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A Quick History of Aquaponics

Stunning terraced rice paddy in China demonstrating the ancient history of aquaponics

The history of aquaponics is rich and varied, with early examples cropping up in surprisingly diverse regions of the ancient world. Indeed, some cultures have harnessed aquaponics for thousands of years and are still using it today.

‘Chinampas’ and Rice Paddies

One of the earliest examples of aquaponics goes all the way back to around 1,000 AD with the Aztec Indians in Mexico. The Aztecs grew plants on movable, man-made islands called ‘chinampas’ on the surface of freshwater marshes and lakes. The nutrients for these plants came from the waste of fish, crayfish and worms living in these water sources.

Over on the other side of the world in Eastern Asia, people in South China, Thailand and Indonesia were also quick to see the potential of aquaponics. Farmers found that crops like rice thrived when fish were added to paddy fields. 

The Southern Chinese took this one step further by keeping ducks in cages over finfish ponds. The finfish ate the waste that fell from the ducks above. In turn, the waste that the finfish produced flowed into a lower pond populated by catfish and the catfish fed on that. In the final part of the system, waste and water from the catfish ponds was used to irrigate rice paddies and vegetable plots.

Modern Aquaponics

Given that the history of aquaponics goes back so far and that some cultures have been using one form of aquaponics or another for hundreds of years, it took a lot longer for gardeners and farmers in the western world to see its value.

In fact, most of the developments that we take for granted today stemmed from the research done by the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) and by Dr. Mark McMurty of the North Carolina State University in the 1970s.

The NAI wanted to design and create a sustainable ecosystem that combined shelter, food and energy production. Apart from building bioshelters and researching organic farming methods, the scientists at NAI did some highly influential work on aquaponics – raising fish in tanks below floating hydroponic cages. If you want to read about this in detail, please click here.

The work done by the NAI was further developed by Dr. Mark McMurty and his colleagues, who put together a system where the wastewater from fish tanks was used to feed produce like tomatoes. These tomatoes were grown in sand. As the fish water ran through the sand, it was filtered and this ‘cleaned’ water was then returned to the original fish tank. This was the first closed-loop aquaponics system, though McMurty preferred to call it an ‘Integrated Aqua-vegeculture System (iAVs).

The next step in the evolution of modern aquaponics came with the University of the Virgin Islands System. This is a Deep Water Channel (DWC) system which uses floats or rafts to dangle plant roots in tanks where the water is kept nutrient rich by the tilapia fish living in them.

From this, came the Speraneo System (also known as ‘ebb and flow’ system), which has gained popularity with aquaponics fans the world over. Tom and Paula Speraneo put gravel in their grow beds rather than sand and the rest is history.

Aquaponics Today

In a nice return to one of the places where it all started, the Chinese have been busy planting and tending enormous floating wetlands and islands and practising aquaponics on fish ponds. It’s a system that is uninterrupted by the rise and fall of water levels, is environmentally friendly and is producing huge amounts of rice, wheat and canna lily. 

What more could you want from a farming method?

If you are interested in a detailed breakdown of the advantages of aquaponics, read more here.

See here for more on the adaptation of large scale aquaponics in China.


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