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5.3 General Principles

5 months ago

10 min read

Even though the definition of aquaponics has not been entirely resolved, there are some general principles that are associated with the broad range of aquaponic methods and technologies.

Using the nutrients added to the aquaponic system as optimally and efficiently as possible to produce the two main products of the enterprise (i.e. fish and plant biomass) is an important and shared first principle associated with the technology (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993; Delaide et al. 2016; Knaus and Palm 2017). There is no use in adding nutrients (which possess an inherent cost in terms of money, time and value) to a system to watch a high percentage of those nutrients are partitioned into processes, requirements or outcomes that are not directly associated with the fish and plants produced, or any intermediary life forms that may assist nutrient access by the fish and plants (i.e. microorganisms — bacteria, fungi, etc.) (Lennard 2017). Therefore, probably the most important general principle associated with aquaponics is to use the applied nutrients as efficiently as possible to achieve the optimised production of both fish and plants.

This same argument may also be applied to the water requirement of the aquaponic system in question; again, the water added to the system should be utilised principally by the fish and plants and used as efficiently as possible and not allowed to leak to processes, life forms or outcomes that are not directly associated with fish and plant production or may impact on the surrounding environment (Lennard 2017).

In real terms, the efficient use of nutrients and water leads to several design principles that are broadly applied to the aquaponic method:

  1. The most important principle of aquaponics is to use the wastes produced by the fish as a principle nutrient source for the plants. In fact, this is the entire idea of aquaponics and so should be a first order driver for the method. Aquaponics was historically envisaged as a system to grow plants using fish aquaculture wastes so that those aquaculture wastes had less environmental impact and were seen as a positive and profitable commodity, rather than a troublesome waste product with an associated cost to meet environmental legislative requirements (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993; Love et al. 2015a, b).

  2. The system design should encourage the use of fish keeping and plant culturing technologies that do not inherently uptake or destructively utilise the water or nutrient resources added. For example, fish keeping components based on using earthen ponds are discouraged, because the earthen pond has the ability to use and make unavailable water and nutrient resources to the associated fish and plants, thus lowering the water and nutrient use efficiency of the system. Similarly, hydroponic plant culturing methods should not use media that uptakes excessive amounts of nutrients or water and renders them unavailable to the plants (Lennard 2017).

  3. The system design should not waste nutrients or water via the production of external waste streams. Principally, if water and nutrients leave the system via a waste stream, then that water and those nutrients are not being used for fish or plant production, and therefore, that water and those nutrients are being wasted, and the system is not as efficient as possible. In addition, the production of a waste streams can have a potential environmental impact. If waste water and nutrients do leave the aquaponic system, they should be used in alternate, exterior-to-system plant production technologies so water and nutrients are not wasted, contribute to the overall production of edible or saleable biomass and do not present a broader environmental impact potential (Tyson et al. 2011).

  4. The system should be designed to lower or ideally, completely negate, direct environmental impact from water or nutrients. A first order goal of aquaponics is to use the wastes produced by the fish as a nutrient source for the plants so as to negate the release of those nutrients directly to the surrounding environment where they may cause impacts (Tyson et al. 2011).

  5. Aquaponic system designs should ideally lend themselves to being located within environmentally controlled structures and situations (e.g. greenhouses, fish rooms). This allows the potential to achieve the best productive rates of fish and plants from the system. Most aquaponic designs are relatively high in terms of capital costs and ongoing costs of production, and therefore, the ability to house the system in the perfect environment enhances profit potentials that financially justify the high capital and costs of production (Lennard 2017).

The above outlined principles of design directly associate with a set of general principles that are often, but not always, applied to the aquaponic production environment. These general principles relate to how the system operates and how nutrients are portioned among the system and its inhabitants.

The basic premise of aquaponics, in a nutrient dynamic context, is that fish are fed fish feed, fish metabolise and utilise the nutrients in the fish feed, fish release wastes based on the substances in the fish feed they do not utilise (including elements), microflora access those fish metabolic wastes and use small amounts of them, but transform the rest, and the plants then access and remove those microflora transformed, fish metabolic wastes as nutrient sources and, to some extent, clean the water medium of those wastes and counteract any associated accumulation (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993; Love et al. 2015a, b).

Because earthen-based fish production systems remove nutrients themselves, aquaponics generally utilises what are known as recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) principles for the fish production component (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993; Timmons et al. 2002). Fish are kept in tanks made of materials that do not remove nutrients from the water (plastic, fibreglass, concrete, etc.), the water is filtered to treat or remove the metabolic waste products of the fish (solids and dissolved ammonia gases) and the water (and associated nutrients) is then directed to a plant culturing component whereby the plants use the fish wastes as part of their nutrient resource (Timmons et al. 2002). As for the fish, earthen-based plant culturing components are not used because the soils involved remove nutrients and may not necessarily make them fully available to the plants. In addition, hydroponic plant culturing techniques do not use soil and are cleaner than soil-based systems and allow some passive control of the microorganism mixtures present.

Plants cultured in conventional hydroponics require the addition of what are known as mineral fertilisers: nutrients that are present in their basal, ionic forms (e.g. nitrate, phosphate, potassium, calcium, etc. as ions) (Resh 2013). Conversely, recirculating aquaculture systems must apply regular (daily) water exchanges to control the accumulation of fish waste metabolites (Timmons et al. 2002). Aquaponics seeks to combine the two separate enterprises to produce an outcome that achieves the best of the two technologies while negating the worst (Goddek et al. 2015).

Plants require a suite of macro and micro elements for optimal and efficient growth. In aquaponics, the majority of these nutrients arise from the fish wastes (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993; Lennard 2017; COST FA1305 2017). However, fish feeds (the major source of aquaponic system nutrients) do not contain all the nutrients required for optimised plant growth, and therefore, external nutrition, to varying extents, is required.

Standard hydroponics and substrate culture add nutrients to the water in forms that are directly plant-available (i.e. ionic, inorganic forms produced via designed salt variety additions) (Resh 2013). A proportion of the wastes released by fish are in forms that are directly plant-available (e.g. ammonia) but potentially toxic to the fish (Timmons et al. 2002). These dissolved, ionic fish waste metabolites, like ammonia, are transformed by ubiquitous bacterial species that replace hydrogen ions with oxygen ions, the product from ammonia being nitrate, which is far less toxic to the fish and the preferred nitrogen source for the plants (Lennard 2017). Other nutrients appropriate to plant uptake are bound in the solid fraction of the fish waste as organic compounds and require further treatment via microbial interaction to render the nutrients available to plant uptake (Goddek et al. 2015). Therefore, aquaponic systems require a suite of microflora to be present to perform these transformations.

The key to optimised aquaponic integration is determining the ratio between fish waste output (as directly influenced by fish feed addition) and plant nutrient utilisation (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993; Lennard and Leonard 2006; Goddek et al. 2015). Various rules of thumb and models have been developed in an attempt to define this balance. Rakocy et al. (2006) developed an approach that matches the plant growing area requirement with the daily fish feed input and called it "The Aquaponic Feeding Rate Ratio". The feeding rate ratio is set between 60 and 100 grams of fish feed added per day, per square meter of plant growing area (60—100 g/msup2/sup/day). This feeding rate ratio was developed using Tilapia spp. fish eating a standard, 32% protein commercial diet (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993). In addition, the aquaponic system this ratio is particular to (known as the University of the Virgin Islands Aquaponic System — UVI System) does not utilise the solid fish waste fraction, is over-supplied with nitrogen and requires in-system, passive de-nitrification to control the nitrogen accumulation rate (Lennard 2017). Others have determined alternate ratios based on different fish and plant combinations, tested in different specific conditions (e.g. Endut et al. 2010 — 15—42 g/msup2/sup/day for African catfish, Clarias gariepinus and water spinach plants, Ipomoea aquatica).

The UVI feeding rate ratio was developed by Rakocy and his team as an approximate approach; hence why it is stated as a range (Rakocy and Hargreaves 1993). The UVI ratio tries to account for the fact that different plants require different nutrient amounts and mixtures and therefore a "generic" aquaponic design approach is a difficult prospect. Lennard (2017) has developed an alternate approach that seeks to directly match individual fish waste nutrient production rates (based on the fish feed utilised and the fish conversion and utilisation of that feed) with specific plant nutrient uptake rates so that exacting fish to plant ratio matching for any fish or plant species chosen may be realised and accounted for in the aquaponic system design. He matches this design approach with a specific management approach that also utilises all the nutrients available within the fish solid waste fraction (via aerobic remineralisation of the fish solid wastes) and only adds the nutrients required by the chosen plant species for culture that are missing from the fish waste production fractions. Therefore, this substantially lowers the associated feeding rate ratio (e.g. less than 11 g/msup2/sup/day for some leafy green varieties as a UVI equivalent) and allows any fish species to be specifically and exactly matched to any plant species chosen (Lennard 2017). Similarly, Goddek et al. (2016) have proposed models that allow more exacting fish to plant component ratio determination for decoupled aquaponic systems.

The general principles of efficient nutrient use, low and efficient water use, low or negated environmental impact, ability to be located away from traditional soil resources and sustainability of resource use are the general principles applied to aquaponic system design and configuration and their ongoing application should be encouraged within the field and industry.