Hydroponics: tilapia with a side of veggies

Fish farm can be repeated on a smaller, community scale

The Villas at Apoyo are preparing for guests the likes of which the resort has never seen: 150 Nile tilapia from the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA).

The fish are the first part of the hydroponics system being installed at the Villas on the edge of the Laguna de Apoyo. The farm raises tilapia in large tanks, where they create nutrient-rich waste that is filtered into floating plant beds. The beds grow herbs and vegetables that are enhanced by this mineral-rich water, and the system returns the clean water to the fish tanks.

The plant beds are floating pieces of Styrofoam with one-inch holes cut in the middle. A seed is planted in each hole, ready to benefit from the enhanced water.

Mint roots grow long through Styrofoam floating bases at UNA's hydroponics plant (photo/ UNA)

“The plants grow very healthily and very quickly,” says John-Marc Gallagher, general manager of the Villas at Apoyo and creator of the hydroponics system at the hotel. “Our restaurant manager will tell me what she wants to grow—it could be herbs, mint, sweet peppers, cilantro. I even want to grow tomatoes.”

Tilapia is considered one of the easiest species to hold and breed in captivity. In addition to the 150 tilapia at Villas de Apoyo’s new hydroponics plant, they will also be installing a few guapote, a carnivorous fish that will prevent over-breeding. Guapote are from the same family as tilapia, but it will be brother against brother as they race to consume the eggs before they hatch. Once the tilapia are ready for harvesting, the guapote will be excused from duty so that the system can repopulate.

While tilapia are easy to raise, the species are just as easy to lose control of. A highly invasive species, tilapia have a tendency to escape their farms and take over nearby bodies of water. In 2009, tilapia swarmed El Junco lagoon in the Galapagos Islands after a nearby fish farm overflowed.

In Nicaragua, tilapia first began populating Lake Cocibolca during a flood in the 1970s that washed the fish into the lake from a nearby fish farm. The same thing happened again during Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Gallagher, however, says he isn’t worried about that happening at the Laguna de Apoyo. He says his hydroponics system is 750 meters up the shore from the waterline and insists flooding won’t be a problem.

“If one of our fish gets out, he’ll just flop around on the ground until we either put him back in the tank, or he dies,” says Gallagher. “He isn’t going to make it 750 meters down the road to jump in the lake.”

Gallagher says safeguards are in place to protect the Laguna de Apoyo from a tilapia invasion (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Fish will be given the five-star treatment at the Villas. While most of the hydroponic system mimics a similar setup at UNA, this will feature an upgrade: a sprinkler to release the water back into the fish tank.

“Rather than just pumping it back in, I took a round tube and cut holes like a sprinkler system,” says Gallagher. “This gives aeration and oxygen to the water, which helps the tilapia.”

Hydroponics is not just for eco-resorts. The concept has been taking off for personal use, too, like a 21st century version of raising chickens in the backyard. Patio hydroponic systems are increasingly common, and that’s how Gallagher got involved.

“The idea came across my desk from a friend who said you should look into aquaponics, not as an enterprise, but for the family,” says Gallagher. “It makes sense. You get fish without mercury and organically grown vegetables. I was going to do it at home but then I thought, could this have some impact here [at the Villas]?”

For Gallagher, the Villas (formerly Norome) have been an uphill battle since his property-management firm acquired them in 2008. That same year the original owners declared bankruptcy, just as the aesthetically pleasing thatched roofs began to spring leaks. Since becoming general manager, Gallagher has cleaned up the property and sought a unifying vision for the resort. Tilapia are just part of the plan, he says.

“No one is going to come here because we have this hydroponic system,” says Gallagher. “But it does add some credibility to what we are trying to do here, as well as some novelty. Tourists can walk out of the restaurant, say ‘I want him,’ we’ll catch him, slice him up, grill him up, you can eat him right there.”

For UNA, hydroponics could extend even farther. A similar hydroponics farm in Masatepe is a union between the Training and Research Institute for Integrated Rural Development (ICIDRI) and Universidad Politecnica de Nicaragua (UPOLI.) Under the auspices of UNA, they use the test farm to work on many projects, including hydroponics. According to Hebler Narvaez, General Manager of ICIDRI, the example farm is kept intentionally rustic.

“We use materials that the people would have,” says Narvaez. “And we have made a system that they could recreate. Ideally, the idea could be translated to the rural poor in Los Pueblos Blancos.”

While the goal of the Villas is to raise 150 tilapia and 12 square meters of floating gardens all at once, individual families could work on a similar project on a much smaller scale, Gallagher says. A self-sustaining program could offer fish and vegetables for consumption, and the system is easy to extend as needed.

In six months or so, a visit to Laguna de Apoyo could give visitors a chance to meet their meal before eating it. Try to remember to thank the fish for creating such a delicious array of seasonings to choose from, before the chef whacks off its head and cleans it for frying.

  • de Las Sombras

    While I understand the thought process of a 750m distance from the Laguna… as a conservation ecologist I KNOW, from man-kinds past history with this species, the native fish stock in the Laguna are ‘doomed’.

    Tilapia farming is, and should be, considered a very beneficial community project when it is developed in a suitable location… but… anywhere that a leak, rupture or spill etc can occur up-hill of the Laguna and reach the water’s edge is a very real and potential disastrous ecological hazard (think fertilized eggs rather than flopping fish).

    This project certainly puts at risk one of Nicaragua’s NATURAL TREASURES (indeed one of.. if not the last in Central America)… a pristine crater lakes with an amazing diversity of both rare and endemic cichlid fish species…

    … a(nother) VERY SAD DAY for Nicaragua’s natural heritage.

    FYI… it’s properly termed AQUAponics when hydroponics also involve the raising of fish and invertebrates as a component of the system.

  • Concerned Realist

    This is a terrible idea. Knowing first-hand the low success rate, lack of accountability and irresponsible management of projects in Nicaragua, this project will undoubtedly lead to some form of disaster where tilapia enter the lagoon and kill off all other species. 750m is a stone’s throw.

  • http://www.hydroponics.name Jay P

    Hydroponics using fish water is new to me, I cant work out if it is a good idea or not. I suppose anything that helps the environment is a good but I am not sure if messing around with the natural fish stocks is a good idea. Usually when man messes with nature in this way it upsets a balance somewhere else in the eco system. A good article, thanks.

  • http://Www.urbanoasisproject.org Melissa C

    Tilapia must be in a closed system, no escapes or disaster happens. They will outcompete other species for food. This is aquaponics, fish and plants together, it works. Note that if tilapia are not purged, that is kept in a fresh clear water with no food for a period of time before eating (at least 36 hours I think, or more), they will have off flavors, and taste moldy or muddy. Yuk. People never want another one after that. This is a good system because it requires no purchase of expensive hydroponic fertilizers out of reach for most Nicaraguans.

  • john aloria

    we have installed a 3 cage fish aquaponics system in a man made lake where the water from the cage is pumped up regularly in the grow bed planted with leafy vegetables. The fishwastes is filtered by the gravel in the bed and the clear water is released back to the lake. The fishwastes trapped in the bed fertilizes the veggies..We can send you the pictures of the veggies and the different fishes.. emal : john_aloria@yahoo.com

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