Interview with Dr James Rakocy, Father of Aquaponics: Part 1

By: Tawnya Sawyer

This is a reprint from an article I wrote for Backyard Aquaponics Magazine, issue #8, that came out this past spring. The second half of the article will be posted later this week. It was the first in a series of interviews I’ve been doing on the some of most influential people in American aquaponics.

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Dr. James Rakocy
Dr James Rakocy – credit: University of the Virgin Islands

It seems fitting to start this series with an interview with Dr James Rakocy, Father of Aquaponics, of the University of the Virgin Islands. Dr. Rakocy has been arguably been the most influential person in developing US aquaponics, and perhaps the single most influential person in worldwide aquaponics as well. Dr. Rakocy is retiring in November of this year after devoting 30 years to researching, developing and promoting aquaponics. What follows is an interview with him conducted on February 19, 2010

Q – How does it feel to be called the father of U.S. aquaponics?

Dr. Rakocy – Humbling. There actually were a few others before me. There were articles on aquaponics in the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society in the late 1970s by William Lewis and his students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The idea of using plants to treat water and remove nutrients had been around for a while. I first learned of the concept from Leonard Pampel, who used plants to treat wastewater in the aviary building at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Mr. Pampel obtained a patent on that system, I helped him design integrated aquarium systems when I was a junior high school student and he later provided input to my doctoral research at Auburn University.

Q – What was the focus of your doctoral research?

Dr. Rakocy – In RAS (Recirculating Aquaculture Systems) you needed to exchange 5-10% of the water every day with new water due to buildup of nitrate ions. I had a hypothesis that you could use aquatic plants and vegetables to remove nitrates and therefore use much less water. Aquaponic systems typically exchange less than 1% of the system’s water daily. I wanted to solve the problem of nitrate buildup and higher water exchange rates in RAS by using plants to remove nitrates.

Q – What were people’s reactions to your doctoral thesis?

University of the Virgin Islands
UVI Aquaponics – credit: University of the Virgin Islands

Dr. Rakocy – When I came out of Auburn University I got the feeling that people thought I was on the lunatic fringe. They don’t anymore. Upon graduating I had opportunities at UVI and at the Kuwait Research Institute. I’m glad didn’t go to Kuwait. When Iraq invaded Kuwait scientists working at the Kuwait Research Institute applied for jobs at UVI.

Q – Why did you get into this?

Dr. Rakocy – The biggest motive was an interest in RAS stemming from having aquariums in my basement. Yes, as a boy I was a fanatic about raising ornamental fish. I had 17 aquariums in my basement. In the Peace Corps in the West African country of Sierra Leone I saw malnutrition and became interested in working to solve the problem of world hunger. In working toward a master’s degree in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina I was exposed to wastewater treatment techniques. Aquaponics combined all these interests.

More of the interview with Dr. Rakocy in an upcoming post…