Drawing an association between trees and fish would elude
most people, but the simple fact that roughly two thirds of Alabama is covered
in trees has major implications for some facets of the state’s aquaculture
In fact, one expert contends that trees could provide at
least some elements of this industry with the competitive advantages sorely
needed to compete with foreign-grown products.
Alabama possesses ample amounts of wood — and not just the
timber commercially harvested but also the waste products left behind when
these lush green forests undergo occasionally thinning.
It’s often said that one’s person trash is a another
person’s treasure — a maxim that definitely applies to the state’s fledgling
aquaponics industy, according to Gregory N. Whitis, an Alabama Cooperative
Extension System aquaculturist, who believes Alabama’s abundance of wood offers
distinct advantages to this emerging sector.
Aquaponics is a food production system in which aquatic
species, such as tilapia, are grown along with plants within a controlled, mutually
sustaining system. In such a system, the nutrient-enriched water from
fish culture is channeled to irrigate nearby plants, whether these happen to be
vegetables or herbs.
But one of the factors that have limited growth of this
sector until now is the cost of conventional heating, according to Whitis.
Sunny Alabama is blessed with an unusually long growing
season, but fish and plants sooner or later have to be brought inside with the
onslaught of cooler temperatures. This has deprived aspiring Alabama
aquaponic producers with a key advantage compared with tropical countries that enjoy
year-round growing conditions.
“If you plug a heater into the wall to support an aquaponics
system, you’ll go broke eventually,” says Whitis. “There’s no way to justify
that expense when raising a tropical species like tilapia in a temperate
But factoring in Alabama’s copious supply of wood products
changes these dynamics.
“If you have 60 acres of timber with about 600 trees per
acre and undertake a pre-commercial thinning that reduces these to 400 trees
and acre, a lot of biomass falls to the ground,” Whitis says.
“A market for this wood would be appealing to some small
timber owners. Even though pine has a
lower BTU rating compared to hardwoods, it will still heat water at a low cost.”
“About $20 worth of this forestry waste will cover four days
of heating in a large scale indoor aquaculture facility, which amounts to $5 a day in
heating costs,” he says. “Folks up north who have only electrical heating as a
source can’t compete with that.
“And bear in mind: Clear cuts rank really high in the
availability of low-cost biomass. All those hardwood tree tops are holding
incredible amounts of low-cost energy.”
This point was underscored to Whitis while he operated an
aquaponics project on an experimental basis, using a facility that had
previously been used by the Hale County Vocational Center to teach aquascience.
Asian Producers Hold Key Advantages
But even while he perceives great potential for forestry
waste as a heating source for the state’s emerging aquaponics industry, he
Asian producers hold two critical advantages over U.S.
producers: long growing seasons and an inexpensive labor force, which provides
a key competitive edge in processing, Whitis says.
“We can’t afford to grow tilapia and process them on a large
scale too, at least until the American consumer is willing to pay a higher
price for U.S-grown seafood.”
Currently, more than 99 percent of the tilapia products
consumed in the United States — the kind bought from big seafood restaurant
chains — are imported, according to Whitis.
Even so, Whitis perceives a growing demand among U.S.
consumers for American-grown fish products — and that fact affords aspiring
aquaponics growers with another critical advantage.
“With aquaponics, you’re dealing with a product that is by
necessity all natural,” he says. “By its nature, this production system keeps
you honest because if you use pesticides on your plant crops, you’re going to harm
your fish, and if your fish perish, the system collapses.”
As an effective marketing strategy, Whitis advises
prospective growers to form partnerships with one or more local restaurants and
to stress that the fish are raised in a pesticide-free environment. However,
since few of these restaurants are set up to dress fish, few will buy live
Strategies for Producers
One viable alternative for producers is to complement their
aquaponics operations with small processing facilities that are in compliance
with local health codes.
Prospective growers also face the added challenge of
attaining a scale that is commercial feasible.
Based on his own research and experience, Whitis says the minimal
size of such a facility typically encompasses about 3,000 square feet and
concentrates on higher-end vegetables and herbs.
“Staggered fish production is a key too,” Whitis says. “You
have to time your harvests and sell fish during the year, not just one crop per
Tilapia is one of several species most ideally suited to
Whitis says that tilapia grown to two pounds helps secure a
sustainable aquaponics system.
“In the course of
feeding the tilapia, you’re also adding fertilizer to the water, which, in
turn, is used to irrigate whatever plants you choose to grow,” he says, adding
that a few compounds, such as potassium and iron, still have to be added to
ensure optimal growing conditions for the plants.
Whitis says producers often opt to be highly diversified,
growing as many as 20 different varieties of herbs and vegetables along with
the fish. However, Whitis says
experience has demonstrated that hot peppers, basil and cucumbers work
exceptionally well in such a system.
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