What You Need to Know to Get Started in Aquaponics
By Holly Abeels, Sea Grant Agent
Aquaponics is a fast growing segment of aquaculture. It is a sustainable food production system that combines conventional aquaculture, the raising of aquatic animals such as food fish or aquarium fish, with hydroponics, the cultivating of plants in water, in one environment.
Aquaponics systems work in this way. Contaminates accumulate in the water of an aquaculture system from fish manure, algae, and decomposing fish feed causing an increase in toxicity for the fish. This contaminate-laden water is led to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the system, then filtered out by the plants as nutrients, and the cleaned water is then recirculated back to the animals. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria live in the gravel or substrate in the system and, in association with the plant roots, play an important role in nutrient cycling. Without these microorganisms the system would be unable to function. This integrated system enhances the production of aquaculture species while producing a secondary product.
The remainder of this fact sheet will focus on the fish production portion of an aquaponics system and the steps you need to take to get your system started.
Individuals interested in operating an aquaponics facility as a commercial business producing aquatic animals, including conditional species, must apply for an Aquaculture Certificate of Registration, from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Division of Aquaculture . On this page it states, “For new construction, applicants must include a site plan, a construction plan and associated timeline, species production plan and associated timeline, and a description detailing the implementation of appropriate Aquaculture Best Management Practices.” Certified facilities are regulated by the Division of Aquaculture via Best Management Practices, in accordance with Chapter 597, Florida Aquaculture Policy Act, Florida Statutes.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) also has information on their website about aquaponics permitting with specific information regarding having non-native fish/species (i.e. tilapia) in your system. There are many restrictions concerning the live possession, culture, transportation and sale of non-native species in Florida. These restrictions were implemented to prevent these species from becoming established and spreading in Florida’s environment. State rule prohibits the release of any non-native species, including those in an aquaponic system, into Florida’s environment. Of the four tilapia species found in Florida, only the blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus) may be possessed, transported, and cultured without a permit in our region for home (personal) systems, and the fish must be identified as pure blue by FWC staff or an FWC designee. Other fish species to consider for home systems that have fewer restrictions are catfish, bluegill, sunfish, perch, and bass. Commercial growers can use their permit to obtain and grow other species of tilapia not allowed for personal (home) growers.
The most common aquaponic systems use either the nutrient-film technique (NFT) system, which uses a thin film of nutrient solution flowing through plastic channels that contain the plant roots with no solid planting media, or the floating raft system, which uses rafts floating on top of the water to suspend the plants roots into the nutrient rich water. The media-filled bed system is another system where the container is filled with gravel, perlite or another media for the plant bed, and the bed is periodically flooded with water from the fish tank.
The best place to start learning more about setting up and getting all the necessary permits and paperwork needed to get your operation up and running is the FDACS Division of Aquaculture website. FDACS also has a division called the Florida Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing that can help you in marketing your fish product.
UF/IFAS: Nutrient Film Technique
Virginia Tech: Nutrient Film Technique
SRAC Aquaponics – https://srac.tamu.edu/index.cfm/getFactSheet/whichfactsheet/105/
UF IFAS Extension Solutions for Your Life – http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/