A $50,000 grant from the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents will fund faculty and student aquaponics research at a UW-Stevens Point facility during summer 2015.
Dr. Chris Hartleb, and four other UW faculty members, received grant funding as part of the UW Regent Scholar award: given to individuals who provide innovative student research with a focus on creating economic opportunities in Wisconsin.
Aquaponics is the process of raising fish and plants simultaneously without soil. Some believe aquaponics is the most effective way to create food for humans because of the sustainable nature of the system. The basis of aquaponics is that the fish and plants provide nutrients for each other in a cyclical fashion.
With grant funding, Hartleb plans to hire four students to work at the UWSP Aquaponics Innovation Center, an applied research and education facility in Montello. Construction began in August 2014 and is scheduled to open on April 23. There are no other aquaculture education facilities in the United States.
The facility is partnered with two private-industry leaders to support the projects. Nelson and Pade, an aquaponics systems company, helped build the facility and systems. Northside Enterprises, a private aquaculture business, will help supply fish.
“We’re going to try out new types of Wisconsin fish in commercial aquaponics systems,” Hartleb said. “We’re seeing if different types of native fish can be used in aquaponics.”
Hartleb said the majority of fish currently used in aquaponics systems are not native to Wisconsin. Providing evidence that Wisconsin’s fish are suitable for commercial aquaponics could help expand the state’s fish farming industry.
“About 85 percent of the industry is using tilapia,” Hartleb said. “They’re a very hearty fish.”
Many tilapia, Hartleb said, are imported from China.
“It’s time for the aquaponics industry to diversify and look for new types of fish,” Hartleb said.
Eventually, the center will use native fish species from another UWSP entity in Bayfield, Wisconsin, the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility. Hartleb co-directs the facility and is excited about the partnership.
Native fish are raised at the Bayfield facility in hopes of producing hybrid fish which grow larger in less time. Hartleb said an average hybrid walleye, produced through aquaculture, could be productive in an aquaponic system for nine months. This is in comparison to tilapia that are normally only suitable for six.
Hartleb said there is great potential for growth in aquaponics at UWSP, in Wisconsin and worldwide. Hartleb said he would like for the vegetables, grown in aquaponics systems at the center, to be brought back to campus and used by food services; although no plans for this have been made. Interns at both facilities will begin work in June, gaining viable experience in a field that is still in its infancy.
“These are students who are going to get firsthand experience,” Hartleb said. “The industry has ‘help wanted’ signs out.”