What is Aquaponics and How Do I Get Started?

Aquaponics – the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics – is growing in popularity worldwide as a direct response to the increasing amount of harmful substances found in our food supply. Did you know that, here in the United States, only about 10% of the farmed fish we consume is produced domestically? China produces 62% of the world’s farm-raised fish today. The desire to eat home-grown, chemical-free food is driving more and more people to implement their own aquaponics systems.

If you’re just getting started, you may have some questions – and we’d like to help you answer them!
  • What Is Aquaculture? Aquaculture refers to the practice of raising aquatic animals and/or the cultivation of aquatic plants.
  • What Is Hydroponics? Hydroponics is the process of growing plants in sand, gravel or liquid with added nutrients – but without soil.
  • Why Do People Combine the Two? Hydroponics requires often expensive nutrients to feed the plants, and it requires periodic flushing of the liquid-based systems to expel wastes. In aquaculture, a re-circulating system needs to have excess waste removed on a daily basis, which usually means removing some of the water. Coincidentally, the nutrients that are needed by the plants are the very waste products expelled by the fish. Thus, combining the two systems is a rare case of turning two negatives into a positive … and that positive is called aquaponics.

How Does It Work?

Aquaponics is the combination of a traditional aquaculture environment (raising aquatic animals such as fish, prawns or crustaceans in tanks) and a hydroponics system (cultivating plants in water) into one symbiotic environment. In an aquaponics solution, fish and plants are farmed together in a single interconnected and mutually beneficial environment.

Simply put, fish produce waste products that include nitrates and ammonia. These waste products aren’t healthy for the fish … but they make a wonderful natural fertilizer for plants. As the plants absorb these nutrients, they purify the water, which can then be re-circulated to the fish.

Along with the water containing the fish waste, microbes play an important role in plant nutrition. These beneficial bacteria gather in spaces between the roots of the plants and they assist in converting the fish waste into substances the plants can use to grow strong and healthy.

No chemical or synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers can be used. To do so would kill the fish. This is something that even traditional organic farms cannot claim as most need to supplement their soil with fertilizers which can be bad for the overall health of the soil and the watershed. Aquaponics doesn’t use soil, so this is not necessary. Therefore, the result is a perfect and very natural collaboration between aquaculture and non-soil-based gardening. The resulting food is 100% chemical-free and as all-natural as it gets.

Will an Aquaponics System Require a Lot of Water?
Many people are concerned about water usage. Surprisingly, very little water is used in an aquaponics system. Because of the re-circulating nature of the system, very high stocking densities of fish can be grown using very little water. A much more important factor to consider is the environment the system will operate in as well as the infrastructure you will need to compensate for temperature fluctuations.

How Do You Create the Right Aquaponics Environment?
The amount of sunlight, the ambient temperature, rainfall and wind are all crucial factors in producing a healthy plant. If you decide to grow outdoors, choose varieties of vegetables that will grow best in your climate. To mitigate these factors, you could use a greenhouse or an indoor growing location.

Grow beds filled with a media such as gravel or expanded clay pebbles are common methods for growing plants in an aquaponics system, but there are many different methods that can be used. One of the great things about aquaponics is that, unlike traditional gardening, aquaponics allows you to plant crops at any time of the year, yet the kinds of plants you can grow are similar to those grown via any other method of farming.

Another plus: The aquaponics system does most of the labor that would be required in ordinary in-ground growing operations. When done correctly, you should be able to maintain a constantly rotating supply of organic, pesticide-free vegetables that can continue to produce indefinitely in a properly maintained system, and you should yield more produce from an aquaponics solution than you would from produce grown conventionally in the ground. In fact, vegetables often grow significantly faster and at three to four times the density than those grown in the ground, and with an aquaponics system, they do so without depleting the natural environment’s nutrients.

There are huge lists of plants that can be successfully grown in an aquaponics system, but basically anything that can grow well above soil and loves to have its roots wet is a great candidate. Plants such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and leafy green vegetables thrive well in aquaponics environments. Root crops, however, do not.

The environment you create will be the most important factor in determining the kinds of fish or crustaceans you will be able to raise. Some species thrive in cold water while others prefer warmer water. Be sure to choose a species of fish that is both hardy and adaptable to the indoor or outdoor conditions you have created. 
Remember, too, that you can adjust for temperature by adding water heaters or chillers to your tank if a specific species is desired.

Which Fish are Best for Aquaponics?
Many people choose to grow just one species. However, when it comes to mixing species in a single aquaponics system, it is important to choose varieties that are able to cohabitate with one another. Some species adapt well to cohabitation while others prefer a mono-species environment.

The first step in choosing fish that will live together well is to choose species with similar requirements for temperature and water conditions. It is also important to think about the purpose for the fish you choose. For example, some fish are selected to be raised and eaten while others are simply added to the system to provide nutrients for the plants. Koi and goldfish, for example, are not considered good for eating, though they are beautiful and decorative additions to an aquaponics system built strictly for plant management.

If you are interested in harvesting fish as well as plants from your aquaponics system, consider popular species such as Tilapia, Catfish, Bluegill, Bass or a crustacean like Redclaw Crayfish or Prawns.

*Tilapia: In practice, Tilapia are the most popular fish for both home and commercial projects intended to raise fish as food because it is a warm-water fish that can tolerate crowding and changing water conditions well. We have many different species available to suit a variety of growing conditions.

*Bluegill: If you want something that is ok in warm water and even in near-freezing or frozen water – and eats just about anything – consider Bluegill.

*Redclaw Crayfish: Interested in crustaceans? Take a look at the Redclaw Crayfish. We believe that Redclaw Crayfish are the future of local, sustainable, healthy “seafood” in America, and that this beautiful little crustacean has the potential to become a mainstream premium seafood product in just a few short years. Note: It is important to note that some states do not allow possession of Redclaw Crayfish; in Florida, where we are located, you must have a Florida aquaculture permit to possess them.

Why Do People Raise Redclaw Crayfish?
Redclaw crayfish are amazing! They are the ultimate in sustainable healthy, nutritious “seafood.”

  • Low Sodium
  • Low Cholesterol
  • Low Fat
  • No Heavy Metals (Unlike Ocean Lobsters)
  • Organic (Depending on What You Feed Them)
In our opinion, any aquaponics system running at a minimum of 70˚ F that does not contain Redclaw Crayfish is missing a huge opportunity! Not only with the Redclaw Crayfish produce a delicious additional crop alongside your fish and vegetables, but the waste they produce during regular moulting will enrich the water with minerals that will send your crop production into overdrive – a word we use to describe this is “lobsterponics.”

Redclaw Crayfish do well in water temperatures ranging from 55˚ - 95˚ F, but do best at around 80˚ F. They grow fast and breed well in most circumstances, particularly when the water is well aerated and moving.

Please note that we do not recommend stocking Redclaw Crayfish and aquaponics fish in the same tank unless they are separated by a grill or mesh as Redclaw Crayfish are very vulnerable when they moult. They will grow to table size in nine to 12 months.

If you have an aquarium, a Redclaw Crayfish makes a stunning centerpiece and will provide hours of interesting viewing for enthusiasts. They will happily co-exist with small aquarium minnow fish and pleco, but again, please do not house them alongside predatory fish as they are quite vulnerable during moulting.

What Are Some Cold-Tolerant Fish Species?
If you live in an area where it gets cold, you may want to know more about the kinds of fish that work well in colder climates. Here are just a few of the options you may want to consider:
  • Koi: Can survive in temperatures ranging from 35˚ - 85˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 55˚ - 75˚F
  • Channel Catfish: Can survive in temperatures ranging from just above freezing - 100˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 75˚ - 86˚ F
  • Bluegill: Can survive in temperatures ranging from 39˚ - 90˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 60˚ - 80˚ F
  • Largemouth Bass: Can survive in temperatures ranging from 60˚ - 96˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 65˚ - 75˚ F

What Are Some of the Most Popular Tropical Fish and Crustacean Species?

  • Tilapia: Can survive in temperatures ranging from 55˚ - 100˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 60˚ - 85˚ F
  • Redclaw Crayfish: Can survive in temperatures ranging from 55˚ - 95˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 77˚ - 90˚ F
  • Prawns: Can survive in temperatures ranging from 57˚ - 105˚ F; optimal temperatures range from 78˚ - 88˚ F

Where Can I Learn More?
The following resources are intended to help you get started with aquaponics or aquaculture:

Building an IBC Aquaponics System
In this six-part video series, David Cline, an Alabama Extension specialist with the Auburn University school of fisheries, aquaculture, and aquatic science, describes and illustrates building an IBC aquaponics system using readily available materials.

The 9 Best Fish for Aquaponics and How to Buy Them
An article that covers the best fish for aquaponics and what factors to consider when selecting fish for your aquaponics system.

Using Freshwater Aquaponics Shrimp for a Better Cycle
This article discusses the use of freshwater shrimp (prawns) to create a better aquaponics nutrition cycle and has links to purchase a book, "Aquaponics for Beginners" and a course, "DIY Aquaponics 4 You." [Note: We have not reviewed these materials.]

SRAC: Aquaponics
This website page, created by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center (SRAC), includes links to fact sheets on aquaponcis procedures and practices, videos, system design and construction, water quality and more.

SRAC: Freshwater Prawns
Information on growing freshwater prawns, produced by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center (SRAC).

US Fish & Wildlife Services: Giant River Prawn
Information on the Giant River Prawn, the species sold by Live Aquaponics.

What If I Still Have Questions?
Contact us ... we love to talk with our customers!