How does sautéed tilapia with a side of grilled zucchini served on a bed of fresh Bibb lettuce and arugula sound? Imagine then that it was all grown organically and purchased locally right here in Brooklyn. Sounds tasty, right? So tasty, you wouldn’t even know the secret ingredient is fish poop.
Aquaponics is a fast growing field of sustainable, organic farming where the entire entrée is fed nutrient-rich fish waste in a closed hydration system. To put it in terms Brooklynites can understand, it’s like a highfalutin dirty water frank, and it may be coming to a restaurant or farmers’ market near you.
“The demand for fresh, healthy and sustainable fishing is at an all time high here,” said Martin Schreibman, the founding director of the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center at Brooklyn College (2900 Bedford Avenue) in Flatbush. “Big groups like churches and communes have come for information, but people are setting up smaller aquaculture systems in their bathtubs to pay their rent now.”
At the last stop on the 2 train, motors and pumps sing incessantly within the high cement walls of Schreibman’s laboratory where he has been raising tilapia for over a decade. Though turning a profit is the goal, none of his tilapia is yet for sale. However, in the lab (but not on the menu) are a variety of ornamental ocean dwellers like seahorses and guppies — the cash crop of Schreibman’s operation.
Though he used to only to raise fish — a practice known as aquaculture — recently, he has added an assortment of plants to his repertoire, a move toward aquaponics fueled by growing local demand. In addition to basil and lettuce, Schreibman is experimenting with plants like Echinacea for pharmaceutical applications.
“We’ve been trying to get aquaculture into New York City for a long time but it’s a little bit easier now,” said Schreibman. “Now people understand the need for aquaculture and they understand the need for the technology we’re using here.”
Though the execution is a bit involved, the concept behind aquaponics is simple. Dozens to hundreds of fish are raised in large open tanks. The fish excrement sinks to the bottom of the cone-shaped tank and is pumped to a drum-filter, which vacuums out the solids. Then the water is mixed with bacteria that convert the harmful nitrites to helpful nitrates. The nutrient-rich water is then pumped to rows of plants, which further clean the water and then grow like crazy. The clean water is then pumped back into the fish tanks creating an organic process that is 99 percent sustainable.
The plants are harvested in the regular fashion and the fish are extracted when they reach adulthood, or a size of one to two pounds.
“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for people, it’s good for fish in the ocean and I think it’s just a matter of time before we’re feeding the entire city,” said Schreibman. He said that the amount of electricity required for pumps and filtration is a big financial drawback, though Brooklyn College currently pays his bills.
But truly sustainable and profitable aquaponics are not very far off.
“It’s definitely getting more popular,” said Kate Carney, one of three growers at Cabbage Hill Farm, a small aquaponics facility in Mt. Kisco, 30 miles north of New York City. “More and more people show up to learn about it,” she said. “My boss calls them the ‘dreamers.’”
Cabbage Hill Farm is a small not-for-profit whose mission is to “close the food circle” by bring farmers and consumers together.
From the 100-foot greenhouse comes a veritable cornucopia of fish-fueled menu items. Each week Cabbage Hill sells about 60 pounds of tilapia, striped bass and cool water trout at market prices. And they make about $1,000 in green a day for all the greens they sell — arugula, Bibb lettuce, zucchini and an assortment of micro-greens.
Both Schreibman and Karney admitted that it takes dedication and a touch of expertise to maintain an aquaponics system. Karney’s eyes widened when she broached the topic.
“Anyone who says they never lost a crop isn’t raising fish,” said Karney. “The tanks need the right feed, the right temperature, and the system can crash and kill all the fish in the tank if there’s a power failure, but we don’t like to advertise that.”
But as the popularity of aquaponics and the sustainable food movement in Broklyn and beyond gains momentum, price at least may no longer be a factor.
After all, there’s nothing fishy about healthy, energy efficient and sustainable food — even if it does come from, well...
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