Buyer Beware of the AquaShysters


By: Tawnya Sawyer

Last Friday, Alan took a call from a woman who needed help salvaging the aquaponic system that she had hired someone to build for her. Her media grow beds leaked at the point where her siphons were installed, her siphon media guards allowed her media to pass right through, the custom grow bed tables were not the correct size, some important plumbing elements were absent, the liner in her deep water culture beds leaked, and obviously she didn’t have the after-sales support she needed.  shyster

Just as more and more people have become interested in aquaponics and have started their own systems, so have more people decided to start their own aquaponics businesses. Many of them are honestly trying to create good products and services that help people to grow their own fish and vegetables aquaponically. But, as with any emerging industry, there are also the rotten fish.

A few years ago Rebecca Nelson coined the term “AquaShysters” to identify those who jump onto this bandwagon with ill-designed products or an ill-informed consultancy, to make a quick buck. I think it applies now even more than it did then.

As a new person to aquaponics it is easy to be misled by these AquaShysters, so I thought I would offer some guidance as someone who has been around the aquaponics block a few times….

You Know You Are Dealing with AquaShysters If….

  1. They sell raft based (DWC) systems with no solids filtration – I have seen a few of these lately. In fact, there is a company now that is selling franchises for a business based on selling these misleading systems.  They claim that it is a “philosophical difference” to not “need” filtration because of low stocking density. When I asked last weekend what “low stocking density” means, the response was 25 fish in their 100 gallon tank! That is higher than I would recommend with solids filtration through a media bed! While it is definitely cheaper to build systems this way, they will eventually fail.  The solid waste will coat the roots of the plants, retard their growth and eventually suffocate them. Raft bed systems should always include either a media bed or a solids removal system to filter the water.
  2. They exaggerate how many fish or plants you can grow in their systems – The FCC doesn’t regulate website claims, and boy does it show! The facts are that a professional aquaculture operation can grow as much as a pound of fish per gallon of water (but only with very special equipment, sophisticated monitoring systems, and constant attention). An aquaponics system with serious solids filtration on the front end could probably get to a pound of fish for every 3 – 5 gallons of water with diligent, daily maintenance (or even to a pound of fish per gallon if operated like a professional aquaculture facility). And a hobby media-based aquaponics system, or a raft system with only rudimentary filtration, can aspire to a pound of fish in every 5 – 10 gallons of water. Anything more than this risks overwhelming your system with waste.
  3. They exaggerate how many plants you can grow in their systems – You can place plants about twice as close together in an aquaponic system as in dirt, and you can count on a well-designed, well-run system growing those plants about twice as fast as in dirt. Other than that, there is no system design that is going to grow plants faster than any other. They all have the same input – fish waste – and the same system design constraints. The factors that distinguish the good ones from the poor ones are design, reliability, quality, service, support, maintenance requirements, aesthetics, etc.
  4. They claim that media-based systems are problematic – This is a blatant falsehood perpetuated by companies that sell only raft-based systems or system plans and is simply, demonstrably false. We are big believers in the philosophy that different styles of aquaponic growing have different benefits and drawbacks, and the key is to find the right system, or combination of systems, that is best for you.
  5. There is no contact information on their website, just a form. – If you are going to spend big bucks to hire a consultant, or to buy a system, or to invest in a set of plans that will ultimately require much more money and lots of time to make successful, shouldn’t you at least know something about the person, or the people behind the company, and be able to email or call them directly?  And shouldn’t they have an address listed on their site?  Missing these things – then you are probably looking at a big red flag.
  6. They charge for ongoing support – If you buy an aquaponics system, you should expect to receive the support you need.  For free.  By experienced industry professionals. As long as you need help.  Period.

Like so many things in life, you get what you pay for.  Yes, building your own system can be fun and satisfying, and if you are handy and don’t mind risking the possibility of making expensive mistakes, this could be the route for you.  But if you are considering purchasing a system or hiring someone to build one for you, please do your research!  Find out how long they have been doing this, and how many systems they have successfully installed. Ask about the depth of their support team.  Is this a real business, or just someone’s weekend hobby? We want everyone who creates an aquaponic system to be incredibly successful, and tell all their friends and family about this fantastic new way to grow food.  That is the only way this revolution is going to spread.