Is aquaponics difficult? Recently Australian Gary Donaldson has written a series of 6 blog postings on the “Mythconceptions” of aquaponics on his Microponics site. Gary seems to pride himself in being an aquaponics contrarian (seems every discipline needs its contrarians), and even uses a blog tagline of “for candid dialogue on integrated backyard food production”. While some of his assertions in these postings are thought-provoking, in general they seem to relish flying in the face of the accumulated knowledge-base of aquaponics, and my personal experience. I can only assume that he is trying to provoke discussion so I thought I would take him up on the challenge and respond with an opposing view.
The first posting I’d like to address was the last one he wrote in the series called “Mythconception #6 – Aquaponics is Easy”. In this post he attempts to convince the reader that aquaponics is complex for the following reasons:
- Producers of home aquaponics equipment and kits claim aquaponics is easy, and they must have an ulterior motive so the assertion must be false (actually, I think that is why there is a market for aquaponics kits – to simplify. Since Gary is developing his own aquaponics kit, as am I, I hope he already knows this.)
- A PhD and research scientist says commercial aquaponics is complex
- He finds it as complex as the other food systems on his property
He then plugs his book, which costs $110(!), plus suggests a book on recirculating aquaculture which costs $245(!!) on Amazon. He concludes by plugging his forum and boldly declaring “everything is easy – until something goes wrong”.
Last week during a fabulous Japanese dinner with my good buddy JT (a long time aquapon and the man I hold responsible for getting me into this whole aquaponics thing in the first place) I told him about this and exclaimed “WHAT! It’s just about the easiest thing I’ve ever done!” While that might have been a bit of a sake-induced exaggeration, I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of his shock.
Let’s look at it this way. Any complexity in aquaponics would come from caring for the fish, caring for the plants, and/or caring for the relationship between the fish and the plants, right?
The Fish – caring for fish in an aquaponics system is actually easier than caring for fish in an aquarium because once the system is cycled you can really stop worrying about filtering. I remember having aquariums in my youth (didn’t everyone?) where you needed to do a partial water change once in a while and clean the algae from the glass. You do not have to do this with my aquaponics systems. I actually find identifying problems with the tilapia in my aquaponics systems as easy as figuring out why an infant is typically crying (wet? hungry? sleepy?). If they are gasping for air, they need oxygen. If they stop eating, they are either too cold, too hot, or need more oxygen (again assuming the system is cycled and you haven’t done something crazy like a fast pH swing). The only other circumstance would be that they are diseased, but that rarely happens in aquaponics if you start with clean stock.
The Plants – caring for plants in an aquaponics system is far easier than caring for them in a dirt garden, or a hydroponic system (see my earlier post on hydroponic nutrients vs. aquaponics). In a dirt garden you are in a constant battle with weeds, bugs, deer, bunnies, and all manner of living things that are out to eat or compete with your plants. While you can still get bugs in an aquaponic system, there are far, far fewer because there is no soil for the larval stage of the insects. Further, all the complexity with over and under watering just go away with aquaponics. The only gardening chores you are primarily left with are the ones that I personally really enjoy waist high such as sowing, tending and harvesting of the plants themselves.
The Aquaponics System – I put this in here because it seemed like a logical addition, but for the life of me I can’t think of what would be a complexity here. As long as the fish are happy (i.e. eating), and the plants are thriving (i.e. green and growing), and the system instructions for occasional pump maintenance (i.e. cleaning, which I do about once every 3 months) are followed you will be good to go.
Can things go wrong in aquaponics? You bet. Do you need to pay attention and not go into auto-pilot? You bet. But is aquaponics difficult? Not at all.