Aquaponics may seem like a new technology, but it actually began way back in 389 BC. Let’s take a step back through time and see how it all began.
389 to 93 BC: Xaltocan Chinampas (Pre-Aztec Raised Bed Farming)
The earliest known practice of aquaponics took place in the Valley of Mexico, near what today is known as Mexico City. The area’s inhabitants, the Xaltocan, used aquaponics to convert shallow swamp lands into farmable strips before the Aztecs conquered them.
Chinampas are narrow strips of land surrounded by water used for growing crops such as maize, beans, squash, and flowers. The canals that separate the strips are filled with nutrient-rich water because of all the aquaculture activities.
25 to 220 AD: Rice Paddy Culture
The next time aquaponics played a major role in history was around 25 AD. During this time period, it became common for the southeast and southwest provinces of China to farm rice with fish.
Today, there are 62.5 million acres of rice paddies suitable for fish farming in China. How big is an acre you ask?
1 acre = 43,560 square feet
That is about 75% of a football field. Now, imagine the grassy area of 47 million football fields. That’s how much of China is suitable for aquaponics farms.
This prevalence is due to the numerous benefits of rice-fish culture including:
- Reduction of aquatic weeds
- Control of insects
- Aeration of soil
- Fish waste fertilization
Rice paddies that include fish typically produce 200-660 lb/acre of fish. The common species seen in this environment are:
- Field common carp
- Common carp
- Grass carp
Fish are typically farmed either in rotation or in mixed culture with rice. For the benefit of the plant, and for the culture of food for the fish, these rice paddies are fertilized with both inorganic chemicals and organic manures.
Organic chemicals like:
- Ammonium bicarbonate
Organic manures like:
- Poultry droppings
- Livestock manures
These rice paddies also have unique features for the health of the fish including trenches and sumps for the fish to find protection in the heat of summer and chill of winter.
1971 to Present: Modern History
Modern aquaponics history started in the 1970s, led by efforts at:
- New Alchemy Institute (NAI)
- University of the Virgin Islands (UVI)
- North Carolina State University (NCSU)
New Alchemy Institute
NAI was in operation from 1971 to 1991. William McLarney, Jeff Parkin, John Todd, and Ron Zweig led the institute’s aquaponics initiatives.
The aquaponics system they worked with was based on an aerated solar-algae pond. This pond was made of a translucent fiberglass silo that allowed for heat storage and growth of phytoplankton.
Hydroponic plants like buttercrunch lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers were grown in the top 15% of the solar pond. To protect the plants’ roots, this area was separated from the fish—blue tilapia—with plastic mesh. The rest of the pond was left open allowing the fish to feed on Purina Trout Chow in this space. This system was the precursor to deep water raft culture used in modern hydroponics and aquaponics.
University of the Virgin Islands
In 1981, Dr. James Rakocy started publishing on the University of the Virgin Island’s aquaponics system. This system, which is composed of fish rearing tanks, connected to raft hydroponics tanks through a filter system. This system, like NAI’s system, was the basis of deep water raft culture and also served to determine many of the operating parameters for modern aquaponics.
North Carolina State Univeristy
In the 1980s, Dr. Mark McMurtry, a graduate student under Dr. Doug Sanders at NC State, created sandponics.
Sandponics is a food production system where aquaculture effluent—fish waste—filters through a hydroponic sand bed before reentering the fish tank as purified water.
In the 1990s, Tom and Paula Speraneo created Bioponics, which adapted the Sandponics system to the commonly utilized flood-and-drain system.
Sandponics and Bioponics serve as the basis for the modern aquaponics technique called ebb and flow, which you can learn more about here.
Both NAI and UVI laid the foundation for deep water culture, while NCSU forged ahead with flood-and-drain aquaponics methods. Their work has informed modern-day aquaponics, making today’s aquaponic greenhouses and aquaponic farms possible.