Sea bass with a side of arugula, anyone?

Alberta entrepreneurs are growing fresh fish and vegetables together, turning a finely balanced ecosystem into a profitable bottom line
Kate Jaimet
Lethbridge College
A plate of cooked sea bass fillet on a bed of arugula and couscous

Nick Savidov was skeptical when his friend and fellow Alberta government scientist, Eric Hutchings, asked him to join a research project that combined fish farming with vegetable farming in a single system known as “aquaponics.”  

In an aquaponics system, water from fish tanks circulates through a series of filters into troughs for growing hydroponic vegetables, then back into the fish tanks, forming a closed loop. The fish manure is filtered out and broken down into water-soluble nutrients which are put back in the water to fertilize the plants. Meanwhile, the plants’ root system helps clean the water to benefit the fish.

It’s a model of sustainable food production that recycles water and waste, recreating natural systems instead of relying on synthetic chemicals. But in Canada in the early 2000’s, that model had never been tested.

“I said to him, Eric, as a plant physiologist, I can assure you that aquaponics will never work,” Savidov says, recalling their conversation 17 years ago.

But it did work.

And Savidov, initially a skeptic, is now an acknowledged pioneer of Alberta’s new — and growing — aquaponics industry.

“This project made a big impact and resulted in the emergence of [several] companies,” Savidov says of his initial research program with Hutchings, which ran from 2002 to 2011 as a joint effort between the Alberta government and Lethbridge College’s Aquaculture Centre of Excellence.

Alberta now counts several small-scale, home producers; half a dozen medium-sized commercial aquaponics companies; and one operation, Current Prairie Fishermen, that is expected to be Canada’s largest aquaponics farm when it begins full production.

“Alberta probably has the largest number of aquaponics companies per capita,” says Savidov. “We have more than the other prairie provinces taken together.”

Entrepreneurs embrace the idea

One of Alberta’s earliest aquaponics entrepreneurs is Paul Shumlich, co-founder of Calgary’s Deepwater Farms. In 2014, Shumlich was a 22-year old student, searching for a place to direct his business energies.

“I had been looking for something that would be sustainable, environmental, economically impactful, and socially impactful,” he says. “That’s when I started doing random research on the Internet, and I stumbled across aquaponics.”

Shumlich built an initial aquaponics system in his grandparents’ garage with 100 fish and four grow beds, using seed money from pitch competitions, parts from a hardware store, and designs from journal papers, including one written by Savidov.

“It was all super bootstrap,” he says. “But it gave us enough to show that I could grow plants using fish waste.” 

He consulted frequently with Savidov as he founded his company and moved to commercial-scale production. The road wasn’t always easy.

“We’ve had mass mortalities four times, where we had 2,000 fish die each time. We had a massive yellowing-off of our plants and we couldn’t figure out why. We’ve made so many mistakes, but we’ve been able to stay afloat,” Shumlich says.

Now, Deepwater Farms occupies a 10,000-square-foot facility in a Calgary industrial park, employs 10 full-time workers, and produces 250 fish and 500 kilograms of leafy greens a week for Calgary-area restaurants.

A warehouse with rows full of planter boxes.
Leafy greens grow in Deepwater Farms’ aquaponics facility​
Image courtesy of Deepwater Farms

“We plan to be ten times this size in three years,” he says. “And then we plan to have farms around the world, with the right partners.”

It all depends on an intricate ecosystem

One big misconception about aquaponics, Savidov says, is that it consists simply of combining aquaculture, for raising fish, with hydroponics, for growing vegetables. This misconception was the cause of his own initial skepticism.  In fact, monocultures — like hydroponics and aquaculture — are based on a fundamentally different principal from aquaponics, which takes an ecosystem approach.

“In hydroponics, the plants are fed with synthetic fertilizers. In aquaculture, the fish are fed by artificial food. And both technologies have very powerful tools to kill bacteria,” he says. 

“The big difference in aquaponics is that you are culturing bacteria in the same way that you are culturing fish and plants. Because bacteria and microorganisms are the parts which link together fish and plants in one ecosystem.”

Bacteria and other microorganisms perform many functions in an aquaponics system, including: helping the plants to absorb nutrients, eliminating ammonia and other toxic compounds from the water, helping fish to digest food, and protecting both plants and fish against diseases and parasites. It can take months, or even years, for an aquaponics system to mature to the point where the microbiota have evolved into an optimal balance, Savidov says.

When that balance is hit, “all of a sudden, you’ll see the plants start growing much faster. [This] means that they’ve got the right bacteria, which interact with the plant roots and allow the plants to use the dissolved nutrients much more efficiently. You see this very dramatic qualitative and quantitative change in the system.”

And that, he says, is “the coolest thing ever.”

Research is the root of the innovative food production system

In 2015, Lethbridge College recruited Savidov to lead a five year research project at the CFI-funded Aquaculture Centre of Excellence, where he is now the Senior Aquaponics Research Scientist.

His ongoing research will focus, in part, on increasing the efficiency of aquaponics systems to the point where they can compete economically with conventional forms of food production.

“I think that, in this shape or another, systems like aquaponics — integrated production systems based on nutrient and water recycling — will gradually replace monoculture,” he says. “Because they can supply food more efficiently.”