Is Aquaponics Cruel?

Tilapia in an aquaponic system photo

Image credit: Aquaponics USA

Maybe I've seen the fish scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life one too many times. For some reason whenever I have written about aquaponics - whether it's the ready-to-go DIY aquaponic systems of Aquaponics USA, the instructional DVD of Aquaponics Made Easy, or the impressive urban aquaponics of Growing Power - I have always focused on the potential for huge yields from small spaces. But what about the well-being of the fish? Is aquaponics a step forward for sustainable food, or should it be considered alongside the horrors of industrial chicken farming? I'd love to hear your views. There's no doubt that aquaponics offers a pretty efficient system of growing both animal protein and vegetables in a limited space, with minimal external inputs - the waste from the fish becomes food for the plants which in turn filter the waste - so water can be returned to the fish. It's all pretty neat.

But where does animal welfare fit into this? How much space do fish need to stay happy and healthy? Now most vegans will presumably argue that the whole concept of maintaining fish for human consumption is wrong - but assuming that we are going to eat fish, then how do we balance out the localized efficiencies of growing our own supply versus the necessarily limited space most of us have versus the benefits of avoiding industrial aquaculture? Commenter Yacko certainly felt that my post on Aquaponics USA missed the mark, arguing that if we consider chickens worthy of humane treatment, then "doesn't keeping fish in a limited 100 gallon, "earth" filtered, "aerated" artificial environment also qualify as inhumane?"

Meanwhile Jim, an aquaponics practitioner, disagreed, claiming that his tilapia are "grown naturally, females and males ..... not genetically altered or sex-reversed, and they are very well cared for. I would venture to say that they are better off in my "small little box" than those raised on a huge farm."

It's an interesting argument, and not one I have an immediate answer to. It's definitely fair to say that fish, given their size and use of both vertical and horizontal space, can make do with a lot less room than most animals. But at what point does efficiency become cruelty?

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