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Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) describe intensive fish production systems which use a series of water treatment steps to depurate the fish-rearing water and facilitate its reuse. RAS will generally include (1) devices to remove solid particles from the water which are composed of fish faeces, uneaten feed and bacterial flocs (Chen et al. 1994; Couturier et al. 2009), (2) nitrifying biofilters to oxidize ammonia excreted by fish to nitrate (Gutierrez-Wing and Malone 2006) and (3) a number of gas exchange devices to remove dissolved carbon dioxide expelled by the fish as well as/or adding oxygen required by the fish and nitrifying bacteria (Colt and Watten 1988; Moran 2010; Summerfelt 2003; Wagner et al. 1995). In addition, RAS may also use UV irradiation for water disinfection (Sharrer et al. 2005; Summerfelt et al. 2009), ozonation and protein skimming for fine solids and microbial control (Attramadal et al. 2012a; Gonçalves and Gagnon 2011; Summerfelt and Hochheimer 1997) and denitrification systems to remove nitrate (van Rijn et al. 2006).
Modern recirculating aquaculture technology has been developing for more than 40 years, but novel technologies increasingly offer ways to change the paradigms of traditional RAS including improvements on classic processes such as solids capture, biofiltration and gas exchange. RAS has also experienced important developments in terms of scale, production capacities and market acceptance, with systems becoming progressively larger and more robust.
This chapter discusses how RAS technology has developed over the past two decades from a period of technological consolidation to a new era of industrial implementation.
The earliest scientific research on RAS conducted in Japan in the 1950s focused on biofilter design for carp production driven by the need to use locally limited water resources more productively (Murray et al. 2014). In Europe and the United States, scientists similarly attempted to adapt technologies developed for domestic wastewater treatment in order to better reuse water within recirculating systems (e.g. activated sludge processes for sewage treatment, trickling, submerged and down-flow biofilters and several mechanical filtration systems). These early efforts included primarily work on marine systems for fish and crustacean production, but were soon adopted in arid regions where the agriculture sector is restricted by water supply. In aquaculture, different solutions have been designed to maximize water use including highly intensive recirculating systems that incorporate water filtration systems such as drum filters, biological filters, protein skimmers and oxygen injection systems (Hulata and Simon 2011). Despite a strong conviction by pioneers in the industry about the commercial viability of their work, most of the early studies focused exclusively on the oxidation of toxic inorganic nitrogen wastes derived from protein metabolism. The trust in technology was reinforced by the successful operation of public as well as domestic aquaria, which generally feature over-sized treatment units to ensure crystal-clear water. Additionally, extremely low stocking densities and associated feed inputs meant that such over-engineering still made a relatively small contribution to capital and operational costs of the system compared to intensive RAS. Consequently, the changes in process dynamics associated with scale-change were unaccounted for, resulting in the under-sizing of RAS treatment units in order to minimize capital costs. As a consequence, safety margins were far too narrow or non-existent (Murray et al. 2014). Because many of the pioneering scientists had biological rather than engineering backgrounds, technical improvements were also constrained by miscommunications between scientists, designers, construction personnel and operators. The development of a standardized terminology, units of measurement and reporting formats in 1980 (EIFAC/ICES 1980), helped address the situation, though regional differences still persisted. It was not until the mid-1980s that cyclic water quality parameters became well recognized as being important in pond production, e.g. periodically measuring the concentrations of pH, oxygen, TAN (total ammonia nitrogen), NO2 (nitrate), BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) and COD (chemical oxygen demand).
In the latter part of the last century, numerous articles were published on the early development of RAS. Rosenthal (1980) elaborated on the state of recirculation systems in Western Europe, while Bovendeur et al. (1987) developed a water recirculation system for the culture of African catfish in relation to waste production and waste removal kinetics (a design was presented for a water treatment system consisting of a primary clarifier and an aerobic fixed-film reactor that demonstrated satisfactory results for high-density culture of African catfish). This work was part of the rapid development in fish culture systems up to the mid-1990s in Northern and Western Europe (Rosenthal and Black 1993), as well as in North America (Colt 1991). New classifications, such as the classification according to how water flows through an aquaculture system, provided key insights with respect to the water quality processes that are important for fish production (Krom and van Rijn 1989). In subsequent work by van Rijn (1996), concepts were introduced focused on the biological processes underlying the treatment systems. The conclusions from this work were that incorporating methods for reducing the accumulation of sludge and nitrate resulted in more stable water quality conditions within the culture units. During this period, RAS production increased significantly in volume and species diversity (Rosenthal 1980; Verreth and Eding 1993; Martins et al. 2005). Today, more than 10 species are produced in RAS (African catfish, eel and trout as major freshwater species and turbot, seabass and sole as major marine species) (Martins et al 2010b), with RAS also becoming a crucial element in the production of larvae and juveniles of diverse species.
While maximum sustainable yields of many aquatic wild stock species have been or will soon be reached, and many species are already overfished, RAS is considered a key technology that will help the aquaculture sector meet the needs for aquatic species over the coming decades (Ebeling and Timmons 2012).
Fig. 3.1 Chinampas (floating gardens) in Central America — artificial island construction as antecedent of aquaponic technology. (From Marzolino/Shutterstock.com)
Aquaponics is a term that has been 'coined' in the 1970s, but in practice has ancient roots — although there are still discussions about its first occurrence. The Aztec cultivated agricultural islands known as chinampas (the earliest 1150—1350CE), in a system considered by some to be the first form of aquaponics for agricultural use (Fig. 3.1). In such systems, plants were raised on stable, or sometime movable and floating islands placed in lake shallows wherein nutrient rich mud could be dredged from the chinampa canals and placed on the islands to support plant growth (Crossley 2004).
An even earlier example of aquaponics started on the other side of the world in south China and is believed to have spread within South East Asia where Chinese settlers from Yunnan settled around 5 CE. Farmers cultivated and farmed rice in paddy fields in combination with fish (FAO 2001). These polycultural farming systems existed in many Far Eastern countries to raise fish such as oriental loach (Misgurnus anguillicaudatus) (Tomita-Yokotani et al. 2009), swamp eel (fam. Synbranchidae), common carp (Cyprinus carpio) and crucian carp (Carassius carassius) (FAO 2004). In essence, however, these were not aquaponic systems but can be best described as early examples of integrated aquaculture systems (Gomez 2011). In the twentieth century, the first attempts to create practical, efficient and integrated fish production systems alongside vegetables were made in the 1970s with the work of Lewis and Naegel (Lewis and Wehr 1976; Naegel 1977; Lewis et al. 1978). Further early systems were designed by Waten and Busch in 1984 and Rakocy in 1989 (Palm et al. 2018).