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Friendly Aquaponics
Commercial Newsletter

Commercial Aquaponics Newsletter Number 9
May 22nd,  2012
Images from our farmily aquaponics farm
Aloha Friend,

We're doing this week's newsletter on biofilters; what they are, how they work, and what they do for your aquaponics system. We'll get to it quickly, but we are including these links from the last two newsletters because there was so much interest in them. 227 more people signed up for this newsletter just in the last two weeks, and we want them to know about Shumin's farm and organic certification too.

Last week's newsletter was about our Chinese student, Mr. Shumin Wang, with the 34,000 square feet of aquaponics farm. In case you missed it, here's the link to our
Commercial Newsletter #8. We covered organic certification the week before. In case you missed it, here's the link: Commercial Newsletter #7.

Why is the newsletter about Shumin's farm important? Because it shows how easy commercial aquaponics is to do when you have good information to begin with. Shumin built and operated a test system, and then built and got his entire 34,000 square foot farm into operation within 19 months, which is no mean feat: he's in the northernmost part of China, which has truly cold winters.

Why is organic certification important? Because you can get double the prices for organically certified produce as you can for conventional.


This photo was taken from the middle of Shumin's greenhouse, and gives you an idea why we were stunned when he showed us his pictures. Look for the tiny human figure in the far right distance; it will give you an idea of the size of his operation. This is only one of the three 11,388 square foot greenhouses he currently operates; these troughs are only half the length of the greenhouse!

Our courses cut your learning curve and help you towards early success with commercial aquaponics, as Shumin's experience demonstrates. We are the only ones who can teach you how to get your aquaponics system organically certified. We've been organically certified since August 2008. Seven of our students have been organically certified. To the best of our knowledge, no one but we and our students have organically certified aquaponic systems. If you know someone with an aquaponics system that is USDA certified organic, and we're not aware of it, we apologize, and would like very much to be corrected; with the name and contact information for the farm, and the certifying agency that certified their aquaponics system (not their farm, it's not the same thing!).

We're not counting the two aquaponics farms that got their in-ground produce certified, but not their aquaponics systems. Those two still claim (in violation of Federal law) that their aquaponic produce is also organic. We're not counting the aquaponic farm/training center that just got a "cease and desist" order from the NOP telling them to stop using the word "organic" in violation of Federal law (they never bothered to get organically certified, and in fact seem to be telling people in their courses and newsletters that there's no benefit in it!). And we're not counting the other new aquaponic farm/training center that is advertising that they teach "Designing for and applying to the USDA National Organic Program" as part of their "commercial aquaponics" offering.

This last one is good for a laugh: you see, anyone can apply to go on the next spacecraft to Mars, but what does that really mean? They teach you how fill in the simple organic certification application, but can't show you how to build your systems correctly and operate them with the correct protocols and chemical additives because they don't have an organically certified system themselves.

Do you really want to try and learn organic certification from someone who doesn't have organic certification? Of course, you can attend their trainings and learn how to grow aquaponic produce that is worth half as much as organically certified produce. Does that seem like a good business decision to you?

By now we're sure you've figured out that the gloves are off! Frankly, we're tired of sneaky people who have no track record of commercial aquaponics experience and no ability to get you organically certified
trying to make money from "commercial" aquaponics courses. It's bad business for aquaponics as a whole, because it's about making money off people who don't know any better. We should all be sharing this information and spreading it, not competing to see who can get the most students into their courses and charge them for essentially useless information. We have a money-back guarantee on our courses. Do they?

Our courses, our DIY materials, our website, our USDA Organically Certified aquaponics systems, and this column are designed to remove as many of the barriers as possible between you and your success in commercial aquaponics.

There are many teaching "commercial aquaponics" who have never operated a commercial system that their livelihood depended on, and definitely not a USDA Organically Certified one. We gave you verifiable income, expense, and profit numbers
for Zac Hosler's aquaponic farm in Honaunau, Hawaii, in our April 17th newsletter (click here to read it).


If the teacher you're considering can't provide numbers for their economically successful students, we'd love to meet you in person at one of our live Aquaponics Technology Trainings (only $495) For those of you who can't free up the time to come to Hawaii, our Commercial DIY Training has all the information combined in our Aquaponics Technology and Commercial Aquaponics Trainings together, along with complete information and guidance on the USDA Organic Certification process. It allows you to duplicate our success anywhere.

"Friendly" Affiliate's Aquaponics Courses:

If you're in Florida or nearby, Sahib's Aquaponics is offering two-day urban aquaponics courses on June 9th and 10th, you can contact Sahib Punjabi at his website,  Now for our feature article on biofilters:

Bio-Filters: The Straight Scoop

When you first start investigating aquaponics, you will hear a lot about biofilters. There's a lot of confusion, intentional and unintentional, on this subject. Let's start with a definition: "bio" means life, and filters are usually designed to remove something undesirable, such as metal particles from your car's oil, or rust from your car's gas line. What do biofilters remove from aquaponics systems?

You should understand that there are two kinds of biofilters. The first kind simply converts some nasty stuff into some other stuff that isn't so nasty, but doesn't remove any of it from your aquaponics system. The second kind truly removes the nasty stuff from your system, and in fact it makes you money!

The first biofilters were developed by aquaculturists (people who only grow fish) who were looking for a way to use less water in recirculating aquaculture (RAS) systems. There is a large range of them, and they function and look very differently from each other. Their purpose is the same, however: to convert ammonia into nitrates, and then into nitrates by creating near-ideal conditions for nitrifying bacteria to flourish inside the biofilter.

This was good news for aquaculturists, for a system with a biofilter in it only needed to exchange 10-20 percent of system water per day, instead of flowing up to five times the system's volume through it every day. When Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding aquaculture operation discharge went into effect, many aquaculture operations were required to treat their discharge water just as if it was sewage discharge; they were no longer allowed to just discharge it into a nearby lake or stream, because the nitrate content was so high that the discharge water would cause (or add to) problems with algae blooms in the body of water (nitrates are fertilizer and encourage algae into explosive growth).

These operators were now required to treat their discharge water by putting it through what was essentially a sewage treatment plant. Having a biofilter in the system meant that you only discharged one-twenty-fifth to one-fiftieth the amount you would have discharged without one; and meant you only needed to build and operate a sewage treatment plant
one-twenty-fifth to one-fiftieth the size. This downsized treatment plant was far more economical than the larger one,  so it was an of-course business decision for an aquaculturist.

Other aquaculturists who were not required to treat their discharge water still had high costs associated with procuring their water: they had to pump it (electrical costs), or purchase it, and they also benefited from the addition of biofilters to their systems, because the biofilter reduced the amount of water they needed to pump or purchase by that same
one-twenty-fifth to one-fiftieth of what it was before. So, OK; that's the history of why they started using biofilters. What the heck were their biofilters made from?

Because the aquaculturists were trying to encourage nitrifying bacteria to flourish, the biofilters were designed to give the bacteria all the things they needed: nice high DO's (dissolved oxygen levels in the water), and lots of surface area for the bacteria to colonize.

Although some early biofilters used sand as a fill media, these were problematic and some were the cause of catastrophic mortality events (they killed a lot of fish).

Most designs provided the DO by putting plentiful aeration into the biofilter tank or container, and provided lots of surface area for the bacteria to grow on by filling the tank or container with little plastic thingies with tons of surface area called "biochips, biofilm carrier elements, bio-barrels, bio-spheres, bio-fill, and bio-strata". The biofilter tank or container was plumbed into the flow of the aquaculture system's water, so that it all flowed through it; and could be made from a variety of materials: concrete, polyethylene, fiberglass, stainless steel, etc., were all used at one time or another.

All these little plastic thingies do provide surface area in a recirculating aquaculture system, and they're quite valuable there. But if you look in any aquaculture supply catalog, you will notice that they're quite expensive! They are also not a true filter, in that they do not take any nitrates out of the system, they simply aid in the transformation of ammonia into nitrites into nitrates, but leave all the resulting nitrates in the system water! Aquaculturists  with biofilters are still usually forced to dump system water at that 10 percent to 20 percent a day in order to get rid of the accumulating nitrates.

Biofilters Are Unnecessary In Recirculating Deepwater Raft Aquaponics Systems

The real problem with using biofilters is that they are totally unnecessary in a recirculating aquaponics system! We don't understand why people still insist on having aquaculture-style "biofilters" in their aquaponics systems, because your deep-water raft culture system already has a true biofilter with an absolutely huge surface area: your plant roots!  Yes, the nitrifying bacteria, which colonize and grow happily on the sides of your aquaponics troughs, the bottoms of your rafts (no puny area in itself), and the insides of your fish tanks also happily colonize the area provided by your plant roots themselves.

I did a back-of-the-napkin calculation using the plants on our aquaponic farm once,  and almost fell off my chair (well, I cheated, I did use a calculator, but I wrote my results on a napkin!). I took a representative sample of twenty aquaponic lettuce plants, one-third mature, one-third "teenagers", and one-third "babies" that were in our system. I counted roots, measured their average lengths, checked diameters with a micrometer, did Pi times diameter, multiplied by the average root length, multiplied by the number of holes in our 5,500 square feet of aquaponics system, and came up with a number denominated in (are you ready?) square miles!

It was only in the single digits, but it was still square miles. I ran the same numbers on a 1,000-gallon tank filled to the top with an average "bio-thingie" (their surface areas are given in the catalogs you buy them from), and came up with from one-eight-thousandth to one-forty-thousandth of the area represented by the plant's roots in our systems. The bio-thingies to fill this tank cost $1,676 for the cheapest, and $6,272 for the most expensive, not including shipping or the cost of the tank and its associated plumbing.

Why do we still have these old-style "biofilters" in aquaponics systems? And why do some still recommend these "biofilters" when they don't take anything out of the system: there's all that root area doing the same job (that the plants provide for free!). And why do we bother purchasing and putting this antique kind of aquaculture "biofilter" into an aquaponics system when it doesn't take a single whit of nitrates out of that system, because it's the plants that are doing that job anyway? It's just like putting an expensive race-car carburetor into a diesel engine in addition to the fuel injection pump it already has. Doesn't make any sense to me!

We hope this has been useful to you. If you have any additional questions you would like us to answer in this continuing series of Commercial Aquaponics newsletters, please email them to Tim or Susanne.

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Pistou basil growing in our Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse


Large-leaf basil interplanted with tomatoes equals yummy pesto in the future!


Tim joking around, but really showing off the strength of the 20-foot curved beams used in the Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse.

Special Offer! Sign up for our June 28-29 Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse Training  or our June 24-26th Aquaponics Technology Training, and receive our Micro System package for free so you can begin studying aquaponics! ($99.95 value)

More Information on Hawaii Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse Training


Tomatoes on the north wall of the Hawaii Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse; the wall reflects light and provides a built-in tomato trellis


Tim with the PV system charge controller, inverter, breakers, and cabling from the PV panels on the wall to the right. The roll-down white plastic cover (rolled-up in this picture) keeps all this (black) equipment from heating up too much on a sunny day.

"The Fish's View"

It was 1983, and I was fishing off the northwest coast of the Big Island near Mahukona, in "Jada", a little 24-foot displacement hull boat I'd designed and built to be fuel-efficient, inexpensive to build, and comfortable and capable out on the fishing grounds.

I thought the world needed fuel-efficient workboats, and would beat a path to my door for design work, and to have many more Jadas built!

How wrong I was! But that is another story, and this story is about a day out on the crystal water, and a starry night heading home with the day's catch.

It was a normal fishing day for me. I had no crew on board today. I didn't need one on this little boat, because an extra hand didn't catch any more fish in the type of fishing I was doing, but needed to be paid! I was setting a short, shallow flagline with live bait for mahi mahi and ono.

My flagline was about a mile of long, 1/4-inch diameter rope with hooks on leaders snapped to it at intervals. It had floats snapped on about every 600 feet or so, with flags on some of the floats, hence the name "flagline".

The night before, I'd anchored in about 20 fathoms of water over a sandy bottom at my "secret" spot, and using little feather jigs on a 30-pound test monofilament handline, had caught a live bait well full of akule and halalu (mature and juvenile big-eyed mackerel scad, for those of you who don't know Hawaiian fish).

I got a little sleep, but the main thing was that I had all the live bait I needed for the next day's fishing.

I motored out to the spot I'd chosen to set my flagline just before dawn, and had the entire line baited and set by the time it was light. The akule make a croaking noise when you hook them, for they don't like it (who would?), but live bait outfishes dead bait by a factor of twenty to one or more, so live bait it was.

Besides, everything in the ocean is always trying to eat something smaller, so I figured they knew the risks when they took a whack at my little jigs the night before.

I had about forty pieces of bait, so I set all forty, leaving none for later rebaiting, and unclipped the unused flagline, leaving it in the line bin. The whole line had about 90 hooks on it. Then I threw my littlest sea anchor and hung on it after a breakfast of rice and Portuguese sausage, napping intermittently until about ten or so.

I had kept watch down the length of my line when I was awake, and didn't let myself nod off until I was satisfied that the line and my little boat were drifting at roughly the same speed in the same direction. I had no radar back then, and to get separated from one's flagline meant possibly not being able to find it again, an expensive mistake!

You also didn't just tie off your 3,000-lb boat to the flagline, because then fish that hooked themselves had something solid to pull against and break free. With the line floating free, a big fish only had the line itself to pull against; and your fish tended to stay on the line. So you had to stay near enough to the line to spot it, but not tied to it.

The long story short of it is that I caught three mahi-mahi, one 42 pounds, and a 36-pound ono that day. They were all worth $3.95 a pound to the fish buyers, so I had about $500 worth of fish on board.

For a boat that only cost $22/day of fuel and ice to run, this felt good, and I headed home quite satisfied and comfortable after pulling the line in just before dark. I remember thinking it had been a good day. I got the last of the line in just as the sun hit the water, and immediately turned on my running lights to head home.

The day wasn't over yet, not until I tied up, iced down the fish with more ice (waiting in my truck at the dock) and could just collapse into a dry bunk. I was about fifteen miles from the harbor, and at ten knots, I had an hour and a half's run back home.

It was a quiet night; there were no other boats out on the water, and I just ran along under the stars, the diesel thumping away, and the night sky turning overhead.

After about an hour, I was getting close to the harbor, and for some reason I decided to stick my head outside the cabin, looking forward along one side of the cabin, and steer from that position using my left hand.

I'd only been doing that for about five minutes when I saw something ahead of me that just about stopped my heart: the head of a humpback whale was coming out of the water about sixty feet ahead of my bow!

The whale was going the same direction I was going, but LOTS more slowly. I dropped the wheel and grabbed the shift lever with my left hand, slamming it from full forward into full reverse in about a second. Not exactly recommended operating procedure, but neither is running into whales (I found out the next day I'd cracked the stainless steel shaft coupling in half).

If I hadn't been so shot through with adrenaline, I might have done some math: 1-1/2 tons of plywood boat hitting 35 to 45 tons of whale at eight knots, equals what? Not something I'd want on my resume, that's for sure.

The engine screamed, the boat shuddered, and we were still doing about four knots forward through the water when we gently drifted over the place the whale's tail had just disappeared. We missed kissing it by about 15 feet. It looked HUGE and black in the starlight, and about twenty feet across.

I idled back the engine, put it in neutral, and shook for a good long while. I think I used the s*&t word a lot, for I had to get rid of the nervous energy somehow.

When I did put her into forward again, I had my damn head outside the coaming the entire way back into the harbor. I also think I ran at 3/4 throttle rather than full.

The most amazing thing came afterwards, when I had time to think about it. When I went diving, I can hear powerboats, especially diesels, hundreds of feet away underwater, because sound carries so well. I'd always thought whales had an incredible sonar "picture" of what was going on all around them.

Was this a "deaf" whale, a stupid or careless one? Do humpbacks have a "blind spot" directly behind them? Because that's where I'd come up on the whale from. I never figured it out, and whale experts I talked to about the incident were baffled by it.

More fishy stories in the next newsletter!

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Friendly Aquaponics, Inc
PO Box 1196
Honoka'a, Hawaii 96727

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