EU has already used up fish supplies for 2016

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Announced by The NEF (New Economics Foundation), last week saw ‘fish dependence day’ the annual day where EU fish consumption exceeds domestic fish production. From now until the end of the year,, All fish consumed by EU nations will have to be imported.
Aside from issues with air miles and carbon emissions, importing food is not necessarily a bad thing as it maintains important trading relationships and allows nations play to their strengths in terms of efficient production.

However, the EU has a bit of a fishy problem. Many European fish stocks are already overfished, and have been for several years as a result of increasing fish consumption in the EU over the past 50 years. In response to this, imports from non­EU nations have also increased over this time. However, whilst the EU enforces fairly strict regulations in attempt maintain a sustainable fishing regime, international fisheries lack the implementation of such regulations, which as well as being unsustainable has depleted local communities of their own fish stocks, as well as playing complete havoc on ecosystems and food chains.

But don’t worry, It’s not all bad news! Firstly, UK fish dependence day is forecast for the 19th of September this year, meaning the UK is more self­ sufficient than the EU as a whole (nice to know in the midst of post­Brexit madness!) Also, the proportion of overfished EU fish stocks has decreased since 2006 as a result of reduced fish dependence in the EU.

This announcement really highlights the need for alternative sources of food, which is where aquaponics has huge potential to contribute significantly to reducing sole reliance on EU and international fish stocks, and increase focus and production efforts of locally sourced food ­ no oceans required! :­)

So what do we think? IS aquaponics the answer? What contribution could aquaponics make to this? And how do we bring about change to implement these alternative sources?

Aquaponics: why bother? (Part 1)

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A discussion with a member of the public in the Winter Gardens whilst feeding the fish prompted me to write this blog post to share the motivations of trying to develop aquaponics in Sheffield, and the UK.

As the global population spirals towards its predicted value of 9.2 billion by 2050, demand on global food production systems will be greater than ever before, whilst forecast climatic changes, increasing global temperatures and more extreme weather events will further impede crop yield successes, making it more difficult to maintain, let alone increase global food production. This is a massive issue — can we really make a different? Or is it such a huge disaster there’s no point in bothering?

Aquaponics comes into this as a ‘bottom-up’, community based approach in contribution to resilience in society. it isn’t a new concept: ancient Chinese communities commonly reared fish in the shallow rice paddy waters. Recently the technique has started spreading in Western society as a potential contributor to the emerging trend of urban farming and food production, something that will likely proliferate hugely in the near future as cities and urban populations expand and as long distance and polluting food supply chains become less and less viable.

Although widely used and well established in south-east Asia, information about and accessibility of aquaponics in temperate western climates is relatively lacking. By developing systems here, we hope to make aquaponics systems simple and cheap to install and run, making them a viable option to contribute to food security and social resilience. We’re not aiming to solve the global agricultural crisis, nor are we promising to feed a nation on tilapia and leafy greens 🙂  but hope to contribute to making aquaponics accessible,  more widespread and a socially accepted method of food production, with a focus on freshness, quality, and local produce, with minimal inputs and little waste.

But how can we change perceptions and behaviour towards food production and consumption, and spread aquaponics? Watch this space for my next article!

And where are the bacteria..?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions we get from people about our recently installed aquaponic system opposite the Students’ Union of the University of Sheffield.

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And the answer is usually something like this: “Well, you know, in the water. Probably everywhere – we think so, at least.” And that is about as much as we could say. The truth is, we don’t know much about where they are, what they are doing, how many of them there are or what exact strains we have got in the system. (In our defence, it’s not easy to tell with microscopic organisms without the necessary lab equipment!) All we know for sure is that they are there and are doing a pretty good job.

But wait a minute. If they are invisible, how can we be sure they really are there? That is a fair question – but one we have a fair answer for, too.

Despite their minute size, nitrifying bacteria are key players in aquaponics. They are responsible for converting nitrogenous waste produced by fish into readily available nutrients that can then be absorbed by plants. To be more exact, ammonia is first turned into nitrites by a certain type of bacteria, which is then further metabolised into nitrates by another, providing a form of nitrogen suitable for plant uptake. Measuring the concentrations of these compounds in the water using some basic equipment can give an idea of whether and how much conversion is taking place.

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If there were no bacteria present, we would find virtually no nitrites or nitrates and an ever increasing level of ammonia from fish waste (not to mention far-from-healthy-looking plants as a result of nutrient deprivation). In contrast, in our system we get constant, low levels of ammonia, no nitrites and slightly variable, but usually fairly high concentrations of nitrates, as well as healthy, fast-growing vegetables. As far as we know, this can only be explained by simultaneous removal of ammonia and production of nitrates, something that neither fish nor plants are capable of doing, which clearly suggests the involvement of an invisible third party.

OK. So they are there, doing whatever it is that nitrifying bacteria do, supplying nutrients for our plants in the process. But how did they get there in the first place? First of all we created a welcoming environment, using expanded clay balls for our grow media:

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These balls have a very high surface area, so there’s lots of space for the bacteria to take hold (if they want to, that is – they might prefer floating around, we are not sure). Then we added a little powdered fish food (before there were any fish in the system) to create some ammonia for the bacteria to feed on, and finally a little vermicompost we hoped would contain some suitable bacterial populations. Yes, we know it is not exactly what you would call a reliable way of introducing the right microorganisms to the system, but as they don’t sell nitrifying bacteria in little test tubes in garden centres (yet…), this seemed to be the most workable solution. And then all we had to do was add some fish and seedlings and wait for the bacteria to start doing their job. And… hey presto! There they were 🙂  At least we think so!