Aquaculture interest grows

The Aquaculture Centre of Excellence at Lethbridge College has been researching closed systems that involve greenhouse-grown plants and fish production since 2003. | File photo

John Derksen and his colleagues at the Lethbridge College aquaculture centre have been fielding two or three inquiries every week from people interested in setting up operations.

That has been happening since last April amid burgeoning interest in local food production.

Derksen, chair of the Aquaculture Centre of Excellence at the college, has worked in the field for years. The interest in aquaculture, a closed system involving greenhouse-grown plants and fish production, is gratifying but a long time in coming.

“Since we’ve been doing this since 2003, I expected the uptake to be much quicker for aquaponics but I understand why it’s not,” he said.

“There’s apprehension and when people put their money and livelihood on the line, they want to make sure. And there wasn’t as much assurance for aquaponics as there was for hydroponics.”

As research has progressed and the stability of the food supply chain has been thrown under harsh light from the pandemic, things are going along swimmingly.

Derksen said inquiries have come from many parties including greenhouses that plan to incorporate aquaculture, a pet food manufacturer that is interested in aquaponics to grow certain ingredients, and a person who wants to convert a horse barn into an aquaponics facility.

“We’ve had people come with 80,000 sq. feet they want to use for aquaponics, or 40 acres of greenhouse and want to build aquaponics into it. We never heard those numbers before and in the past year, we’ve heard several of those that are contemplating, planning … so we’re going to see some changes.”

Aquaponics is a complex process of using fish to fertilize food-producing plants, which in turn feed the fish, while relying heavily on water quality and bacterial activity.

It’s not surprising that those interested are eager to get advice from Derksen, plant physiologist Nick Savidov, and others at the centre.

“Aquaponics is part fish culture. It is part hydroponic production. It is part greenhouse production. It is integrated pest management. It is water quality. And so all these factors come into play to be successful in aquaponics,” said Derksen.

The college has responded to the need by adding to its already existing four-month credit course. It is now offering “microcredentials,” which are short courses in various aspects of aquaponics that can be taken on-line.

Participants study at their own pace, within a certain limit, and obtain a badge upon completion if they achieve 80 percent or more on a final test.

Two courses are ready now, one in aquaponics design and another in fish production. Derksen said he anticipates one will be added every two months to reach 10 in total.

“We know industry also wants training in this area, so these microcredentials are the beginning step. … Whatever you want to learn about aquaponics, there’s something going to be there.”

Kenny Corscadden, associate vice-president at Lethbridge College, said the courses are designed for flexibility.

“Microcredentials are a delivery system we are using with more frequency, as they are a quick and adaptable way to build skills. We can identify areas, such as aquaponics, where we know specific training will be beneficial, and we can develop these modules to help bridge that skills gap to support both workers and industry.”

The college has established a 10,000 sq. foot greenhouse on its Lethbridge campus to facilitate larger-scale aquaponics research. Derksen said he hopes to move into the new facility soon and a grand opening may occur in September.

He also hopes that hands-on learning will augment the micro courses in the future.

“I think these courses are just a bigger part of getting people to be successful and knowledgeable about aquaponics because it really has a lot of advantages.

“COVID has really enhanced people’s awareness of how vulnerable they are with bringing in food or food ingredients over transport lines from far away.”

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