Last spring Christopher Toole ditched a six-figure banking job to pursue his dream: sustainably raising tilapia in the Bronx. He and his girlfriend purchased 500 fry—or baby fish—to kick-start the project, housed at The Point, a South Bronx community center. Toole’s system is a closed loop: The fish live in 50-gallon food-grade recycling bins, and he uses the waste as fertilizer for growing basil, mint, and other edibles, which in turn filter the water for the fish. Toole (above) is teaching local kids about the process and ultimately aims to create a network of homes, restaurants, and cooperative farms where New Yorkers will grow and eat Bronx Best Blue Tilapia.
Toole is a member of a growing group of urban farmers who pair fish and plants to create a sustainable food system called aquaponics. In Milwaukee, for example, former pro basketball player Will Allen founded Growing Power, a community-oriented sustainable food center that includes tilapia aquaponics. In Baltimore and Vancouver, researchers are refining the technology behind the systems for efficiency, and Atlanta-based Earth Solutions sells starter kits online. Interest is growing in Australia, Japan, and Canada, and Berlin, Germany, is trying to feed its growing population by installing the world’s largest aquaponics facility, on an unused factory’s 75,000-square-foot roof.
The common denominator is relieving overfishing, producing local food, and controlling pollution through a closed-looped system. In traditional aquaculture systems—in which fish are raised in open water, in ponds, or in tanks—disposing of effluent is tricky. Waste buildup can be toxic for fish, and dumping it can contaminate surrounding areas with deadly ammonia. But with aquaponics, by-products are filtered out and sustain plants whose roots dangle directly into the water rich with nutrients. Farmed U.S. tilapia—considered a best-choice seafood by organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium—are most often used in aquaponics, though urban fishmongers also dabble in raising catfish, perch, shrimp, and crawfish.
There’s definitely a market, especially for tilapia, which is mostly imported. Americans ate 425 million pounds of the fish last year, about four times what they ate a decade ago. “Most farms are small-scale now,” says Martin Schreibman, a leading aquaponics expert at Brooklyn College. “But I think aquaponics is the wave of the future.”
This story originally ran in the September-October 2012 issue as, "Land of Plenty."