The trouble with aquaponics

April 6th, 2015 by
Imagine a way of farming fish with plants that has little to no impact on the environment—no runoff, soil loss, no need to even develop land. That’s aquaponics. And while it seems ideal, there’s a reason why current operations are small, few, and far between.
As its name suggests, aquaponics is a  a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Like with hydroponics, plants are grown with their roots directly in water. But where hydroponics introduces necessary nutrients artificially, aquaponics takes advantage of a symbiotic relationship between aquatic animals, bacteria, and plants. Normally aquaculture tanks need to be filtered to prevent waste byproducts from reaching harmful levels, but with aquaponics, bacteria convert these byproducts into the necessary nutrients for healthy plant growth. The plants are fed, and the water is filtered.
But there’s one important problem. For an aquaponics operation to be successful, it has to turn a profit. Most operations occupy a niche market in urban centers where fresh fish and veggies are either expensive or hard to come by—the Virgin Islands, Tucson, Chicago, and St. Paul to name a few. Tilapia and basil are a typical combination—tilapia because they’re hardy and easy to grow, and basil because of its high value. But as hardy as tilapia is, it’s still a tropical fish, meaning operations in colder climates have to cope with high energy costs to keep water temperatures warm. And while basil may be a high-value plant, the profit margin is still slim. Some operations have sought to circumvent these high energy costs by resorting to yellow perch and lettuce, but to little avail.


Operations in warmer climates like the ones in Tuscon and the Virgin Islands tend to see more success than those farther from the equator. Higher average temperatures help maintain stability in systems that are inherently unstable, giving operators more leeway as they try to balance the water chemistry. And its this stability that’s key for an operation to be economically viable. 
The issue of stability is tricky enough to work out on a small scale. But to be profitable, producers must attempt larger operations, complicating something that was fragile and complex to begin with. That’s the catch-22 of aquaponics. Producers are faced with two options: either have a working system and watch the operation go bankrupt, or go bankrupt figuring out how to make the system work. And until this dilemma is resolved, aquaponics will continue to struggle to break into the mainstream.  
For more information on aquaponics, contact Kwamena Quagrainie. Interested producers can also learn about practices that can improve the chance of success in this video created in partnership with Purdue Extension

Website of the week: The ABCs of fish farming

January 21st, 2015 by

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

Aquaculture plays an increasingly vital role in securing long-term food supplies, and the Midwest is poised to help. In fact, a rich supply of raw materials and proximity to large markets makes Illinois and Indiana prime locations for aquaculture farms and related industries. 

To help producers cash in on these benefits, IISG, University of Illinois Extension, and Purdue Extension teamed up to create Aquaculture Economics and Marketing Resources. The site provides leading research and how-to information for developing a productive, innovative, and profitable aquaculture business. 

Visitors interested in starting a new business will find resources on everything from establishing an organizational structure to creating a business plan to securing financing. New and veteran producers can also find tips for connecting with consumers and tapping into niche markets. 

Aquaculture Economics and Marketing Resources is one of several tools IISG uses to help aquaculture producers define markets and create value-added opportunities for their products. Since 2005, Kwamena Quagrainie has held roughly 40 workshops with over 1,200 participants. These and other efforts in Indiana resulted in about $15 million in farm sales of aquaculture products in 2013, a nearly five-fold increase over 2005. 

To learn more about how aquaculture is strengthening Indiana’s economy, read our 2013 program impacts. 

In the news: Aquaculture the best way forward for a fish-hungry world

July 2nd, 2014 by
Protecting fish populations worldwide while still meeting the steadily increasing demand for fresh seafood is a critical challenge facing several countries, but aquaculture (fish farming) is making significant advances in efficiency and sustainability that can meet those needs.



 “Globally, we’ve hungered for 3.2 percent more seafood every year for the last five decades, double the rate of our population. Yet more than four fifths of the world’s wild fisheries are overexploited or fully exploited (yielding the most fish possible with no expected room for growth). Only 3 percent of stocks are considered ‘underexploited’—meaning they have any significant room for expansion. If we continue to fish at the current pace, some scientists predict we’ll be facing oceans devoid of edible marine creatures by 2050.

Aquaculture could come to the rescue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN predicts that farmed fish will soon surpass wild-caught; by 2030, aquaculture may produce more than 60 percent of fish we consume as food.

One of the most pressing concerns about aquaculture, though, is that many farmed fish are raised on a diet of 15 million tons a year of smaller bait fish—species like anchovies and menhaden. These bait—also known as forage fish—are ground up and converted into a substance called fishmeal. It takes roughly five pounds of them to produce one pound of farmed salmon. Bait fish are also used for non-food products like pet food, makeup, farm animal feed, and fish oil supplements.

It may appear as though the ocean enjoys endless schools of these tiny fish, but they too have been mismanaged, and their populations are prone to collapse. They’re a ‘finite resource that’s been fully utilized,’ says Mike Rust of NOAA’s Fisheries arm. Which is disturbing, considering that researchers like those at Oceana argue that forage fish may play an outsize role in maintaining the ocean’s ecological balance, including by contributing to the abundance of bigger predatory fish.

And that’s where Belov’s trout come in: Though he swears no one can taste the difference, his fish are vegetarians. That means those five pounds of forage fish can rest easy at sea. It also means that the trout don’t consume some of the other rendered animal proteins in normal fishmeal pellets: like bone meal, feather meal, blood meal, and chicken bi-products.”

Read the complete article at the link above for more about recent developments in aquaculture, and visit our aquaculture page for further information.

In the news: Aquaculture a growing food field in Indiana

August 19th, 2013 by

Aquaculture, the business of raising fish for commercial sale, is a growing part of Indiana’s agriculture practice, and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Kwamena Quagrainie is just one of the people helping to make that possible. 

From Purdue University

“Estimated sales from Indiana fish farms amounted to more than $15 million in 2012, an increase from $3.5 million in 2006, according to the publication Economic Importance of the Aquaculture Industry in Indiana. There are about 50 fish producers in Indiana, compared with 18 just seven years ago.

‘While aquaculture is not the most well-known industry in Indiana’s agriculture sector, it is definitely present and very important to the state’s economy,’ Kwamena K. Quagrainie, aquaculture marketing specialist in Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, said in the report. He conducted the study with graduate student Megan C. Broughton.

‘The industry has seen steady growth over the past few years, and it is important to know exactly how much economic activity is associated with aquaculture in Indiana,’ Quagrainie said.
Indiana’s aquaculture industry ranges from small-scale producers raising fish in their backyards to large-scale producers growing fish to sell in national and international markets, the report says. The industry includes production of fish for human food, ornamental fish for aquariums and recreational fish that are stocked in private and public ponds and lakes.”
Follow the link above to read the complete article, and learn more at our aquaculture page.

IISG’s Kwamena Quagrainie recognized for his outreach and extension efforts

December 3rd, 2012 by
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant aquaculture marketing specialist Kwamena Quagrainie was recently recognized for his many years of work in developing and improving the business practices, marketing, and success of aquaculture operations both in the state of Indiana and internationally through his efforts in several African nations. 

The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Specialist Association’s (PUCESA) mid-career Award “recognizes an Extension specialist with 11-20 years of service. Recipients would have demonstrated extension leadership; excellence in delivering public education programs; innovative approaches to program development; outreach efforts to county Extension educators; research that benefits Extension clientele through practical application; or demonstrated collaboration with county educators, agencies, or community leaders.”

The text of the nomination provides more detail on Dr. Quagrainie’s work: 
“Since joining Purdue in 2005, Dr. Kwamena Quagrainie has revitalized the aquaculture industry in Indiana and overseas. Through applied research and Extension he has expanded aquaculture funding and improved business for thousands of fish farms.
Kwamena’s leadership led to reorganization of the state aquaculture Extension team and development of a business management program for farms producing yellow perch, hybrid striped bass and freshwater prawns. Kwamena’s leadership was a driving force in the Indiana Soybean Alliance funding a 5-year Indiana Aquaculture Strategic Plan in 2007 resulting in up to $1 million annually in soybean check-off funds for aquaculture research and education in Indiana. Kwamena obtained additional research funding from USDA and Purdue to support Indiana aquaculture development. He actively collaborates with Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Board of Animal Health, and the Indiana Soybean Alliance. Kwamena is Indiana’s state coordinator for USDA’s North Central Regional Aquaculture Center, state representative on the National Association of State Aquaculture Coordinators and serves on USDA’s aquatic task force that is formulating standards for organic aquaculture nationally.
Dr. Quagrainie’s domestic program is closely integrated with international activities through the USAID-funded Aquaculture and Fisheries Collaborative Research Support Program (AquaFish CRSP). As the Africa AquaFish CRSP project director, Kwamena secured $1.13 million since 2004 for research and outreach, including training in pond record keeping and business management. About 2,000 fish farmers in Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana can now use their farming records to secure bank financing…”

For more information about Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s aquaculture resources, visit our Aquaculture Economics & Marketing Resources page.

Aquaponics and food farming take over abandoned Chicago factory

August 6th, 2012 by
In Chicago, a former food factory is being converted into the city’s first vertical farm, and a sustainable, zero-energy one at that. 
From Bridgette Meinhold, writing for
“The transformation is already underway and over the next few years, the factory will become a zero-energy, food business incubator, research facility, education space, and working urban farm. Plant Chicago is already growing greens and mushrooms and will soon start brewing beer and kombucha and raising tilapia in a sustainable system with zero waste.”
Aquaponics are a large part of the plan as well, offering a cyclical and sustainable way to raise fish and plants for food year-round. 
Read the complete article and see photos of the building and operations currently in progress at the link above, and additional details about the plans for the business here.

New Discovery Grant projects – Green infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, and more

May 9th, 2012 by

Much like a gardener hopes that the seeds they plant will eventually bloom into a lush garden, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant awards Discovery Grants, or “seed” grants, to a number of projects in the hopes that the initiatives will grow into something larger. In recent years, IISG has funded 35 projects focused on key concerns the program is committed to address; here are six new projects for 2012:

– Charles Werth, a civil engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will study the potential benefits and cost-effectiveness of installing green roofs in urban areas, considering effects on runoff, water quality, and other factors.
– Nandakishore Rajagopalan of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center will explore the feasibility of establishing saline aquaculture in Illinois – in other words, a saltwater fish farm. This initial study will focus on the economics of establishing such an industry and explore the possibilities for a few key species.
– Daniel Larkin, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, will establish a network of researchers and professionals who manage phragmites, an invasive reed grass, to discuss recent advances in control and collaboratively develop management plans to reflect the newest science and best techniques available.
– Maria Sepulveda, an ecotoxicologist at Purdue University, will build on previous IISG studies that looked at the distribution of pharmaceuticals or personal care products in Lake Michigan by examining the effects that these chemicals have on species throughout the food chain, both individually and in potentially toxic combinations.
– Marcelo Garcia of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will use results from an Asian Carp egg survival model to develop a tool that identifies where and how to implement targeted control methods. The tool would help decision makers prevent the spread of the invasive species.
– Brian Murphy of the University of Illinois Chicago will examine Lake Michigan as a potential source of bacteria that might be used in new medicines.
These Discovery Grants provide funding for initial research that has the potential to grow into larger future projects, or for projects that bring research results to a broader audience and could be expanded on by fellow researchers and agencies.
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