A Fish Called Wonder
Aquaponics entrepreneurs looking to turn a big idea into an even bigger business
by Duncan Kinney
Photographed by Duncan Kinney
With their array of exotic ingredients, spices and sauces, not to mention the take-no-prisoners approach that their regular customers sometimes deploy in the aisles, Asian supermarkets offer a stimulating sensory experience that the big box stores and national chains can’t match. But it’s the Asian supermarket’s fish section, and its visceral blend of sights, sounds and smells, that truly sets it apart from its more sterile peers. That’s why, when a hair-netted employee brings a heavy white plastic mallet down on the head of a live tilapia and starts scaling and gutting it, you’re probably not thinking about where it came from. That kind of casual violence, after all, can be a bit distracting.
You might want to start thinking about its origins, though, because the common whitefish is about to become more than just a meal. Instead, it is an instrument in an emerging technological process that promises to take the idea of local food to a whole other level. It’s called aquaponics, a closed loop wetland ecosystem that grows fish and vegetables simultaneously, and while it might sound like something out of a Star Trek episode it’s a possibility, if not yet a widespread reality, in 2010. The Government of Alberta is a believer, and has spent millions of dollars and compiled years of research on the idea in order to speed up the commercialization process for Alberta entrepreneurs.
The idea of growing fish and vegetables in the same closed loop system does seem a tad far-fetched, which is why it’s a technology that you need to see to believe. Fortunately, at the Crop Diversification Centre South in Brooks, which is funded by the Government of Alberta, Nick Savidov has just what you’re looking for. He’s been busy running a large-scale aquaponics system in the hope of bridging the long and precarious gap between a crazy idea and a profitable business. A plant physiologist and biochemist by trade, Savidov sports a Russian accent, a thin moustache and an unmistakable passion – and talent – for raising fish and vegetables at the same time.
Originally educated at the Russian State Agricultural University, he ended up working in Israel where he came across an innovative aquaculture system that turned him onto the possibilities of raising fish on dry land. “What’s important about our design is that it’s the only food production system in the world, believe it or not, where everything is utilized,” he says. “There is no waste. It doesn’t have environmental impact. You can go around the system and you won’t find any connection with the outside world.”
Savidov, who gets around 20 to 30 unsolicited emails a day from people interested in the technology, has been researching aquaponics and running his own system for the past nine years. The steady stream of emails is no wonder, given the possibilities associated with aquaponics and his success in exploring them. The integration of waste management into the production cycle is central to that success. By using the waste generated by the fish as a food source for a high value crop, the system combines the benefits of aquaculture and a greenhouse in one
system. It’s also an extremely efficient way to produce protein. With no gravity to hold the fish down, the fast growing tilapia can be harvested every 24 weeks.
While the concept of aquaponics didn’t come from an episode of Star Trek, the grow room looks like a set that could have been designed by Gene Roddenberry himself. A mass of floating Styrofoam squares holds 16 basil plants each in a large pool, and when you lift up the panels the roots simply hang in the water. Pipes snake everywhere, pumps whirr and water is passed through mineral media. But behind all the whiz-bang technology this is, at its core, an ecosystem. Predatory mites and ladybugs provide pest control and the biofilm that grows on the sides of the tank creates beneficial microbial relationships. The room is alive.
The six blue circular 5,000-litre tanks each hold approximately 600 tilapia, all in various stages of growth. The liquid waste from the fish is pumped into the area holding the floating basil plants. The plants use the nutrients to grow while cleaning the water at the same time. That water is then recirculated back to the fish. The solid waste from the fish, meanwhile, is fed into an aerobic digester, where exothermic bacteria chew through the fish poop and create heat that is used to keep the tilapia at their preferred water temperature of 24 C. The process is so efficient that Savidov went seven years without changing the water. If you’ve ever kept a fish tank, you might be used to a more regular water-changing schedule.
If Nick Savidov represents the future of aquaponics in Alberta, farmer Mark McNaughton is its present. McNaughton is a farmer’s farmer, the kind of guy who uses the word “whoopee ding” in conversation and will offer you a clutch of tomatoes at the drop of his weather-beaten hat. But he’s also the kind of farmer who isn’t afraid of a bit of progress, one who will take a break from harvesting grain so his tractor’s software can update itself. Based in Rumsey, Alberta, halfway between Stettler and Drumheller, he and his family decided to get out of the hog-raising business in 1999 and convert to aquaculture. Their operation, called MDM Aqua Farms Ltd., produces between 40 to 50 tons of tilapia a year with a standard recirculated aquaculture system, much of which ends up in the seafood section of local Asian supermarkets.
McNaughton, the president of the Alberta Aquaculture Association, has been working with an aquaponics system of one kind or another since 2001. His aquaponics system is a modest one, with the greenhouse located off to the side of his massive converted hog barn. With the help of Nick Savidov, he’s set up a system that grows more tomatoes and lettuce than he knows what to do with. So what’s stopping him from going to a full-scale aquaponics system?
“It’s not just fish, it’s not just a greenhouse – you’re mashing both together. You have to be a greenhouse guy and a fish guy and that’s tough to do,” says McNaughton. There are other factors that have discouraged him from diving into the aquaponics business, from the sodium-rich groundwater to the high energy costs. The absence of any supporting technical infrastructure – he can’t call up a 1-800 number and get an aquaponics technician to come out when something goes sideways – means that when things break down they might stay that way for a while. Meanwhile, without some kind of sophisticated marketing push, he’s skeptical of his ability to go head to head with the low-cost vegetable producers in California and Mexico. “Risky is probably the best word,” he says, “and it’s challenging from an operations point of view. It’s incredible what it can do but being able to manage that is the hard part.”
Right now, aquaponics is stuck in “first to be second” limbo. No one wants to be taking undue risks, especially when they involve multimillion-dollar upfront capital costs. The challenge, as it always has been, revolves around finding a way to take the uncertainty out of the risk when using new technology. In other words, while years have been spent collecting the data and writing the feasibility studies for aquaponics, it’s going to take the work of entrepreneurs to transform it from an idea into an industry. Savidov’s frustration with the distance between the science and the business of aquaponics is obvious. “If it’s so good, why don’t we see large commercial operations? That’s a question I’m trying to answer.”
That distance may be about to shrink considerably, though, given the growing list of people interested in the technology. Murray Quinton, a Viking-based entrepreneur, is currently building an aquaponics system and aims to have it going by the middle of 2011. Mike Aleman, a greenhouse operator from Redcliff, just picked up a starter unit from Savidov. And in conversations with managers at the two major greenhouse packers in Alberta, Pik ’n Pak and Red Hat Co-operative, growers have expressed a keen interest in the technology.
Jim Hole of Hole’s Greenhouses and Gardens in St. Albert has had a tour of the system down in Brooks, and is interested in bringing in a demonstration project up when his new building gets going. “Certainly there is an opportunity to showcase that technology in our facility and to show what can be done with plants and fish. And I think Nick is the kind of researcher who’s done a lot to fine-tune the process. I think he’s onto something there,” says Hole.
While investors and entrepreneurs might be leery of deploying a lot of capital on a large commercial system, McNaughton sees a lot of potential in scaling down rather than up. The smaller home-based system could be how aquaponics finally makes its way into the mainstream, and Blue Wave Aquaponics’s Adam Morand thinks he can help it happen. Morand has been tinkering around with smaller systems for the past six years, and when he and his wife moved away from Vancouver the availability of fresh fish understandably dropped to zero. With a background in raising fish – he grew up around people raising fish and selling them to pet stores – he started a couple of cultures and began cultivating his interest in aquaponics.
Now based in Airdie, Morand started a website, backyardaquaponic.com, and while it began largely as a lark, it has since seen massive traffic and interest. On his website, Morand shares information about aquaponics and offers a basic home system for purchase. At two feet deep, five feet wide and seven and a half feet tall, the small kitchen system he is running has “cucumbers and tomatoes just coming off the thing,” and it keeps him and his family, including his four children, supplied with fresh salad every day.
Morand’s building out from these beginnings, selling fish and freshwater shrimp to the Japanese community in Calgary. He’s currently experimenting with raising salmon and has plans to start raising Arctic char. With a couple of patents pending, Morand is set to gather important data over the winter for two new products he’s working on, a small self-contained kitchen unit and a plug-and-play commercial system. “I think there is massive potential. If you read the doom-and-gloom statistics, we’re capped out at the amount of fish we can pull out the ocean,” he says. “I don’t see how we’re going to get through without sustainable aquaculture and aquaponics systems. I really don’t see how we’re going to feed the world unless everybody starts getting much smaller.”
If Morand’s right, it may not be long before the tilapia that you used to get at your local Asian supermarket comes literally from your own backyard. Macro-level trends, from the rising cost of energy and shipping to the growing faith in local food, may soon turn aquaponics from the pursuit of a small group of committed enthusiasts into a viable homegrown industry. After that, who knows what’s next. A holodeck, anyone?
Tilapia wins popularity contest
Tilapia is the fish of choice for aquaponic systems, and indeed most of the aquaculture found in Alberta. Fisheries and Oceans Canada identifies it as the second most cultivated fish in the world, with only the carp being more heavily managed. But the heavy hand of human interference doesn’t appear to have much influence on how the fish tastes, which is good news for those looking to create commercial applications for aquaponic systems. With some butter, garlic and fresh squeezed lemon juice, the flaky white fish matches up well against better known options like halibut and sole.