many crops.

“I’ve had great success with different things in different times of the year – basil and tomatoes grew really well in the hot summer months, while kale and other greens were best in cooler months. Everything I’ve tried to grow has worked, even root veggies like beets. In a system like this, you just want to balance the space needs, the growing time, and the potential payoff when laying out your growing plans.”

In his work so far, he’s only used tilapia because it’s hardy and fast-growing. However, he’d like to try something in the future that would better tolerate cooler water conditions. “The tilapia I’ve used didn’t really grow much when the water temperature got down to 65 F or so.”

As for challenges, he says getting organic certification in some part of the country could be difficult because regulators are not use to thinking of agriculture in this manner, “though this is changing slowly.”

Consumers may also need to be educated about the process, so they are more comfortable with the products. “Although in my experience, no one turned down a bunch of basil, and everyone that got a free batch of produce from my system on campus always asked for more.”

He recommends novice growers should work with aquaponic specialists.

“If you really are inexperienced with fish or plants, I think it’s possible to find people with specific skills that complement yours, in case you need periodic advice.”

There are a number of large aquaponic operations being developed in urban areas, he notes. “Some people have made big investments in this technology.”

Trout and lettuce a successful combination

Marc Laberge  
Marc Laberge of Cultures Aquaponique



Cultures Aquaponique is one of Canada’s most successful aquaponic operations. Located just north of Montreal, the farm has produced some 2.6 million heads of Boston lettuce and 121,000 smoked trout filets since its first harvest in 2005.

Remarkably, it uses only 2.5 litres of water per minute. It is probably the world’s first and only commercial aquaponic operation producing rainbow trout and lettuce year-round.

Company owner Marc Laberge is a fish biologist with some two-and-a-half decades of expertise in recirculating technology. He has been an aquatic consultant since 1991. “I have fish background, but didn’t know much about plants when I began,” he explains. “I’ve caught up quickly.”

He spent about 10 years designing his unique aquaponic system. “In backyard aquaponics, you do what you want. But commercial aquaponics has to be profitable.”

He started designing “the perfect fish farm” in 1995, and starting working on the vegetative filter in 1997 in his fish lab. In 2004, he began construction on his aquaponic operation. There has been a considerable learning curve, he explains, with a lot of design work to improve the system. There have been some setbacks along the way, but overall the results are impressive. The system is now running exceptionally well.

“I have been increasing lettuce production since 2005, so much so that I had to increase my fish by 145 per cent in order to have the right amount of nutrients for my lettuce.”

Consumer response has been encouraging. “We’re always sold out, and customers are asking for more.”

The smoked trout is sold to some of the finest restaurants in the region.

His advice to anyone interest in aquaponics is to work with a consultant to ensure things get off to a good start. “It’s not rocket science,“ he says, “but you need someone to advise you. There is so much to learn. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone, but it would be a good idea to work with a specialist.”

He is currently hoping to franchise his technology, and there is considerable interest. “It has to be user friendly.”

Sustainable food Production the focus
It was a natural transition when Matthias Zapletal of Prince George, B.C.,  decided to develop an aquaponic farm – Northern Bioponics Ltd.

After 30-plus years in R&D, he wanted a career change, and two of his early passions came into play. He grew up on a small farm with a love of plants and gardening and grew seedlings in a greenhouse. He also raised fish and water plants in aquariums, beginning at age 10, and has intensively studied their development. “I felt it was time to do something which would involve truly sustainable food production,” he explains. “And most importantly, you can use it to grow anything you want 12 months of the year.”

Fish is one of the healthiest sources of protein, with a feed to meat ratio of 1.5:1, he explains, a much better ratio than beef or chicken. “And the lettuce, mustard greens and strawberries we grow, among other crops, are organically grown. The healthy fish are the best indicator.”

Sustainable aquaponics requires considerable patience, particularly early on. “It takes more than a year to get it started,” he explains. “You need to find the balance between harvesting, seeding and nutrient usage.”

He uses a 30’ by 96’ gutter-connect greenhouse with a 30’ by 30’ headhouse that is used for packaging, storage, fish processing and heating, among other activities. “Everything was built by my wife and I. It took a while, but it was the only way we could afford to get started.”

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