Thursday, June 24, 2010

Aquaponics Course Overview

I just spent a week on St. Croix attending an aquaponics course. The course was presented by Jim Rakocy (the aquaponics god), Don Bailey (money man), Jason and Charlie (fish and plant guys). If you follow our blog you know that there is no green food in Puerto Rico and you know that I need to change that. Aquaponics sounded like just the thing...fresh fish and fresh veggies. I thought I wanted to set up a hydroponic system and then the thought of raising fish as well came up and since Jeff has always had a fish tank we figured why not aquaponics? I signed up for the expensive course and last week started my journey.
Jeff took me to the Mayaguez airport and there was a taxi sitting at the curb. If you know the Mayaguez airport you know that this is not good and that the taxi was for me and the other 2 passengers of the plane that had mechanical problems. Cape Air put us in a taxi, or "Breaking Bad Mobile," to head for San Juan. (If you don't watch Breaking Bad on tv you should.) Of course there was no way to get there in the same amount of time (30 minutes in the air = 2 hours on the ground) so I missed the connecting flight. They put me on an American Eagle flight that left at 2pm instead of the 11:30 Cape Air flight I was supposed to be on. I arrived on St. Croix at 2:30 instead of noon but that was fine since I wasn't renting a car and would just go check in at the University and wait for others to arrive.

Just so happens that 2 other people from the class were on my American Eagle flight and were on it because of flight problems. Diana and Pablo (from Argentina) and I then waited for Stephen at the airport for an hour or so under the misguided idea that the taxi rate would be less with more people in it and we didn't want to have Stephen have to pay a lot more and have to find things on his own. Since I was late and was pleased to have others to join we figured it would be ok to wait for him. The 4 mile trip to the University was 8 dollars each - the shock that just kept shocking as the week went on! I got checked in (stayed in the dorm) and then headed into Christiansted for dinner with some other folks. We wandered for an hour maybe trying to find somewhere decent to eat and then settled on what turned out to be kind of crappy food. The company was great though! The next day class started and was a long day of researchers reading powerpoint presentations to us (researchers are not teachers). The class also turned out to be way to large (92 people) and that is a number they were not prepared for. Hooray for the afternoon when we got to go outside to actually see the set ups! This is what I food. This is a member of the morning glory family called Kang Kong and it is a tasty green you can you raw (new leaves) or cooked - it is "water spinach." I snagged a couple shoots and brought them back with me. All this green is "planted" in water - the giant water troughs are called "raceways" and the plants are planted in little mesh pots sitting in holes made in a Styrofoam type sheet with holes in it that floats on the water. Fish crap water is circulated through these raceways and feeds the plants.

They were growing many herbs, different kinds of lettuce, cantaloupe, cucumbers and there are many possibilities that they don't grow since they don't make money (they tie up the raceways for months rather than weeks as is the case with lettuce).

Green green green and oh, what's that under the covered area? A sewage treatment facility? Nope - all the filters and degassers and fish tanks required for the fish breeding part of the system. Kind of industrial looking.

A peek under the rafts shows beautiful root systems and nice leafy greens - that's what I want.

Besides all the clarifiers, bio filters, take-the-chunks-out filters, fish rearing tanks and everything there was another way to do things that was a little more simple but kind of disgusting. The Biofloc system. Everything in this course was developed by the University of the Virgin Islands (mainly Jim Rakocy). It is all on the internet everywhere. This course was geared to about 30% of the people who attended. The people who want to raise fish and vegetables FOR PROFIT (theoretically). The rest of us were home hobbyists (40%) or people from all over the world who already raise Tilapia on a large scale and I guess wanted to hear it from the master before he retires. I don't fall into the "commercial" category. Isn't this lovely? A sewage treatment pond in your yard. Don't you want one?

Raising fish commercially is involved and the master has perfected how to do it with the goal being to produce even sized portions of fish that don't have a terrible "off flavor" and to produce vegetables to basically pay for feeding and raising the fish. There is an added goal of making "added value" products (breaded fillets, fillets with herb packets and recipes etc etc) in an effort to earn more money. Since we are basically fishing out all the naturally occurring fish in the oceans this may be the wave of the future. Unfortunately China kind of has the market on Tilapia and probably everything else at this point. Lots of energy demands that don't work for us on this scale because of the solar but could work for a backyard design.

I am having some philosophical problems with the whole deal so I focused on taking away some applicable construction ideas for my hybrid system. If we want to have an attractive pond with koi this would be a good construction idea. Coated welded wire mesh and metal stakes are the structure of this fish tank. The liner is tied to the walls which would be less costly than a fiberglass or plastic tank and more importantly, easier to move around and locate on the property. I could then berm up dirt against the walls and plant nice looking things there.

More welded wire mesh, wood beams and cement for construction of the building for the fish tanks - I like the idea of using the wire mesh to keep shade cloth from flapping around in the wind for a greenhouse structure. I think another layer on top of the cloth would really keep it in place on the roof. The wire would keep chickens and cats out.

I enjoyed checking the fish mouths for eggs ..

It was interesting sexing the fish before separating them for sex changing.

They are kind of attractive fish. A bit boring to eat but that mildness lets you do lots of things with it and here in Puerto Rico fresh fish options are slim to none.

I'll have a few more posts about the trip - extra curricular activities and my philosophy about what I want to do next...I am kind of tired of thinking about it right now though.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. It very much appreciated. Will await the next blog entry.


Anonymous said...

Aquaponics is a great viable concept. I am in the process of building a backyard hobby system based on the bunch in Hawaii. They too attended the UVI school a few years ago and pay homage to the wise Dr. Rakocy. What appeals to me about the Fr-Aqua system is it's extremely low electrical requirement and the fact that they are operating a commercial farm successfully and will share (for a very reasonable fee) what they have learned works..and doesn't work. They discovered that a lower fish density will allow a system to operate without the expensive filtering system. A few less fish, more water...far less initial upfront cost.

My wife and I have spent a week in PR & also in Vieques, we envy you! What a great place to start an Aquaponics business. Best of luck and keep the world posted!