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Anne McCarthy, a fisheries and aquaculture technician at Vancouver Island University, holds a tilapia fish grown in an aquaponics project, where fish and plants feed off one another in an integrated recirculating system. (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler)
Anne McCarthy, a fisheries and aquaculture technician at Vancouver Island University, holds a tilapia fish grown in an aquaponics project, where fish and plants feed off one another in an integrated recirculating system. (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler)

DIY dinner

My backyard fish farm Add to ...

Simon Tyler never wants to buy vegetables again. He doesn't plan to visit the fish market either.

Instead, the systems engineer for a Toronto software company is in the process of setting up a structure in his downtown backyard that lets him breed fish while recycling their water to grow his own produce.

It's called aquaponics - the combination of aquaculture (breeding fish in captivity as a food source) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and the basic process is simple: In the symbiotic system, fish provide fertilizer for the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish, eliminating water waste and making it the ultimate sustainable food source.

While the concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea is just picking up steam in Canada where an increasing number of people want us to grow our own - the environmentally friendly way. One Canadian university is even working on developing a simple home system with the goal of making aquaponics available to everyone.

For now, amateur aquaponics enthusiasts have flocked to the Internet for guidance and support. On websites like backyardaquaponics.com, nearly 3,000 users from around the world fill message boards with queries, exchange notes and post pictures and diagrams of their own systems, showing off the fruit of their labour.

Mr. Tyler, one of the website's users, grew up in Nova Scotia where he kept angel fish as a hobby and would spend weekends out on the ocean catching cod with his father.

"I'm a bit of a Bluenoser," he says with a laugh.

As a teenager, he became interested in aquaculture and read as much as he could about it. Fascinated by the idea, he never had the time or the space to set up his own system. As he got older, aquaponics struck him as the perfect way to combine his interest in fish with his desire to eat locally grown food.

For the past year, Mr. Tyler, 35, has experimented with a small system in his kitchen that held two tilapia fish, two small catfish, two bichirs and a handful of minnows and guppies. He grew mint and chives and could see rapid growth in his plants. That system has since been cleared out to make way for renovations, but it was a valuable learning experience for Mr. Tyler.

This summer, Mr. Tyler is building an outdoor system, complete with greenhouse, where he plans to breed channel catfish and grow tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. While the system he has planned would hold about 55 one-pound fish, for the first year he plans to run it at half the capacity. Mr. Tyler also estimates that he'll be able to grow more vegetables than he and his wife will be able to eat. The leftovers will go back into the system as food for the fish.

"Catfish are native, so as long as the water doesn't freeze, you don't really have a problem with them," says Mr. Tyler.

Mr. Tyler admits that it requires a certain amount of technical know-how to get a system like his up and running, but doesn't think that it's an impossible task.

"What it comes down to is, do you have the inclination, do you have a green thumb, can you keep a goldfish alive and can you keep a tomato plant alive?" He says. "If you can do that, then you can start a small system and grow from there."

Anne McCarthy, a fisheries and aquaculture technician at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C., would like to increase the accessibility of aquaponics.

More than 1,000 people a year visit the VIU facility to see aquaponics in action. Ms. McCarthy wants to see the practice become widespread and the team at VIU is developing a small backyard system using rainbow trout, a fish that can survive in colder climates. Once they're confident in their prototype, they plan to promote the idea in the greater community.

"It's an idea that has a lot of potential for food production," she says.

Ms. McCarthy was inspired to start an aquaponics program after attending a conference in Puerto Rico in 2007 that had several sessions about the practice.

Aquaponics is popular in the Caribbean because of the heavy dependence on rainwater for crops. Tilapia is the fish of choice because it doesn't require much care and grows quickly. James Rakocy, a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, developed the first prototypes.

"We saw the systems that were designed in the Virgin Islands and thought, you know, it's better to be proactive and learn how to use water responsibly instead of just flushing it down the drain," says Ms. McCarthy.

VIU's aquaponics system uses a raft made of polystyrene that allows the plants to float over the water while their roots dangle down. The ammonia-rich water created by the fish waste is pumped into the produce beds, which purify the water for the tilapia. The system is linked together so that when clean water flows into the fish tank, it pushes the dirty water out to the plants. The solid waste is collected into a settling chamber and turned into land compost.

Greenhouse scientist Nick Savidov thinks that Canadians need to re-evaluate the way food is cultivated. Dr. Savidov works for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, where he has dedicated himself to studying and promoting aquaponics at the research facility in Brooks, Alta.

He believes that we should move away from our traditional system of monocropping and attempt to mimic the symbiotic relationships that exist in nature.

If we strive to create an eco system instead of exaggerating only one component of the food chain, we will eliminate waste and increase food productivity, says Dr. Savidov. Aquaponics is the green option because it eliminates water waste, doesn't require fertilizer and is pesticide free.

Aquaponics will one day replace the traditional home garden, says Dr. Savidov, but before we can get there, people need to first understand what exactly aquaponics is.

"It's very important to explain the advantages of this system," he says, adding that his team has been working with a local high school for the past two years to introduce aquaponics into the classroom.

"That's why we're trying not just to develop this technology, but to also work with the public."

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