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Treatment options for diseased fish in an aquaponic system are very limited. As both fish and plants share the same water loop, medications used for disease treatments can easily harm or destroy the plants, and some may get absorbed by the plants, causing withdrawal periods or even making them unusable for consumption. The medications can also have detrimental effects on the beneficial bacteria in the system. If a medicinal treatment is absolutely necessary, it must be implemented early in the course of the disease. The diseased fish is transferred into a separate (hospital, quarantine) tank isolated from the system for treatment. When returning the fish after the treatment, it is important not to transfer the used medications into the aquaponic system. All these limitations require improvements of disease management options with minimal negative effects to the fish, the plants and the system (Goddek et al. 2015, 2016; Somerville et al. 2014; Yavuzcan Yildiz et al. 2017). One of the most used and effective, old-school treatments against the most common bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections in fish is a salt (sodium chloride) bath. Salt is beneficial for the fish, but can be detrimental to the plants in the system (Rakocy 2012), and the whole treatment procedure must be performed in a separate tank. A good option is to separate the recirculating aquaculture unit from the hydroponic unit (decoupled aquaponic systems) (see Chap. 8). Decoupling allows for fish disease and water treatment options that are not possible in coupled systems (Monsees et al. 2017) (see Chap. 7). One recent improvement for the control of fish ectoparasites and disinfection in the aquaponic systems is the use of Wofasteril (KeslaPharmaWolfen GMBH, Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany), a peracetic acid-containing product that leaves no residues in the system (Sirakov et al. 2016). Alternatively, hydrogen peroxide can be used, but at a much higher concentration. While these chemicals have minimal side effects, their presence is undesirable in aquaponic systems and alternative approaches, such as biological control methods, are required (Rakocy 2012).
The biological control method (biocontrol) is based on the use of other living organisms in the system, relying on natural relationships among the species (commensalism, predation, antagonism, etc.) (Sitjà-Bobadilla and Oidtmann 2017) to control fish pathogens. At present, this method is a complementary fish health management tool with high potential, especially in aquaponic systems. The most successful implementation of biocontrol in fish culture is the use of cleaner fish against sea lice (skin parasites) in salmon farms. It is best practiced in Norwegian farms where cleaning wrasse (Labridae) are co-cultured with salmon. The wrasse remove and feed on sea lice (Skiftesvik et al. 2013). Although cleaning is less common in freshwater fish, the leopard plecos (Glyptoperichthys gibbiceps), cohabiting with blue Tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), successfully keeps infection with Ichthyophthirius multifiliis under control by feeding on the parasite cysts (Picón-Camacho et al. 2012). This biocontrol method is becoming increasingly important in aquaculture and can be considered in aquaponic systems. Additionally, it must be noted that the cleaner fish can also harbour pathogens that can be transmitted to the main cultured species. Therefore, they must also undergo preventive and quarantine procedures before introduction into the system.
Another biocontrol method, still in the exploratory application phase in fish culture, is the use of filter-feeding and filtering organisms. By reducing the pathogen loads in the water, these organisms can lower the chances of disease emergence (Sitjà-Bobadilla and Oidtmann 2017). For example, Othman et al. (2015) demonstrated the ability of freshwater mussels (Pilsbryoconcha exilis) to reduce the population of Streptococcus agalactiae in a laboratory-scale tilapia culture system. The potential of this biocontrol method in aquaponic systems is yet to be tested, and new studies are needed to explore the possibilities not only for fish disease control but also for control of plant pathogens.
The most promising and well-documented biocontrol method is the use of beneficial microorganisms as probiotics in fish feed or in the rearing water. Their usage in aquaponic systems as promoters of fish/plant growth and health is well known, and probiotics have also demonstrated effectiveness against a range of bacterial pathogens in different fish species. For example, in rainbow trout, dietary Carnobacterium maltaromaticum and C. divergens protected from Aeromonas salmonicida and Yersinia ruckeri infections (Kim and Austin 2006) and Aeromonas sobria GC2 incorporated into the feed successfully prevented clinical disease caused by Lactococcus garvieae and Streptococcus iniae (Brunt and Austin 2005). Dietary Micrococcus luteus reduced the mortalities from Aeromonas hydrophila infection and enhanced the growth and health of Nile tilapia (Abd El-Rhman et al. 2009). Recent research by Sirakov et al. (2016) has made good progress in simultaneous biocontrol of parasitic fungi in both fish and plants in a closed recirculating aquaponic system. In total, over 80% of the isolates (bacteria isolated from the aquaponic system) were antagonistic to both fungi (Saprolegnia parasiticia and Pythium ultimum) in the in vitro tests. Bacteria were not classified taxonomically, and the authors assumed that they belonged to the genus Pseudomonas and to a group of lactic acid bacteria. These findings, although very promising, have yet to be tested in an operational aquaponic system.
As a final alternative to chemical treatment, we suggest the use of medicinal plants with antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antiparasitic properties. Plant extracts have various biological characteristics with minimal risk of developing resistance in the targeted organisms (Reverter et al. 2014). Many scientific reports demonstrate the effectiveness of medicinal plants against fish pathogens. For example, Nile Tilapia fed with a diet containing mistletoe (Viscum album coloratum) increased the survivability when challenged with Aeromonas hydrophila (Park and Choi 2012). Indian major carp showed a significant reduction in mortality when challenged with Aeromonas hydrophila and fed with diets containing prickly chaff flower (Achyranthes aspera) and Indian ginseng (Withania somnifera) (Sharma et al. 2010; Vasudeva Rao et al. 2006). Medicinal plant extracts have also proven effective against ectoparasites. In goldfish, Yi et al. (2012) demonstrated the effectiveness of Magnolia officinalis and Sophora alopecuroides extracts against Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, and Huang et al. (2013) showed that extracts of Caesalpinia sappan, Lysimachia christinae, Cuscuta chinensis, Artemisia argyi and Eupatorium fortunei have 100% anthelmintic efficacy against Dactylogyrus intermedius. The use of medicinal plants in aquaponics is promising, but yet more research is needed to find the appropriate treatment strategy without undesirable effects. As referred by Junge et al. (2017), even though research on aquaponics has largely developed in recent years, the number of research papers published on the topic is still dramatically low compared to papers published related to aquaculture or hydroponics. Aquaponics, still considered an emerging technology, is however now characterized by having great potential for food production for the world's population that, according to the results of the UN World Population Prospects (UN 2017), numbered nearly 7.6 billion in mid-2017 and, based on the projections, it is expected to increase to 1 billion within 12 years, reaching about 8.6 billion in 2030. Nevertheless, considering the potential risks to the sustainability of aquaponics due to fish diseases, development of good ideas, and novel methods and approaches for pathogen control will be our major challenge for the future. There is a pressing need to initiate new knowledge to provide a better basis for management of fish and plant health, and to continue to develop operation and infrastructure systems for the aquaponic industry. The causes of fish losses in aquaponic systems, system-specific diseases and the interaction and alteration of microbial community, along with pathogens, are priority areas for study.