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SRAC Publication No.



November 1992

Recirculating Aquaculture Tank

Production Systems
Integrating Fish and Plant Culture
1 2 3
James E. Rakocy , Thomas M. Losordo and Michael P. Masser

Recirculating aquaculture systems lar, occurs at very high levels in duce vegetatively (without seeds)
are designed to raise large quanti- recirculating systems. Fish excrete by dividing in half and grow so
ties of fish in relatively small vol- waste nitrogen directly into the rapidly that they can completely
umes of water by treating the water through their gills in the cover the surface of the tank
water to remove toxic waste prod- form of ammonia. Biofilter bacte- within a short time. When this oc-
ucts and then reusing it. In the ria convert ammonia to nitrite and curs, about one third of the plants
process of reusing the water many then to nitrate (see SRAC Publica-
times, non-toxic nutrients and or- tion No. 451 on critical considera-
ganic matter accumulate. These tions). Ammonia and nitrite are
metabolic by- products need not toxic to fish, but nitrate is rela-
be wasted if they are channeled tively harmless and is the pre-
into secondary crops that have ferred form of nitrogen used by
economic value or in some way higher plants, such as vegetables.
benefit the primary production
Integrated systems can be used for
system. Systems that grow addi-
the hydroponic culture of high
tional crops by utilizing by-prod-
value cash crops such as tomatoes,
ucts from the production of the
lettuce and sweet basil. Recirculat-
primary species are referred to as
ing systems may also be used for
integrated systems.
the culture of aquatic plants.
Plants are an ideal secondary crop
in integrated systems because they Aquatic plants
grow rapidly in response to the Aquatic plants grow rapidly in
high levels of dissolved nutrients recirculating systems that are lo-
that are generated from the micro- cated outdoors, in greenhouses or
bial breakdown of fish wastes. In in buildings with adequate artifi-
closed recirculating systems, cial light. Plants are typically
which employ very little daily grown in shallow tanks that are
water exchange (1 to 5 percent), separate from the fish rearing
dissolved nutrients accumulate tank. Three types of aquatic plants
and approach the concentrations can be cultured: floating, emer-
that are found in hydroponic nutri- gent and submerged.
ent solutions. Nitrogen, in particu-
Floating plants, which are
University of The Virgin Islands; naturally buoyant, grow with their

North Carolina State University roots suspended in the water and Leaf lettuce grown in deep flowing chan-
Alabama Cooperative Extension Service their leaves in the air. They repro- nels is an ideal crop for integrated recir-
culating systems.

should be removed to avoid ris (Elodea sp.) can be grown suc- roots of plants grown by NFT may
crowding and nutrient limitations cessfully in recirculating systems become fouled with a blanket of
and to keep the remaining plants where filters maintain clear water. sludge. Excessive sludge accumu-
in a state of rapid growth. These plants have economic value lation has a harmful affect on
as aquarium plants. They also plant growth because it blocks the
Common floating plants that can
benefit the system by inhibiting flow of water and creates zones
be cultured in recirculating sys-
the growth of phytoplankton and without oxygen. Plant roots need
tems include water hyacinth (Eich-
producing dissolved oxygen on oxygen for healthy growth. Dis-
horia crassipes), water lettuce (Pistia
sunny days. solved oxygen is utilized by the
sp. ), duckweed (Spirodela and
roots for nutrient uptake and other
Lemna spp.) and water fern (Azolla
Hydroponic vegetables vital cell functions.
sp. ). These plants can be sold as or-
namental (water hyacinth, water The production of vegetables with- There are techniques to prevent
lettuce) or used as food (duck- out soil is referred to as hydropon- sludge buildup and maintain ade-
weed, water fern) for herbivorous ics. Hydroponics requires media quate oxygen. A false bottom of
fish such as grass carp and tilapia. other than soil, or some structure rigid screen can be used to sepa-
Floating plants are also useful in to support the plant. Water must rate the root growing area from
inhibiting the growth of phyto- contain the 13 essential nutrients the bottom of deep flowing chan-
plankton by blocking light penetra- for plant growth. nels. The rigid screen can also sup-
tion into the water and removing Hydroponic culture is usually port plant roots in the NFT
excess nitrogen from the system. identified by type of support method or support growth media
Water hyacinth can remove more media that is used: water culture, such as gravel. Settleable solids ac-
than 1 gram of nitrogen per square sand culture or gravel culture. cumulate on the bottom of the
meter of surface area per day dur- Water culture is further subdi- tank under the root zone. If a few
ing periods of optimum growth. vided into nutrient film technique fish are placed under the false bot-
(NFT), deep flowing channels and tom, their swimming action can
Emergent plants need an under-
aeroponics. NFT consists of many keep sludge from accumulating.
water substrate for their roots
narrow plastic troughs or gutters To maintain adequate oxygen,
while their stems and leaves grow
in which the plant roots are placed gravel and sand media can be
above the water surface. Emergent
and exposed to a continuously flooded intermittently, allowing
plants with economic value that
flowing film of nutrient solution. time for the culture water to drain
can be cultured in a recirculating
system include watercress (Nastur- Deep flowing channels are much out of the media and draw air
tium officinale), water chestnut wider and deeper so that the plant (oxygen) into the root zone. Long,
(Eleocharis dulcis) and water spin- roots are completely suspended in deep flowing channels must be
ach (Ipomoea aquatica). Substrates a slow moving stream of water. aerated at intervals with diffused
for these plants may be mud, sand The plants are supported at the air delivered through air stones.
or an artificial medium (e. g., ver- surface with polystyrene sheets. In
aeroponics, the plant roots are sus-
Essential nutrients
miculite). Watercress may be cul-
tured without a substrate if it is pended in air inside an opaque Essential plant nutrients are di-
supported near the water surface container and sprayed with a fine vided into two categories; macro-
on window screen, which allows mist of nutrient solution. nutrients which are required in
its roots to grow into the water col- Although these media have all relatively large quantities, and mi-
umn. Watercress and water spin- been used successfully in inte- cronutrients which are needed in
ach grow very rapidly and can be grated systems, fish culture water very small (trace) amounts. Macro-
harvested on a continuous basis. has some special characteristics nutrients consist of nitrogen (N),
Water chestnut requires a 7-month phosphorus (P), potassium (K), cal-
that must be considered in the
growing season to produce a thick design of the hydroponic subsys- cium (Ca), sulfur (S), and magne-
stand of reed-like plants and a tem. Fish produce feces that must sium (Mg). Micronutrients include
high density of underground tu- be removed from the system iron (Fe), chlorine (Cl), manganese
bers, which develop as the through sedimentation or filtra- (Mn), boron (B), zinc (Zn), copper
weather cools. Water chestnut tion (see SRAC Publication No. (Cu), and molybdenum (Mo). For
yields of 0.6 pounds per square 453 on components). Although optimum growth, plants need a
foot have been obtained in recircu- these methods remove most of the balanced quantity of these essen-
lating systems. solid waste, a relatively small tial nutrients (Table 1).
Submerged plants grow entirely amount remains suspended as Hydroponic solutions may contain
underwater and are held in place small (colloidal) particles. Hydro- 10 to 20 percent of total nitrogen
by their roots which grow in sub- ponic systems that use fine sup- as ammonium (NH4), which stimu-
strates of mud or sand. Submer- port media for plants, such as lates vegetative growth. However,
ged aquarium plants such as eel sand or gravel, may eventually be- ammonium is never added to inte-
grass (Vallisneria sp.) and anacha- come clogged with sludge. The grated systems since sufficient am-

water, which has low salt levels all of the essential nutrients are
Table 1. Typical hydroponic but will require buffering to raise present in sufficient quantities. Nu-
nutrient solution.1 pH. trients that require supplementa-
Concentration The rate of salt buildup can be de- tion are potassium (as potassium
Nutrient (mg/liter) creased by increasing the water ex- hydroxide), calcium (as calcium
change rate or using the optimum oxide or calcium hydroxide) and
Ca 197 iron (as iron chelate containing 10
Mg 44 ratio between the number of
plants and the number of fish, or percent iron by weight).
K 400
N (as NO3) 145 (642) more precisely, the daily feed allot- The addition of strong bases such
P (as PO4) 65 (199) ment. An optimum ratio is as potassium hydroxide and cal-
S ( a s S O4 ) 197.5 (592) achieved when plant production is cium oxide also neutralize acids
Cl — maximized and salt build-up is that are produced when ammonia
Fe 2 low. For example, the optimum (NH3) is converted to nitrate
Mn 0.5 ratio for the number of leaf lettuce (NO3) in the biofilter. These bases
Cu 0.03 plants (summer Bibb) to fish (til- must be added daily to maintain
Zn 0.05 apia) is 1.9:1 in a closed recirculat- the pH of the system near 7. As a
B 0.5 ing system using a deep flowing result, potassium and calcium con-
Mo 0.02 channel with rainwater, a com- tribute substantially to the build-
Modified after Resh, 1989. plete fish diet of 36 percent pro- up of nutrient salts, but they are
tein, and a water exchange rate of also required in large amounts by
monium is produced by the fish. 1 percent/day. Lettuce production plants (Table 1). Iron is supple-
Although chloride ions are re- is maximized at this ratio, which is mented less frequently (perhaps
quired by plants, they are not equivalent to a daily feeding rate monthly) by adding 2 mg/liter.
added to hydroponic or integrated of 2.4 grams/plant. The waste nu- Supplemental nutrients may be ap-
systems because sufficient trients from this amount of feed be- plied directly to the plants
amounts of this element occur in come available to the plant after through foliar sprays. Nutrient de-
fish feed and most water supplies. the feed is digested by the fish. ficiencies may vary depending on
This daily feeding rate is equiva- the water source (chemistry), fish
The total concentration of nutrient lent to 3.2 grams/cubic feed and hydroponic substrate
salts in this typical hydroponic so- meter/square meter when system used.
lution is approximately 2,100 volume and plant growing area
mg/liter. Total nutrient concentra- (23.9 plants/ square meter) are con- Insect and disease control
tions that exceed this maximum sidered. Insect and disease control tech-
safe level become toxic to many
vegetable varieties and decrease For example, at the optimum ratio, niques for vegetables in integrated
production. When this solution is a 10,000-gallon integrated system systems are limited to the use of bi-
used in standard hydroponic sys- with a daily feed input of 8.8 ological control, resistant varieties,
tems, concentrations of all the es- pounds requires a plant produc- screening and specialized cultural
sential elements decline as they tion area of 800 square feet for practices. One successful biologi-
are absorbed by the plants. Eventu- 2,100 heads of leaf lettuce. At the cal control method is the use of the
1.9 ratio, total salts still increase at bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis,
ally the solution must be dis-
carded and replaced with a new, a rate of 135 grams/kilogram of which is effective in the control of
balanced solution. feed. Very little is presently caterpillars. In general, pesticides
known about the optimum ratio should not be used because most
A different relationship exists in in- for other types of vegetables, fish, are very toxic to fish, and none
tegrated recirculating systems. system designs, feeds, and water have been approved for use in
Through the addition of feed and sources. In general, properly food fish culture. Similarly, most
the production of metabolic designed integrated systems have therapeutants for treating fish
wastes by the fish, nutrients are very large plant growing areas re- parasites and diseases should not
usually generated faster than they lative to the fish production com- be used in an integrated system be-
can be absorbed by the plants. As ponents. cause they harm the biofilter and
a result, levels of nutrient salts vegetables may readily absorb and
steadily increase, and when the When an integrated system is put
into operation, the fish should be concentrate them.
total concentration exceeds 2,100
mg/liter, the culture water must fed a few weeks before the first A possible approach to avoid the
be exchanged or diluted. Water planting to allow time for all of the restrictions of pesticide usage is to
that is used for integrated systems essential nutrients to accumulate establish the hydroponic unit as a
should initially have low levels to the minimal levels required for flow- through system, thereby al-
(<100 mg/liter) of total dissolved good plant growth. Although nu- lowing the vegetables to be man-
solids (salts). A good source is rain- trient salts accumulate in inte- aged independently of the fish.
grated recirculating systems, not

Baskets of anacharis (Elodea) being harvested from an integrated recirculating system. In the
background are stands of water chestnut (left) and water hyacinth (right).

Annual production of leaf lettuce from the integrated recirculating system is projected to be
35,000 heads.

Water can be diverted to the grows well in response to high ni- ponic systems. For the most part,
plants from the recirculating sys- trogen levels, yields a high propor- however, production from inte-
tem when optimum nutrient levels tion of edible product, and is grated systems will probably fall
are reached. Water should be di- subject to less pest pressure due to slightly short of that from stand-
verted at a rate (e.g., 5 percent its short production cycle. Com- ard hydroponics. Integrated sys-
daily) that allows nutrients to be mon methods for growing lettuce tems cannot be managed as
maintained at optimum concentra- in integrated systems are NFT and efficiently because of pesticide use
tions for plant growth. deep flowing channels with poly- restrictions and complex nutrient
styrene sheets for plant support. dynamics involving build-ups of
Vegetable production Plants are started in peat pellets in some elements and deficiencies in
More than 30 kinds of vegetables trays outside the system. After 3 others that must be supplemented.
have been raised in integrated sys- weeks, the seedlings are trans-
The primary attraction for inte-
tems on an experimental basis. A ferred to the system for 3 more
grated systems is financial. Nutri-
wide range of systems has been weeks of growth, which will bring
ent recovery from aquaculture
used in a number of different envi- them to harvest size under ideal
effluents reduces hydroponic
ronments from greenhouses in conditions. Two additional weeks
chemical costs. High quality water
northern states that are heated in of growth are required during the
is repeatedly used to support the
the winter to outdoor systems in winter in heated greenhouses. Let-
growth of both fish and vegeta-
the subtropics. Production levels tuce production is usually stag-
bles, further reducing costs. Addi-
have varied greatly in response to gered so that one crop is harvested
tional savings can be realized by
environment, system design and each week, and a new one is imme-
sharing infrastructure (e.g., one
management. Table 2 lists yields diately planted.
pump can be used for both subsys-
of some of the vegetable varieties Another crop with good potential tems). Detailed economic studies
that have been grown in inte- for integrated systems is sweet are needed to quantify the advan-
grated systems. basil. Production data are not tages of integration and determine
Crops that have been studied most available, but sweet basil is being profitability, but a preliminary an-
intensively include tomatoes and grown commercially in integrated alysis with lettuce shows that
lettuce. Tomatoes appear to be systems. plants will generate most of the in-
most productive in outdoor gravel Vegetable yields in integrated sys- come and require most of the
systems with varieties that are de- tems exceed that of field crops be- labor.
terminant (i.e., they set their fruit cause higher planting densities are
during a short period and are not possible due to control of the nutri-
pruned). Tomatoes require a long ent solution, the constant availabil- Resh, H.M. 1989. Hydroponic
growing period and are therefore ity of water and the absence of Food Production: A Definitive
at greater risk to damage from competition from weeds. In some Guidebook of Soilless Food
pests and diseases. cases, as with lettuce, production Growing Methods. Woodbridge
Lettuce is a popular plant for inte- from integrated systems has Press Publishing Co., Santa
grated production because it equaled that of standard hydro- Barbara, CA.

Table 2. Production of vegetable varieties in integrated recirculating aquiculture systems.

Crop Variety Density Growing Production in Ibs. per System
(no./ft 2) Period 2
(days)1 plant ft
Tomato Floradel 0.36 133 20.0 3.3 Gravel
Floradade 0.17 112 20.0 3.3 Gravel
Sunny 0.17 112 22.0 3.7 Gravel
Lettuce Summer Bibb 2.32 21 0.4 0.9 Channel
Buttercrunch 2.32 21 0.4 1.0 Channel
Cucumber Triumph — — 8.9 — Gravel
Burpee Hybrid II 0.62 — 5.2 3.2 Sand
Squash Golden Bar — — 5.5 — Gravel
Pac Choi Le Choi 1.77 28 1.1 1.8 Gravel
Pac Choi 1.77 28 0.9 1.6 Gravel
Chinese 50-Day Hybrid 1.77 28 1.4 2.3 Gravel
Cabbage Tropical Delight 1.77 28 1.3 2.2 Gravel
From date of transplanting.

The work reported in this publication was supported in part by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center through Grant No. 89-38500-4516 from the United States
Department of Agriculture.