What is Aquaponics?

Aquaponics is a far superior system to both Hydroponics and Aquaculture in many ways

One of the many things we do at Fifth Sum Permaculture is design aquaponics systems. These are systems that are environmentally friendly, efficient and frankly fun. It’s a method of growing healthier more nutritious produce and raising a healthy source of animal protein. It is also environmentally friendly, by reducing water usage and bringing food production closer to home. What is this revolutionary system, you may ask. Well, attend, I will attempt to explain it to you.

First, we’ll define it. Where do we get the word Aquaponics?

It’s a compounding of Aquaculture and Hydroponics. So, we’ll start with those two terms.

a school of aquaculture trout. They're learning lots, can't you see?
Aquaculture school of trout

Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic or semi-aquatic creatures, for meat or otherwise. Common practices include growing fish like trout, tilapia and perch. You can also farm crayfish, freshwater shrimp, frogs, or just about anything that lives in water.

hydroponic lettuce. Happy feet mean happy hands
Lettuce in Hydroponics

Hydroponics is growing vegetation without soil. The roots of the plants are immersed or otherwise exposed to a nutrient rich water solution.

Both systems have their pros and cons, which we touch on a little bit while we explain the whole reason you’re here.

Aquaponics, like the word itself, is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. In a few words, it’s growing vegetation without soil AND farming aquatic creatures at the same time. Aquaponics is a far superior system to both Hydroponics and Aquaculture in many ways, and while we’re at it we’ll touch on some Permaculture principles as well. If you’re sold already, why don’t you contact us and ask how we can integrate an aquaponics system into your life. If not, read on and we’ll explain exactly why they’re awesome.

Aquaculture is neat. What’s not to love about fresh fish grown close to home? Without the environmental impacts of commercial fishing like dolphins dying (save the dolphins, please), overfishing leading to species collapse and the like. But it doesn’t come without problems. The creatures you’re growing produce waste. We’ll focus on fish and –like all living creatures– they process nutrients and expel what they don’t want. Namely ammonia from their gills and poo from their bums. Both of these things are toxic to the fish, and can accumulate quickly in the water they live, swiftly leading to untimely deaths which is sad and truly wasteful. This reality is overcome with the addition of a filtration system. A pump circulates water through a variety of mediums to filter out particulates (the poo, plus uneaten bits of food), and a biofilter which converts the Ammonia into relatively harmless nitrates through the Nitrogen Cycle.

Used without permission. Sorry, click up to link to their page
FANCY… Nitrogen Cycle Credit: http://organicsoiltechnology.com

These nitrates can accumulate to much higher levels before becoming a danger to the fish. But like carbon dioxide, will eventually displace much needed oxygen from the water. Eventually leading to that pesky end of life thing we’re trying to avoid. Thus, water has to be replaced and replenished to rebalance the system. All of this is a step of maintenance, a level of water wastage and waterway pollution. It also adds expense to the system, labour and a point of failure. Fish also need oxygen to survive. These systems need an active bubble setup to aerate the water so the fish can, for lack of a better word, breath. Check those labour, cost, point of failure, and inevitable fish death boxes again! Starting to sound like, “Why would I want to grow fish if they keep dying on me all the time?” kind of moments. Fear not! Aquaponics overcomes these problems quite easily.

Be patient, I’ll tell you later. I want you to read the whole post.

Lets move over to Hydroponics for a bit. It’s a nifty system because it’s highly water efficient, using less than traditional agriculture. It’s also known to support tremendously healthy plants.  I’ve seen 3m (that’s about 10ft for my American friends) pepper plants growing like crazy in hydroponics system.

Hottawa peppers. Nutso hydroponics growth.
Have you ever seen this kind of growth?!

So, why not just do hydroponics? You seem pretty excited about that.

No one has ever said that to me, but I know you’re thinking it. Well, hydroponics comes with it some cons as well. For one, there’s labour involved. (You will quickly learn I like things that aren’t labour intensive.) You have to carefully monitor your nutrient levels. You can generally only grow monoculture crops, as lettuce has different nutritional requirements than do tomatoes. There is a measure of waste and pollution and the water occasionally has to be dumped, replenished and have fertilizers added again. Some growers may choose organic or natural additives, but it’s not a requirement. And while you don’t see fish deaths, the dumpage of nutrient rich water can lead to environmental damage, just like the water from aquaculture.

Ok, we’ve dug into aquaculture and hydroponics a little bit. What makes aquaponics so superior? Well, in a nutshell, we take all the pros of both systems and keep them. We simultaneously take all the cons and basically throw them out the window.


what? that sounds like magic.

It’s not, I assure you. Lets talk a little bit about permaculture. One of our principles is that waste is a resource. Well, guess what all that waste is in aquaculture? It’s fertilizer for the plants! Whoda thunk? Fish have what plants crave. And it’s not electrolytes. Hint. It’s poop. Bingo, a problem in one system is solved in the other. Nifty.Please don't sue me, Fox.



Next, we have that particulate filtration. It has to be removed somehow. Well, the plant roots and the medium they grow in act as a physical filter. Another relevant permaculture principle is stacking functions. Every element supports multiple functions. The medium doesn’t just act as the support the plants grow in. So, lets just defenestrate that filtration system because we don’t even need it!

Unless they deserve it, of course.
I like throwing things out of windows. Not people though, that’s mean.

Oxygenation? Not particularly necessary in aquaponics. The movement of the water through the medium, the splashing, and the actions of the plants add oxygen to the system. Here is a good place for redundancy though. Don’t throw the bubbler out the window with the filtration just yet. There are multiple solutions for this problem, but because of its critical nature, it is a good idea to keep it around.

Monocrops? No thanks! Ask me for my opinion on monoculture one day. I might (high, high, high probability) swear. Aquaponics systems are naturally macro-nutritious. You’re not maintaining a delicate balance of nutrients. You’re feeding fish. The nutrients available in the water are complex, and practically anything can be grown in them. I can grow tomatoes beside lettuce, and both will thrive. Eat that, hydroponics!

Waterway pollution? A complete thing of the past. Because the plants are busy filtering the water for the fish, there’s no need to toss that out the window. The only thing you have to do with water is replenish it as it is naturally depleted. No need to add unnecessary nutrition to waterways, which can cause algae overgrowth, water toxicity and a host of other environmental problems.

Water efficiency. Like hydroponics, an aquaponics system is water efficient. More so, in fact, because you don’t have to dump and replace water at all. Numbers say somewhere around 90% more efficient than traditional soil growing. Even with the best irrigation systems out there, aquaponics uses less water.

Labour, labour, labour. I told you I don’t like to do work I don’t have to. Once the system is up and running, there is very little labour involved. Maintenance is cleaning out your medium beds every couple years. Compared to monthly filter maintenance, it’s a grand reduction. The systems can also be easily built into raised beds, reducing bending. Oh, I forgot about weeds. There are no weeds. You also don’t need to water anything because, well… everything is plunged regularly into water or floating in it. There are some system balance items that need to be maintained like pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels , but it’s quite easy and mostly just watching. From the shadows… Or really just using a test kit and keeping track with a clipboard and pen.

Faster plant growth. Plants grow faster. Wouldn’t you if you constantly had a delicious source of hydration and nutrition available for your convenient consumption? This means higher crop turnover, increasing yield and deliciousness. I’ve seen people say a 30% growth speed increase is to be expected. This depends on the system and the plant being grown.

Simplicity. An aquaponics system (and what I design for) can be done with a single pump. Add an aeration system and a secondary pump for redundancy and you’re done.

Scaleability. The systems I design can be as small as a desktop unit designed to grow culinary herbs on your counter with a beta fish to look at to a fully fledged commercial system the size of a small town. Or at least occupy the inside of a warehouse. And everything in between.

Flexibility. My systems can find homes on an apartment balcony, in your mothers basement, stuffed inside a broom closet, on your kitchen counter or inside a 100,000 square meter warehouse. (That’s a little over a million square feet). It can grow fish for protein, or ornamental varieties like Koi.

Organic, natural growth. An aquaponics system is successful only if a delicate balance is maintained. If you introduce chemical fertilizers or pesticides your fish are likely to die (why do you keep wanting to kill your fish?). Aquaponics guarantees natural growing practices. No pesticides?! How do you deal with pests? Well, the plants are generally very healthy and are less prone to disease and pest problems. Polycrop systems also promote pest resistance.

Had enough? I’ve had enough. Contact us to see where we can fit an aquaponics system in your life. You won’t regret it. You’ll be nomming on delicious greens with our without a delicious baked trout to go along with them in no time!

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