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Is Aquaponics difficult?

February 1, 2010

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:

  1. Producers of home aquaponic 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 kits – to simplify. Since Gary is developing his own kit, as am I, I hope he already knows this.)
  2. A PhD and research scientist says commercial aquaponics is complex
  3. 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 sowing, tending and harvesting of the plants themselves.

The 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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 8:04 pm


    I’m not uncomfortable with your description of me as a “contrarian”….particularly if the alternative is to accept what I’m told without question.

    Your observation about my relishing “flying in the face of accumulated knowledge base of aquaponics” fails to acknowledge the time and effort that I spend in contributing to that knowledge base.

    If it’s as easy as you (and JT) suggest why is it that so many people have fish kills……and could you share a bit more of the experience that leads you to you to conclude that it’s that easy?

    Did you have a useful point to make about my book other than its price? What might you conclude from the price of the book (relative to others in the marketplace) if you’ve never read it.

    Your post certainly presents as an opposing view……but it’s a bit light on for technical substance.

    Gary Donaldson

  2. February 1, 2010 9:48 pm

    Hi Gary,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to this post. No slight was intended about your experience with or contributions to aquaponics. I read your blog and spent time on your forum and clearly you have a great depth of experience. As I pointed out, however, the assertions in your blog post were generally not based on your experience.

    JT and I have been very involved in hydroponics since 2003, He took up aquaponics in ’08, I took it up last year. I now have 700 gallons of systems with about 140 fish currently growing wildly in a 12’x20’ greenhouse in Colorado.

    If you would consider sending me a copy of your book I would love to read it.

    Again, thank you for reading this post. I hope you continue to follow it and I hope to meet you in person some day.


  3. john permalink
    February 7, 2010 11:31 am

    With about 30 minutes of basic research, a 1 hour visit to the hardware store and another hour of tinkering, most anyone can have a basic aquaponic system up and running. Will all the fish live the first time? No. Will strange things happen? Yes. but after growing hydroponically for years, worrying about EC and nutrients and oxygen — aquaponics, with it’s near-perfect nutrient stream for plants, is as easy a system as I’ve encountered. It is no more and no less complex than my dirt garden which uses much more water and requires many hours of weeding. I do have a background in home aquariums, lots of gardening experience, and a basic willingness to tinker, so maybe I’m better suited than some others to trying, but all in all it is an easy way to grow veggies at home.

  4. February 26, 2010 8:31 am

    I agree that aquaponics can be complex, gardening is complex, living is complex. That does not mean it can’t be easy.

    Fish kills, well fish kills usually happen when people overstock an uncycled system or don’t pay attention to falling pH or most commonly, forget to plug the pump back in or bump a pipe out and leave the fish high and dry or perhaps some contamination happens or there is no cover over the fish tank and lots of fish jump out.
    Accidents happen or people jump in before the system and they are ready. These most common incidents do not prove aquaponics is terribly hard, just proves that accidents can happen and people can mess up on occasion. (Keep in mind that many injuries happen in the bath or shower. Does that prove that taking a shower is inherently too complex or difficult for the average person?)

    Anyway, I have been running an aquaponics system since spring 2008. I’ve never bought a book about it. I learned (and filtered through) all I needed to know to manage it from the internet and being creative. I fear my system is a bit overly complex to explain to other people because it kinda grew and evolved with me experimenting and trying new things. That does not mean a system kit system is all that complex.

    I’ve never had a major fish kill due to complexity of the system or any failures of system or filtration. I’ve never had a major fish kill.

    The plants growing in my system are doing well and the catfish are doing even better. We pulled a 4 1/2 lb catfish out yesterday and had him for dinner last night. It was very good.

  5. June 5, 2010 5:01 pm

    I am of the firm belief that Aquaponics is Easy. However, one needs to approach Aquaponics with some thought and exercise some basic good sense.
    I operate several systems and have had some fish kills, but I have to add that I have been eating home grown Perch, Cod, and Barramundi every week for the last 3 years….. so it can’t be that hard !
    I should also mention the endless supply of lettuce, cucumbers, beans, sweet corn, cabbage, broccoli…and so on. (in season)
    I have veggie gardened all my life and I can tell you, this is the easiest gardening I have ever done. Highly successful and most enjoyable.
    I am by nature an experimenter and I just love to try new ideas to see if there is a better way and by doing this I have had some experiments that have been discarded, but as a result I have developed the best Aquaponics kit systems available… anywhere.

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