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5.8 Aquaponics as an Ecological Approach

5 months ago

4 min read

Aquaponics, until recently, has been dominated by fully recirculating (or coupled) design approaches that share and recirculate the water resource constantly between the two major components (fish and plant culture) (Rakocy et al. 2006; Lennard 2017). In addition, the low to medium technology approaches historically applied to aquaponics have driven a desire to remove costly components so as to increase the potential of a positive economic outcome. One of the filtration components almost always applied to standard RAS and hydroponics/substrate culture technologies, that of aquatic sterilisation, has regularly not been included by aquaponic designers.

Sterilisation in a RAS and hydroponic/substrate culture context is universally applied because the high densities of either the fish or plants cultured usually attract pressure from aquatic, pathogenic organisms that substantially lower overall production rates (Van Os 1999; Timmons et al. 2002). The major reason for this increased aquatic pest pressure in both technologies is that each concentrates on providing minimal biotic, ecological resources and therefore allows considerable "ecological space" within the system water for biotic colonisation. In these "open" biological conditions, pest and pathogenic species proliferate and tend to colonise quickly to take advantage of the species present (i.e. fish and plants) (Lennard 2017). In this context, sterilisation or disinfection of the culture water has historically be seen as an engineered approach to counteract the issue (Van Os 1999; Timmons et al. 2002). This means that both RAS and hydroponic/substrate culture industries adopt a sterilisation approach to control pathogenic organisms within the associated culture water.

Aquaponics has always placed an emphasis on the importance of the associated microbiology to perform important biological services. In all the coupled aquaponic designs of Rakocy and his UVI team, a biological filter was not included because they demonstrated that the raft culture, hydroponic component provided more than enough surface area to support the nitrifying bacteria colony size to treat all the ammonia produced by the fish as a dissolved waste product and convert it to nitrate (Rakocy et al. 2006, 2011). Rakocy and his team therefore did not advocate applied sterilisation of the system water because it may have affected the nitrifying bacterial colonies. This historical UVI/Rakocy perspective dictated aquaponic system design into the future. Other advantages of not including aquatic sterilisation to aquaponic systems were identified and discussed, especially in the context of assistive plant microbiota (Savidov 2005; Goddek et al. 2016).

The current thinking in aquaponic research and industry is that not applying any form of aquatic sterilisation or disinfection allows the system water to develop a complex aquatic ecology that consists of many different microbiological life forms (Goddek et al. 2016; Lennard 2017). This produces a situation similar to a natural ecosystem whereby a high diversity of microflora interacts with each other and the other associated life forms within the system (i.e. fish and plants). The proposed outcome is that this diversity leads to a situation in which no single pathogenic organism can dominate due to the presence of all of the other microflora and can therefore not cause devastating effects to fish or plant production. It has been demonstrated that aquaponic systems contain a high diversity of microflora (Eck 2017) and via the proposed ecological diversity mechanism outlined above, assistance to both fish and plant health and growth is provided via this microbial diversity (Lennard 2017).

The non-sterilised,ecologically diverse approach to aquaponics has beenhistorically applied to coupled or fully recirculating aquaponic designs (Rakocy et al. 2006), whereas a sterilised, hydroponic analogy has been proposed for some decoupled aquaponic design approaches (Monsees et al. 2016; Priva 2009; Goddek 2017). However, it appears more decoupled designers are now applying principles that take an ecological, non-sterilised approach into consideration (Goddek et al. 2016; Suhl et al. 2016; Karimanzira et al. 2016) and therefore acknowledge there is a positive effect associated with a diverse aquaponic microflora (Goddek et al. 2016; Lennard 2017).