Raising Fish For Food

I love fish. It’s good healthy protein. Not too bright, usually easy to catch, and really tasty.  I love to fish, it’s a peaceful pastime with a low cost of entry. Hell, you can dig the “ammo” out of the ground.   I highly recommend people include fishing line and hooks in their Bug Out Bag’s if they live in an area with good fishing.

Sadly, since moving to Iowa, I’ve mostly stopped fishing.  Most of the waterways here are impaired, disgustingly so. Environment groups that studied the federal government’s toxic release inventory issued a report a few months ago, “Wasting Our Waterways” (available online), indicating that industrial facilities discharged – both legally and illegally – more than 6.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Iowa’s waterways in 2010.

According to the report, Iowa ranked 15th in the nation for waterway discharges. Nationally, about 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into 1,400 waterways.

I have no desire to eat fish swimming through discharges of cancer-causing chemicals, chemicals that persist in the environment, and chemicals with the potential to cause reproductive problems ranging from birth defects to reduced fertility. Among the toxic chemicals discharged by facilities are arsenic, mercury, and benzene.

Anyone living along the Mississippi River? It ranked second for total toxic discharges nationally, with 1,874,430 pounds of toxic materials released in Iowa and overall 12.7 million pounds dumped from facilities all along its course through 10 U.S. states.

That’s gross.

Where should we get our fish Calamity?

I’m glad you asked.  As with most other things, I highly recommend you raise your own.

What you want is a nice little aquaculture set up.  If you set it up in a building, you can raise fish all winter. All you need is a tank or tub that holds at least 100 gallons of water, some baby fish, and some feed. Water could be free if you set up to catch rain. Baby fish (called fry, or fingerlings, depending on size) can be found at state fish nurseries, or online through vendors who cater to aquaculture setups. I highly recommend Tilapia, as that’s what I have experience with. It’s tasty, it grows to a good size in a short time and is fairly hardy. Stay away from tuna, cod, salmon or striped bass, they all feed off of other fish, so if you don’t have a good low cost source for trash fish, it just becomes too expensive to fee them. Fish food can be bought online, or you can make your own, especially if you go with some of the traditional aquaculture fishes like catfish, carp and milkfish as they are herbivores or omnivores.

But wait, there’s more!

The nutrient rich fish-poop-water is perfect for veggies. If you think you can handle the balancing act, aquaponics can provide large quantities of veggies in conjunction with the fish.

Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system that combines a traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment.

Thank you wiki.  I know, that’s a lot of big words, but the key point here is that the fish water is high in nitrogen, you send that through the hydroponic veggie setup and the nitrogen loving plants “eat” the nitrogen and return oxygen rich water to the fish. Around and around it goes.

It does take a bit of monitoring to keep everything in balance. Specifically you’ll need a way to measure nitrites and ammonia levels.  I also remember keeping track of pH and dissolved oxygen, but that could be because of the educational environment.

Speaking of education, a setup is HIGHLY educational, if you enjoy biological sciences, or have children who need science project material, you can’t go wrong with some aquaponics.  Children can help create a cheap biofilter, they can help track the levels, they can help with harvest and processing.

Solar dehydrators or salting could help with storage,  if freezer space is limited. If you can’t store all of the fish harvest, I’m sure you could sell/barter/trade high quality fresh fish.

Anybody else dabbled in aquaculture or aquaponics? Share your experience, tips, tools in the comments!

– Calamity Jane

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12 comments… add one
  • AilimD'SilverFir July 19, 2012, 8:46 am

    I do have experience. It was my Jr. year FFA Project through school. We finally had a new teacher that was interested in more than just the regular livestock, so I finally got to take a crack at using the old hydropotonics set up and the old green house. Both needed alot of repair, but my hydro ended up pretty successfully, especially since I was pretty much flying solo, and my teacher only had the conceptual knowlege. He did take care of getting me fish, trout from our local hatchery. That first summer, I had very successful lettuse, and good starter tomatoe plants. Unfortunatly, that next winter, the power at the school went out, and my whole system completly froze over, killing my fish, and busting most of the piping I had. :-( lessons learned, but it was too late for me to start again while still in school, and I really did prefer good old gardening to the hydro system. But the fish were awesome to eat!

  • Jason July 19, 2012, 11:45 am

    Excellent article Jane, well done.

    It was a bit of a wake-up for me when reading about the waterways in Iowa being polluted so heavily – 6.2 million pounds in a single year?? Wow, then the cumulative effect of the years & years of this activity ….

    BTW & a rhetorical question, is there such a thing as legally dumping poisons in our waterways? I guess if you pay enough to the right politicians anything is possible.

    People who blatantly disregard others & dump their poisons into any body of water should be shot because to turn a blind eye & continue on is not worthy of life.

    Sorry for the rant, this type of stuff bugs the crap out of me.

    • Calamity Jane July 20, 2012, 9:18 am

      Rant away, it bothers the hell out of me too. We have lakes all over the state where swimming isn’t recommended. It’s just sad.

      And yes, they can “legally” dump toxins, there are companies with discharge points on rivers who have permits from the DNR to dump x amount of whatever every year.

  • gat31 July 19, 2012, 4:11 pm

    wow couldn’t believe this article came out now. l have been gathering materials for this type of system set up here at the house. l’m down to needing a fish pump and fish. If you remember one of the first shows from nat geo about the guy in arizona who had the fish in his pool, he grew the plants for his talapia and also ate the plants as well.
    Jane l love ya but get out of my head LOL J/K you seem to be writing what l’m thinking all the time.
    First the worms, then the garlic, now this.
    If l get it set up and working l will give you an update to how it’s going.

  • KC July 19, 2012, 10:20 pm

    Thank You Calamity for the Introduction to Aquaculture;

    In my limited experience with the subject it’s found that if you live in an area where sunlight is plentiful and you have southern exposure, I would recommend a photo-voltaic pump set-up for the re-circulator thus keeping the oxygen levels at a constant, without the danger of a power failure in the case of the first comment. Additionally for matters of chemical content in the stock ponds, any pool supply will have the appropriate measurement gauges and supplies to ensure that your ph and ammonia levels do not become toxic to your development stock. If you are near the coast, then the use of dried kelp can be especially helpful in the manufacture of economical food for the stock without going bankrupt. As Calamity stated the nitrogen which can be harvested, makes an excellent composting tea, when applied to any garden, hence aquaculture is a an excellent multiplier to any self-sufficiency set-up.

  • willy July 20, 2012, 2:17 pm

    I started growing tilapia a year ago. Started with 30 1″ fingerlings. They grew about an inch each month and I sold off most of the adults saving 3 females and 2 males. This paid back my initial investments and gave me money to start more tanks. The females have produced 500-1000 fry every other week for the past 2 months. Needless to say I have more than I know what to do with at this point. Aquaculture is great outdoors but will stink, get moldy and be a waste of time indoors. Tilapia will not do well outdoor if you get cold winters.

  • izzy July 21, 2012, 9:59 pm

    OK, I want a good video from you too! Yeah there are lots of aquaculture videos out there, but they seem to make it sound more difficult, while you make it sound simple…

  • izzy July 21, 2012, 10:01 pm

    (p.s. any of your ‘overwintering’ advice from IA rather than CA would be great too!)

  • Joel July 23, 2012, 9:01 pm

    You are spot on about the dangers of polluted waterways and the dangers they pose to both our health and our eco-system. Many of my friends are avid fisherman, but even they say they won’t eat fish anymore unless it was caught in remote areas upstream of urban areas, and even then who knows?

    I have been trying my hand at hydroponics, because my apartment is constantly shaded so growing outside or in a window is not an option on my property. I’ve had some successes and learned a lot, but I really want to convert my ebb & flow system into an aquaponics system. (Which I know is a whole different beast, you can’t just dump phDown into your tank like you can with hydroponics, it is a more complex and fragile eco-system). Since I have no money to put towards this project at the moment I have been checking the FREE section of craigslist to see if anyone in my area is getting rid of aquarium supplies or aquariums. Even then I will still be likely still be limited in what type of fish I can grow due to limited space and temperature fluctuations in my apartment. (Our heat and a/c are essentially non-functioning and we get both freezing temperatures in winter and 100+ temperatures in summer here in sunny California– I know, I just need to move, but these things can be complicated…)
    Anyway, I am always looking for ways to improve my food producing capacity and its great to find others enthusiasts. Thanks for the post.

  • Jenny Gomez April 22, 2016, 10:58 pm

    I have been contemplating starting aquaponics in my basement with lights. I have a miniscule yard with only one sunny corner, and I’m not giving up my butterfly garden for anything practical (long live the monarch). Besides, in Indiana, you have a limited outdoor season because our weather is so fickle and we have that ridiculous winter thing happening. I considered the upstairs so there would be some natural light when Indiana decides to offer it, but am concerned about water damage if anything goes wrong. I figure the basement is the best place for water damage, and the floor can’t give under the weight of it. I wonder if anybody has any suggestions or ideas to help me get started, or if I’m just nuts for thinking it.

    • Ralph July 10, 2016, 3:23 pm

      Hi Jenny,
      I’ve been raising talapia in my aquaponics garden for about one and a half years now. I live in Arizona where it gets very hot in the summer and down below freezing in the winter. To solve my problem I built an enclosure under a parking structure. I shaded it with the green shading cloth and use heaters in the winter to keep the water warm enough for the fish.


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