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?
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.
Q – How did the program at UVI come about?
Dr. Rakocy – I became the Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station 23 years ago and have been part of the program at UVI for 30 years. At first it was called ‘integrated systems’ before one of the short course students coined the term ‘aquaponics’ – definitely better than integrated systems, which could refer to anything! We started raising tilapia and aquatic plants, water chestnuts, and water cress for PhD research. I was surprised when we started research at UVI that terrestrial food plants grew so well. I was even more surprised that fish waste provided a good balance of nutrients for hydroponic vegetables. We have found that it really comes down to how much fish feed per square meter of plant you are growing in an area per day (example – 60g /m2/ day for lettuce)
Q – Tell us what the beginning of the program was like.
Dr. Rakocy – Well, there was no research facility. We had some inexpensive vinyl lined steel walled swimming pools and were told to make the aquaculture research facility a showpiece. The first aquaponic system consisted of 3 metal oil barrels. One was used to raise fish. One was cut in half to create two hydroponic beds. One was used as clarifier with cone welded into the bottom. And half of the final barrel was used as a sump. We had the first barrel aquaponic system 30 years ago. However, the goal of an Agricultural Experiment Station was to produce large food production systems. So we went to 3000 gallon rearing tanks with two hydroponic tanks that were 20′ long by 4′ wide and 16″ deep. We needed 6 of these systems so we could have 2 treatments replicated 3 times for scientific integrity. We worked with media (gravel) based systems first, but found that gravel was difficult to work with and not feasible for large commercial operation. We decided early on that a raft system with solids removed was the way to go for commercial production. Finally we went to the current commercial-sized system of 4 fish rearing tanks with staggered production so that one tank can be harvested every 6 weeks. We used six hydroponic tanks that are 100 ft. long by 4 ft. wide by 16 inches deep. It’s not high-tech, but is designed for what a typical farmer can handle. We have been running this commercial system continuously for 8 years.
Q – When did you start offering the Aquaponics Short Course?
Dr. Rakocy – We decided 11 years ago it was time to emphasize training and promotion so we started the short course (Aquaponics and Tilapia Aquaculture). The first year we had 17 students, and then attendance grew to 33 students, barely fitting the room size available. In the last three years, a new conference center provided a room with capacity for 74 students. In 2007 we had 63 students representing all 7 continents (we actually had someone from the North Pole Amundsen–Scott Research Station). I have had students from 42 US states and territories and 47 others countries including several countries from South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In 2008 we had 73 students and changed the course name to International Aquaponics and Tilapia Aquaculture Course. We have taught 418 students so far. Sadly, this will be my last year teaching this course unless I am hired by the university to come back and teach.
Q – Why do you think you have had such a successful program at UVI?
Dr. Rakocy – Because UVI is a land grant university and has formula funds from the federal government, we didn’t have to compete for short term competitive grants, although several competitive grants were obtained over the years. Formula funds are a stable source of funding. There have been MS and PhD projects at universities over the years due to individuals interests, but when a student finished and moved on, no more research on aquaponics was conducted at that university. UVI has been the only institution to pursue aquaponic research for an extended time period. Typically land grant universities must meet stakeholder needs and states have many commodity groups competing for research attention to their problems. The Virgin Islands has a small agriculture industry and therefore has less stakeholder demand for research. The Aquaculture Program was started to develop systems appropriate for the dry conditions of the Virgin Islands and therefore I was very lucky to have the luxury to pursue developing aquaponic and biofloc technology for 30 years. There were no demands from stakeholder groups.
Q – What are the biggest opportunities you see in the future of aquaponics?
Dr. Rakocy – I never anticipated the growth of hobby / backyard systems, which now could number close to 1500 in the US. Also the dramatic increase in the adoption of aquaponics in schools (estimates are about 1000 schools in the U.S. currently using aquaponics as a science teaching tool). I get constant email inquiries and am now receiving many more inquiries from college students doing class projects. Finally, aquaponics is at a stage of increased and critical mass of interest, knowledge and financing and all three are coming together for commercial development. We will start seeing bigger commercial installations.
Q – What are the biggest issues?
Dr. Rakocy – People jumping on the bandwagon and pawning themselves off as educators and consultants who don’t really know what they are doing. This will lead to failures and tarnish the image of aquaponics. The same phenomenon occurred years ago with aquaculture in general.
Q – What are the pros and cons of living in the Virgin Islands?
Dr. Rakocy – Cons – Well, there isn’t much nightlife in St. Croix. In fact, there has been a noticeable decline over 30 years (note – Dr. Rakocy is an active bachelor). The islands in general are very confined. Plus, there is the hurricane threat. I’ve experienced five hurricanes, and been in the eye of three very strong hurricanes
Pros – I’ve had a good career there with lots of flexibility. I’ve become a director, a professor and consultant, and have had great opportunities for travel. And The Virgin Islands have beautiful vistas, pastoral landscape, a relaxed atmosphere (no traffic jams) and are good for water sports and beach activities
Q – What are your future plans?
Dr. Rakocy – I’m retiring at the end of November and am looking forward to living in Thailand in a condo on Golden Buddha Hill overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. I love to ski, especially in Lake Tahoe and am planning to set aside one month a year for skiing.
Thank you for your priceless contributions to aquaponics over the past 30 years, Dr. Rakocy.