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The fish from my garden

The number of people who take care to enquire where and how their food is produced is growing steadily. More and more people want a guarantee that their foodstuffs, whether vegetables, salads or fish, are produced locally, in an ecologically impeccable manner, and in harmony with nature. Fruit and vegetables produced oneself or grown in the region, ok; but fresh fish too? ECO123 investigates.

For weeks there has been talk of little else. The idea is fascinating: it keeps them occupied and is the daily topic of conversation. This is confirmed by João Jesus (48), an independent landscape designer from Palmela; Laura Conceição (24), a student from Agualva; Raul Bernadino (48), a chemist by profession, from Peniche; Andreia Domingues (27) from Pombal, who is currently completing her Master’s in aquaculture, and finally Adolfo Franco (50) of the ICNF* in Lisbon. They belong to the 25 seminar participants who were able to sign up in time for the first, one-week aquaponics course to be held in Portugal. They meet in Lisbon. The course is held at the Faculty of Sciences (FCUL) and at MARE* at the University of Lisbon. “We hadn’t reckoned on so much interest,” admits João Cotter (45) from AquaponicsPortugal, with surprise.

Fresh fish from Monchique, from Pombal, from Palmela? Fish from the tank in your own garden or from an aquarium on a fifth-floor balcony? This is something the author of this story is also interested in. They had reckoned on at least 12 participants, but more than 50 registered. “We’ll soon be offering another course,” I am assured by course leader, João Cotter.

“Why do you think I signed up for this,” asks one participant. “I am grateful that I am able to be involved because I really think that this will be the future. We are risking our future with the way in which we deal with our earth.”

It is about the future, which many inhabitants of our planet would prefer not to think about at all. The water resources for 9.6 billion people who will be living on the planet by 2050, are not sufficient for everyone, the UN writes.*¹ It is not only water that will be running short, the resources of the sea threatened by over-fishing will also be in short supply before 2042.*² So, what are we going to feed ourselves on from 2025 onwards if 92% of the world’s water reserves are being wasted on agro-industry that does not work in harmony with nature? What living conditions are we bequeathing to our children’s and grandchildren’s generations?

Cycle versus one-way street.

course AquaponicsThe course starts on Monday at 5 p.m. “We only see fish from the point of view of our plates and not in the sea,” says marine biologist, Dr. Carla Sousa Santos (38) of ISPA/MARE*. But our sea is full of rubbish. Our oceans are now covered with a thin layer of microplastic particles. Almost every square kilometre of sea water is already contaminated with plastic. Microplastic particles in cosmetics, shower gels and shampoos get into the rivers through sewage systems, and thence into the sea. These particles are picked up not only by sea birds but also by fish.

Every plastic bottle, every plastic bag and the other rubbish floating in the sea, disintegrates overs years into countless microparticles. Larger pieces of plastic can take centuries to break down. The whole world of consumption and our lifestyle need to be rethought, the renowned Lisbon marine biologist warns. Regrettably, many of today’s products are not yet designed to be re-used, and lose their value after one use. Think about yoghurt pots and all the packaging in the supermarkets. But plastic is not biologically degradable. And the irony of the story lies in the fact that humans, with their fish from the sea, on their plates, are located at the end of the food chain. For the moment.

In the history of its evolution, humanity has NOW reached a point where population growth and the overexploitation of natural resources are reaching a critical point. The exhaustion of natural resources can be seen more and more often, making the lives of every individual more stressful. Floods of refugees on an increasing scale from civil wars, poverty and devastation are meanwhile reaching Europe. That too was predicted by the UN. And mass agro-industrialisation employing poisons, over-fertilisation and over-fishing of the seas make it necessary to re-think processes and find solutions that will ease the strain on the planet. How will the coming generations provide themselves with natural foodstuffs? For this reason, aquaponics is mainly oriented towards local people who are self-sufficient – but also towards interested commercial investors – either in the country or the urban areas.

Cycle versus cul-de-sac.

sistema aguapónicoHydroculture + aquaculture = aquaponics. That is the formula for the symbiosis of two disciplines, and it represents both a solution and a challenge. It has the potential firstly to put high-quality fish on people’s plates, and at the same time to relieve the pressure on the sea as a wild, living organism. Secondly, it is about producing local vegetables of the highest quality, without the long distribution chains from farmers via processing (deep-freezing, canning etc.) and intermediaries with long transportation routes to the supermarket. What matters much more nowadays is producing as much as possible locally and efficiently once again: water, energy and organic matter from the kitchen, in order to obtain natural fertiliser as well, says João Cotter.

Right at the beginning of the course, there is a lively discussion about whether humans are just one part of nature or dominate it and their behaviour is so invasive, like the many fish that are not allowed to be bred in Portugal. The course argues with Adolfo Franco of the ICNF about this, who is a participant and presenter in equal measure. Because he speaks to the auditorium and explains which exotic fish species are forbidden for breeding in Portugal by law. At the end of the evening, one participant asks him to give the course a list of the fish that may be bred, and not the other way round.

aguaponic cycleAquaponics is a system of food production that combines aquaculture – the production of freshwater creatures like fish, mussels and prawns – with hydroculture: plants growing with no soil, their roots immersed in water. The new science is ecologically more sustainable than the traditional agricultural system. It is the perfect synergy between the use of aquatic animals and biological processes in installations of different sizes. The fishes’ growing process produces nutrients as a natural fertiliser, which nourishes the plants in turn: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, beans, strawberries etc.

More and more people are becoming aware of aquaponics’ significant potential. Small farmers, entrepreneurs and producers are excited. And so the EU promoted it in 2014 for the first time with €22.5 million in research funds.

“Aquaponics will focus on developing more sustainable and productive agriculture and forestry systems, while at the same time developing services, concepts and policies for thriving rural livelihoods,” writes Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament in the Official Journal.*5

“Emphasis will be placed on healthy and safe foods for all as well as competitive food processing methods that use fewer resources. In parallel, efforts will be made on sustainable and environmentally friendly fisheries. Low carbon, resource efficient, sustainable and competitive European bio-based industries will also be promoted.”

That a fundamental process of re-thinking is slowly beginning in Brussels is cause for hope.

Martin Schulz stresses that “research, education and innovation in aquaponics will support development and open prospects for new business, associations of actors in the aquaculture and horticultural sectors and the creation of dynamic short circuits in rural and urban areas. Aquaponics can contribute to strengthening and transforming communities such as neighbourhoods, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and be a catalyst for social innovation. ”

With Aquaponics, agriculture, marine research, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics act together in an integrated system, in which animal protein and plants grow together and at the same time. While the hydroculture plants need the fish excrement as fertiliser for growth, they simultaneously filter the fishes’ habitat, the water. In this way, more than 90% of the water used in land-based agriculture can be saved, because the water circulates and does not drain into the ground.

The country needs new ideas

João Lemos & João Henriques
João Lemos & João Henriques

Positive thinking is the order of the day on the course at the University of Lisbon. But how does aquaponics really work? In their introduction, various scientists explain the cycle of the biotope’s different sea creatures and their nutrition, the bacteria, nutrients and other chemicals, the plants and their growth. Then it progresses day by day, including some brushing up of school and university subject matter: photosynthesis, biological cycles in nature, the chemical elements and their connections as plants’ macro and micro nutrients, sowing and the growth of plants.

On the last day of the course, João Lemos, one of the original aquaponics pioneers from Aveiro, calls for everyone’s attention. In a detailed lecture with pictures and films, he shows the intelligent and efficient planning and layout of the components of his domestic aquaponics system. He proves that the results are predictable and productive, that they save time, money and energy. He said that, with aquaponics, an international success story was gathering pace, both on a private and on a commercial scale. In Portugal, this course was just a first step, he added. Of the ten occupations that were most in demand with anticipated high growth in the coming decades, there were two that were closely linked to this new technology: the urban farmer and the aquaponics farmer.


Interview with Joaão Cotter

ECO123:  Do you have an idea about how much capital an investor in aquaponics would have to put into a system with a tank of about 5,000 litres of water in order to have their own aquaponics at home?

joão cotter
João Cotter

João Cotter: The question raises a number of issues before I am able to give a concrete response. I will base my response on a number of assumptions, namely, that the tank for fish has a volume of 5,000 litres and we are going to use a conservative average density of fish, to be on the safe side, of 15 kg per m3, which gives us an average of 75 kg of fish in the tank. It will need around 1 kg of feed per day. We will need a hydroponic surface area of approximately 15 m2. We will need a minimum total area of the hydroponic system of 30 to 35 m2. Let’s assume that most of the labour will be free, the work will be done by the person concerned. The system will be housed in a small greenhouse.

The total cost of the system will be between €3,000 and €4,000. This will depend on the labour to be used in the system, whether contracted in or done by the person concerned. If the density of fish is higher, the hydroponic surface will be greater, and the investment will be higher, but the profitability of the facility will also be higher.
How much working time per week would a subsistence farmer need to invest in his/her own system, if it is fully operational?
Once fully operational, a small system of this kind would need an average of between seven and nine hours of work per week: doing tests; cleaning filters and pipes; examining fish and the operation of the system; feeding the fish; sowing and transplanting plants; harvesting plants; adding nutrients that are lacking etc.

Does an aquaponics farmer need a licence of some kind – if so, where is this requested?
If the aim is to produce food for the family’s own consumption and not for selling, a licence must be obtained from the ICNF for small not-for-profit operations. See the “Despatch of the Secretary of State for Agriculture of 12-3-93” on the “Non-profit maintenance of aquatic species”.
Care must be taken that the aquatic species to be kept are not prohibited by Decree-Law 565/99, of 12th December. It they are, it will not be possible to keep them.
If the aim is to produce food for selling, this involves a series of pieces of legislation and a licence for the installation of industrial pisciculture in inland waters. See the presentation and legislation put up by Adolfo Franco at http://www.aquaponicsportugal.com/.

1 ICNF: The Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas, I. P. is a public environmental institute, responsible for the protection of nature, forests, their flora and fauna, and biodiversity, and an indirect part of the administration of the Portuguese state, however, with its own administrative and financial autonomy and own property. http://www.icnf.pt/portal/icnf  
2 MARE* = Oceanography Centre of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon
3 Glover, A.G., and C.R. Smith (2003). The deep-sea floor ecosystem: current status and prospects of anthropogenic change by the year 2025. Environmental Conservation30(3): 219-241
4 National Geographic; American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); Worm, Boris, et al. (2006-11-03). “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services”. Science314 (5800): 787–790. doi:10.1126/science.1132294. PMID 17082450. Retrieved 2006-11-04.
5 The President of the European Parliament in the official notice L 204/40 published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 14th July 2014. (Capitulo 08 02 03 02 — HORIZONTE 2020 — Sciencias)
Official Journal of the European Union, L 204/41, 11.7.2014, Commission
Aquaponics is considered a new revolution in food production. Aquaponics is a sustainable food production model, based on the basic principle of organic farming, which combines hydroponics (growing plants in sand, gravel or water) and aquaculture (fish farming). The idea is to combine these two techniques into a single system, so as to reinforce the positive effects of each technique and cancel each other’s negative ones.
The major benefits of Aquaponics are:
1. Water recycling and reuse,
2. High productivity (measured in terms of quantity/space),
3. Small environmental footprint.

This project is based on a multidimensional approach that takes into account:
1. the need to ensure the health and safety of food products through ecological agriculture and increasing aquaculture production,
2. the inclusion of nutrition,
3. the need for economy of resources (e.g. water, energy, land, capital) and improvements in the use of water, energy and space,
4. protecting the environment,
5. the importance of market development,
6. the organisational and social innovation,
7. utility organisations’ and companies’ social and solidarity economy,
8. social inclusion and education,
9. the need for creating new skills and new jobs with the aim of modernising labour markets,
10. the strengthening of governance (i.e. strengthening the participation of stakeholders in decision-making),
11. the importance attached by the Union to territorial cohesion and integrated territorial approach,
12. a European context marked by the emergence of a policy of sustainable cities,
13. the importance attached by the Union to develop an economy based on knowledge.
The project aims at being cross-regional, multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary.

Let’s build an aquaponics system together.
ECO123 is organising an exclusive, 20-hour weekend course from 26th to 28th June in Caldas de Monchique on theoretical and practical aquaponics for subsistence farmers in collaboration with the team from Aquaponics Portugal. Participation for a maximum of 12 participants, in Portuguese. Further information, conditions of participation and prices etc. can be found on our website www.eco123.info from 15th May, or write directly to info@eco123.info. Many thanks

About the author

Uwe Heitkamp, 53 years old, started working after university in daily newspapers and from 1984 on in public tv broadcasting companies such as WDR (Collogne), NDR (Hamburg), SDR (Stuttgart/Baden-Baden) in the ARD (first programme), wrote several books and directed the cinema movie about the anti nuclear movement in Germany in 1986 (Wackersdorf). After emigration in 1990 he founded 1995 the trilingual weekly printed newspaper “Algarve123”  and later the online edition www.algarve123.com. Heitkamp lives for 25 year in Monchique, Portugal. He loves mountain hiking and swimming in streams and lakes, writes and tells stories of success from people and their sustainable relationship between ecology and economy. His actual film “Revolutionary Roads” tells the 60 minute story of a long walk crossing Portugal. 10 rural people paint a picture of their lives in the hills of the serra and the hinterland. The film captures profound impressions of natural beauty and human life. Along which path is the future of Portugal to be found? (subscribe to ECO123 und watch the documentary in the Mediatec)

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