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RAS are complex aquatic production systems that involve a range of physical, chemical and biological interactions (Timmons and Ebeling 2010). Understanding these interactions and the relationships between the fish in the system and the equipment used is crucial to predict any changes in water quality and system performance. There are more than 40 water quality parameters than can be used to determine water quality in aquaculture (Timmons and Ebeling 2010). Of these, only a few (as described in Sects. 3.2.1, 3.2.2, 3.2.3, 3.2.4, 3.2.5, 3.2.6 and 3.2.7) are traditionally controlled in the main recirculation processes, given that these processes can rapidly affect fish survival and are prone to change with the addition of feed to the system. Many other water quality parameters are not normally monitored or controlled because (1) water quality analytics may be expensive, (2) the pollutant to be analysed can be diluted with daily water exchange, (3) potential water sources containing them are ruled out for use or (4) because their potential negative effects have not been observed in practice. Therefore, the following water quality parameters are normally monitored in RAS.

3.2.1 Dissolved Oxygen (DO)

Dissolved oxygen (DO) is generally the most important water quality parameter in intensive aquatic systems, as low DO levels may quickly result in high stress in fish, nitrifying biofilter malfunction and indeed significant fish losses. Commonly, stocking densities, feed addition, temperature and the tolerance of the fish species to hypoxia will determine the oxygen requirements of a system. As oxygen can be transferred to water in concentrations higher than its saturation concentration under atmospheric conditions (this is called supersaturation), a range of devices and designs exist to ensure that the fish are provided with sufficient oxygen.

In RAS, DO can be controlled via aeration, addition of pure oxygen, or a combination of these. Since aeration is only capable of raising the DO concentrations to the atmospheric saturation point, the technique is generally reserved for lightly loaded systems or systems with tolerant species such as Tilapia or catfish. However, aerators are also an important component of commercial RAS where the use of expensive technical oxygen is reduced by aerating water with a low dissolved oxygen content back to the saturation point before supersaturating the water with technical oxygen.


Fig. 3.2 Diagrams of two gas-to-liquid transfer examples: diffused aeration and Venturi injectors/ aspirators

There are several types of aerators and oxygenators that can be used in RAS and these fall within two broad categories: gas-to-liquid and liquid-to-gas systems (Lekang 2013). Gas-to-liquid aerators mostly comprise diffused aeration systems where gas (air or oxygen) is transferred to the water, creating bubbles which exchange gases with the liquid medium (Fig. 3.2). Other gas-to-liquid systems include passing gases through diffusers, perforated pipes or perforated plates to create bubbles using Venturi injectors which create masses of small bubbles or devices which trap gas bubbles in the water stream such as the Speece Cone and the U-tube oxygenator.


Fig. 3.3 Diagrams of two liquid-to-gas transfer examples: the packed column aerator and surface splashers in an enclosed tank. The packed column aerator allows water to trickle down an enclosed vessel, usually packed with structured media, where air is forced through using a fan or blower. Surface splashers found in pond aquaculture can also be used in enclosed atmospheres enriched with gases — normally oxygen — for gas transfer

Liquid-to-gas aerators are based on diffusing the water into small droplets to increase the surface area available for contact with the air, or creating an atmosphere enriched with a mixture of gases (Fig. 3.3). The packed column aerator (Colt and Bouck 1984) and the low-head oxygenators (LHOs) (Wagner et al. 1995) are examples of liquid-to-gas systems used in recirculating aquaculture. However, other liquid-to-gas systems popular in ponds and outdoor farms such as paddlewheel aerators (Fast et al. 1999) are also used in RAS.

Considerable literature is available on gas exchange theory and the fundamentals of gas transfer in water, and the reader is encouraged not only to consult aquaculture and aquaculture engineering texts, but also to refer to process engineering and wastewater treatment materials for a better understanding of these processes.

3.2.2 Ammonia

In an aqueous medium, ammonia exists in two forms: a non-ionized form (NHsub3/sub) that is toxic to fish and an ionized form (NHsub4/subsup+/sup) that has low toxicity to fish. These two form the total ammonia nitrogen (TAN), wherein the ratio between the two forms is controlled by pH, temperature and salinity. Ammonia accumulates in the rearing water as a product of the protein metabolism of the fish (Altinok and Grizzle 2004) and can achieve toxic concentrations if left untreated. Of the 35 different types of freshwater fish that have been studied, the average acute toxicity value for ammonia is 2.79 mg NH3/l (Randall and Tsui 2002).

Ammonia has been traditionally treated in recirculation systems with nitrifying biofilters, devices that are designed to promote microbial communities that can oxidize ammonia into nitrate (NOsub3/sub). Although the use of nitrifying biofilters is not new, contemporary RAS has seen a streamlining of biofilter designs, with just a few, well-studied designs having widespread acceptance. Other highly innovative techniques to treat ammonia have been developed over the past few years, but are not widely applied commercially (examples noted below).

Ammonia is oxidized in biofilters by communities of nitrifying bacteria. Nitrifying bacteria are chemolithotrophic organisms that include species of the genera Nitrosomonas, Nitrosococcus, Nitrospira, Nitrobacter and Nitrococcus (Prosser 1989). These bacteria obtain their energy from the oxidation of inorganic nitrogen compounds (Mancinelli 1996) and grow slowly (replication occurs 40 times slower than for heterotrophic bacteria) so are easily outcompeted by heterotrophic bacteria if organic carbon, mostly present in biosolids suspended in the culture water, are allowed to accumulate (Grady and Lim 1980). During RAS operation, good system management greatly relies on minimizing suspended solids through adequate solids removal techniques (Fig. 3.4).

Nitrifying biofilters or biofilter reactors have been roughly classified into two main categories: suspended growth and attached growth systems (Malone and Pfeiffer 2006). In suspended growth systems, the nitrifying bacterial communities grow freely in the water, forming bacterial flocs which also harbour rich ecosystems where protozoa, ciliates, nematodes and algae are present (Manan et al. 2017). With appropriate mixing and aeration, algae, bacteria, zooplankton, feed particles and faecal matter remain suspended in the water column and naturally flocculate together, forming the particles that give biofloc culture systems their name (Browdy et al. 2012). The main disadvantage of suspended growth systems is their tendency to lose their bacterial biomass as process water flows out of the reactor, thus requiring a means to capture and return it to the system. In attached growth systems, solid forms (sand grains, stones, plastic elements) are used as substrates to retain the bacteria inside the reactor and thus, do not need a post-treatment solids capture step. Generally, attached growth systems provide more surface area for bacterial attachment than suspended growth systems, and do not produce significant solids in their outflow, which is one of the main reasons why attached growth biofilters have been so commonly used in RAS.


Fig. 3.4 Nitrifying bacteria Nitrosomonas (left), and Nitrobacter (right). (Left photo: Bock et al. 1983. Right photo: Murray and Watson 1965)

Efforts have been made to classify biofilters and to document their performance in order to help farmers and designers specify systems with a better degree of reliability (Drennan et al. 2006; Gutierrez-Wing and Malone 2006). In recent years, the aquaculture industry has opted for biofilter designs which have been widely studied and thus can offer predictable performance. The moving bed bioreactor (Rusten et al. 2006), the fluidized sand filter bioreactor (Summerfelt 2006) and the fixed-bed bioreactor (Emparanza 2009; Zhu and Chen 2002) are examples of attached growth biofilter designs which have become standard in modern commercial RAS. Trickling filters (Díaz et al. 2012), another popular design, have seen their popularity reduced due to their relatively high pumping requirements and relatively large sizes.

3.2.3 Biosolids

Biosolids in RAS originate from fish feed, faeces and biofilms (Timmons and Ebeling 2010) and are one of the most critical and difficult water quality parameters to control. As biosolids serve as a substrate for heterotrophic bacterial growth, an increase in their concentration may eventually result in increased oxygen consumption, poor biofilter performance (Michaud et al. 2006), increased water turbidity and even mechanical blockage of parts of the system (Becke et al. 2016; Chen et al. 1994; Couturier et al. 2009).

In RAS, biosolids are generally classified both by their size and their removal capacity by certain techniques. Of the total fraction of solids produced in a RAS, settleable solids are those generally bigger than 100 μm and that can be removed by gravity separation. Suspended solids, with sizes ranging from 100 μm to 30 μm, are those which do not settle out of suspension, but that can be removed by mechanical (i.e. sieving) means. Fine solids, with sizes of less than 30 μm, are generally those that cannot be removed by sieving, and must be controlled by other means such as physico-chemical processes, membrane filtration processes, dilution or bioclarification (Chen et al. 1994; Lee 2014; Summerfelt and Hochheimer 1997; Timmons and Ebeling 2010; Wold et al. 2014). The techniques for controlling settleable and suspended solids are well known and developed, and an extensive literature exists on the subject. For example, the use of dual-drain tanks, swirl separators, radial flow separators and settling basins is a popular means to control settleable solids (Couturier et al. 2009; Davidson and Summerfelt 2004; De Carvalho et al. 2013; Ebeling et al. 2006; Veerapen et al. 2005). Microscreen filters are the most popular method for suspended solids control (Dolan et al. 2013; Fernandes et al. 2015) and are often used in the industry to control both settleable and suspended solids with a single technique. Other popular solids capture devices are depth filters such as the bead filters (Cripps and Bergheim 2000) and rapid sand filters, which are also popular in swimming pool applications. Moreover, design guidelines to prevent the accumulation of solids in tanks, pipework, sumps and other system components are also available in the literature (Davidson and Summerfelt 2004; Lekang 2013; Wong and Piedrahita 2000). Lastly, fine solids in RAS are commonly treated by ozonation, bioclarification, foam fractionation or a combination of these techniques. The last few years in RAS development have focused on a greater understanding of how to control the fine solids fraction and to understand its effect on fish welfare and system performance.

3.2.4 Carbon Dioxide (COsub2/sub)

In RAS, the control of dissolved gases does not stop with supplying oxygen to the fish. Other gases dissolved in the rearing water may affect fish welfare if not controlled. High dissolved carbon dioxide (COsub2/sub) concentrations in the water inhibit the diffusion of COsub2/sub from the blood of fish. In fish, increased COsub2/sub in blood reduces the blood's pH and in turn, the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen (Noga 2010). High COsub2/sub concentrations have also been associated with nephrocalcinosis, systemic granulomas and chalky deposits in organs in salmonids (Noga 2010). COsub2/sub in RAS originates as a product of heterotrophic respiration by fish and bacteria. As a highly soluble gas, carbon dioxide does not reach atmospheric equilibrium as easily as oxygen or nitrogen and thus, it must be put in contact with high volumes of air with a low concentration of COsub2/sub to ensure transfer out of water (Summerfelt 2003). As a general rule, RAS which are supplied with pure oxygen will require some form of carbon dioxide stripping, while RAS which are supplied with aeration for oxygen supplementation will not require active COsub2/sub stripping (Eshchar et al. 2003; Loyless and Malone 1998).

In theory, any gas transfer/aeration device open to the atmosphere will offer some form of COsub2/sub stripping. However, specialized carbon dioxide stripping devices require that large volumes of air are put in contact with the process water. COsub2/sub stripper designs have mostly focused on cascade-type devices such as cascade aerators, trickling biofilters and, more importantly, the packed column aerator (Colt and Bouck 1984; Moran 2010; Summerfelt 2003), which has become a standard piece of equipment in commercial RAS operating with pure oxygen. Although the development of packed column aeration technology has advanced over past years, most of the research done on this device has been focused on understanding its performance under different conditions (i.e. freshwater vs seawater) and design variations such as heights, packing types and ventilation rates. The effect of the hydraulic loading rate (unit flow per unit area of degasser) is known to have an effect on the efficiency of a degasser, but further research is needed to have a better understanding of this design parameter.

3.2.5 Total Gas Pressure (TGP)

Total gas pressure (TGP) is defined as the sum of the partial pressures of all the gases dissolved in an aqueous solution. The less soluble a gas is, the more 'room' it occupies in the aqueous solution and thus, the more pressure it exerts in it. Of the main atmospheric gases (nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide) nitrogen is the least soluble (e.g. 2.3 times less soluble than oxygen and more than 90 times less soluble than carbon dioxide). Thus, nitrogen contributes to total gas pressure more than any other gas, but is not consumed by fish or heterotrophic bacteria, so it will accumulate in the water unless stripped. It is also important to note that oxygen will also contribute to high TGP if the gas transfer process does not allow excess gases to be displaced out of the solution. A classic example of this are ponds with photoautotrophic activity in them. Photoautotrophs (usually plant organisms that carry out photosynthesis) release oxygen into the water while a quiet water surface may not provide enough gas exchange for excess gas to escape to the atmosphere and thus, supersaturation may occur.

Fish require total gas pressures equal to atmospheric pressure. If fish breathe water with a high total gas pressure, excess gas (generally nitrogen) exits the bloodstream and forms bubbles, with often serious health effects for the fish (Noga 2010). In aquaculture this is known as gas bubble disease.

Avoiding high TGP requires careful examination of all areas in the RAS where gas transfer may occur. High-pressure oxygen injection without off-gassing (allowing excess nitrogen to be displaced out of the water) may also contribute to high TGP. In systems with fish which are very sensitive to TGP, the use of vacuum degassers is an option (Colt and Bouck 1984). However, maintaining a RAS free from areas of uncontrolled gas pressurization, using carbon dioxide strippers (which will also strip nitrogen) and dosing technical oxygen with care, is enough to keep TGP at safe levels in commercial RAS.

3.2.6 Nitrate

Nitrate (NOsub3/sub) is the end product of nitrification and commonly the last parameter to be controlled in RAS, due to its relatively low toxicity (Davidson et al. 2014; Schroeder et al. 2011; van Rijn 2013). This is mostly attributed to its low permeability at the fish gill membrane (Camargo and Alonso 2006). The toxic action of nitrate is similar to that of nitrite, affecting the capacity of oxygen-carrying molecules. The control of nitrate concentrations in RAS has traditionally been achieved by dilution, by effectively controlling the hydraulic retention time or daily exchange rate. However, the biological control of nitrate using denitrification reactors is a growing area of research and development in RAS.

Tolerance to nitrate may vary by aquatic species and life stage, with salinity having an ameliorating effect over its toxicity. It is important for RAS operators to understand the chronic effects of nitrate exposure rather than the acute effects, as acute concentrations will probably not be reached during normal RAS operation.

3.2.7 Alkalinity

Alkalinity is, in broad terms, defined as the pH buffering capacity of water (Timmons and Ebeling 2010). Alkalinity control in RAS is important as nitrification is an acid-forming process which destroys it. In addition, nitrifying bacteria require a constant supply of alkalinity. Low alkalinity in RAS will result in pH swings and nitrifying biofilter malfunction (Summerfelt et al. 2015; Colt 2006). Alkalinity addition in RAS will be determined by nitrification activity in the systems, which is in turn related to feed addition, by the alkalinity content of the make-up (daily exchange) water and by the presence of denitrifying activity, which restores alkalinity (van Rijn et al. 2006).

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