Aquaponics naturally evolved from aquaculture in an effort to eliminate fish waste. Research in Alberta has largely been driven by the industry itself as those in the greenhouse strive to perfect models and methods. In the mid-1990s, a number of fish growers in Alberta began the transition into aquaponics by building greenhouses and growing vegetables.

In 2003, Dr. Nick Savidov, who at the time was head of Alberta Agriculture’s greenhouse program, began working closely with ACE researchers at Lethbridge College. As a plant physiologist, Savidov relied on the expertise in fish biology provided by John Derksen and Dan Watson.

In conjunction with ACE, Savidov designed and tested four different generations of systems prototypes for commercial aquaponics. He ultimately developed a fully automated zero-waste aquaponics system that utilized both liquid and solid waste – the first in the world.

The first Canadian commercial aquaponics prototype was tested between 2011 and 2013 by Red Hat Co-operative, one of the largest greenhouse companies in Canada.

Championed by Dr. Lorne MacGregor, aquaponics research at ACE grew significantly between 2009 and 2014.  In 2012, ACE received its first Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant for aquaponics, followed by a five-year, $2.1 million grant in 2015 to make Integrated Fish and Plant Systems (IFPS) a commercially-viable food production solution.  In 2015, Dr. Savidov officially joined ACE as the Senior Research Scientist – Aquaponics Program.

For more information on the IFPS project as well as the other research projects happening at ACE, check out both our past research and current research pages.

Early issues in aquaponics

Sludge accumulation in the plant trays was one of the early issues that aquaponics researchers encountered as they worked to perfect the system. The accumulation of sludge results in:

  • anaerobic decay of organic material
  • ammonia and other toxic compound build-up
  • fast growth of opportunistic pathogens, such as Pythium, that cause root rot
  • plant stress and yield loss due to disease

Researchers determined that 95 per cent of complete system failures were caused by sludge accumulation brought on though improper waste management.

New generation system

From the trial and error of research emerged the new generation of aquaponics systems at Lethbridge College, which feature:

  • stable pH at 6.0-6.4
  • zero waste
  • zero water discharge
  • minimum labour
  • 100 per cent nutrient use efficiency
  • no fertilizer supplements
  • highest water use efficiency

The Aquaculture Centre of Excellence continues to further develop and fine tune this system design to facilitate commercial adoption, enhance food production, and reduce waste and resources. Learn more about the new generation systems being used at the Aquaculture Centre of Excellence.