As a child growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dr. James Rakocy did not plan on a career in aquaponics. While his family had a home garden and he enjoyed fishing and raising fish in an aquarium, his life took him in other directions. First, he joined the Peace Corps and served in Africa by teaching at a secondary school. Then, he was a teacher in Poughkeepsie, New York, before getting a master’s degree in environmental biology at the University of North Carolina. Finally, he took a job in environmental consulting with a focus on water quality.
Rakocy, now retired and living in Thailand, says he didn’t really like any of the jobs he had before his career in aquaponics started. While working at his consulting job, he came across a magazine about aquaculture, an article detailed a program at Auburn University where the students helped save a pond's ecosystem by using an aquaculture system. This sparked his interest, and as a result, he applied to Auburn’s Ph.D. program. He embarked on studies that would ultimately lead him to a 30-year career at the University of the Virgin Islands and a lifetime of studying and advancing aquaponics at events like the recent National Greenhouse Manufacturers Association Spring Meeting, where he was a presenter.
“I never had a plan B,” he says with a laugh.
An unexpected career
In 1980, when Rakocy graduated from Auburn with his Ph.D. in aquaculture, the timing was perfect. A job opening at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) in aquaculture seemed to fit exactly what he wanted to do next, so he accepted the position. Unknown to Rakocy, a professor already working at the university had built an aquaponics system in his backyard.
“It was a really basic system,” Rakocy says. “It was one of the first tries at an aquaponics system. [The previous professor] was growing tomatoes in it and raising tilapia in a swimming pool. He had some pretty good results, and the university wanted him to begin incorporating that work at the [research] station.”
That professor, however, quit right around the time Rakocy started at UVI. Upon hearing the news, Rakocy proposed taking on the aquaponics project, as he knew the university wanted to continue it even as the professor who had built the rudimentary system had left.
“It helped that I knew that supervisor, who also had a degree from Auburn,” he says.
Rakocy also notes that other fortunate circumstances bolstered his ability to spend his career researching aquaponics. When he needed funds for new research endeavors, he rarely faced any pushback — resulting in 30 years of uninterrupted funding. And after seven years, Rakocy found himself in charge of the entire University of the Virgin Islands research station. At other land grant universities with more competition, he feels he may have never had a chance to study aquaponics for as long, and as thoroughly, as he did.
“Although [the director job] did cut into my research time because of all the administration work,” he says with a laugh.
The Virgin Islands also proved to be an ideal place for the research. Rakocy says the island is fairly dry and there aren’t many ponds or much running water in the area to draw water from.
“What we were trying to do was create an industry from scratch,” Rakocy says. “I was forced to use something that utilized very little water, and aquaponics was it.”
Now, he sees more people interested in it both as a hobby and commercially. The benefits he learned about back the 1980s are going mainstream.
A pioneering career in research
At UVI, Rakocy’s work focused on vegetables and herbs; his previous forays into aquaponics focused on water chestnuts and some edible plants. The first aquaponics system he and his team at UVI constructed used three and half oil barrels — a production setup Rakocy says has become more widely used in recent years. In four and a half months, the first system produced 100 pounds of food.
“We made a ton of mistakes, but we reduced it,” Rakocy says. “We had no idea how to design it, how many fish we needed or what kind of plants would work.”
Next, he and his team built six systems for controlled experiments. According to his notes, each system contained two hydroponic tanks with a total growing area of 154 ft2 (14.3 m2), and a 3,000-gal (11.4 m3) fish tank. After experimenting with those tanks, Rakocy and his team built another system with two hydroponic tanks with a total growing area of 768 ft2 (71.4 m2) with a 3,000-gal (11.4 m3) fish tank.
Years of trialing ultimately lead to UVI developing the first-ever commercial scale system in 1999. It contained six hydroponic tanks and had a growing area 2,303 ft2 (214 m2) and four fish rearing tanks, each with a water volume of 1,320 gal (5.0 m3). Per Rakocy’s notes, the goal was to stagger fish production in the aquaponics system to keep nutrient generation relatively consistent. After more long-term trialing — including one trial that lasted three years — larger fish tanks were installed.
It was this initial commercial system that is the basis for the current commercial-scale UVI aquaponics system.
“I had three professional researchers working for me,” Rakocy says. “I wasn’t able to do as much of the field work once I started directing the research, but I was still involved.”
While at UVI, Rakocy authored or co-authored 96 papers on aquaponics research. He also co-edited Volumes 1 and 2 of the Tilapia Aquaculture in the Americans and wrote “Aquaponics Q&A,” a 235-page book primer with basic information for those interested in aquaponics.
At the time Rakocy started his career at UVI, he says there was not much aquaponics research being pursued by universities in the U.S. or elsewhere. He remembers there only being a small trial and paper from Southern Illinois University and another paper from a small university in Germany. According to Rakocy, the work he was doing was back in 1980 was not understood the way it is now.
“It was absolutely in its infancy,” he says. “No one knew what aquaponics was. In fact, no one called it aquaponics. We just called it an integrated system."
Rakocy says he isn’t sure what he would have ended up doing had his career in aquaponics not manifested itself in the way and time that it did. All he knows is that he wouldn’t have been happy in any of his jobs before his job at UVI. He goes as far as to compare his career, and ultimate success studying aquaponics, to the 2005 Woody Allen movie “Match Point.” The film examines the impact of luck and circumstances on life.
“You know how a tennis ball could fall on one side or the other?” he says. “The whole premise of that movie is that a lot of what happens in your life has to do with luck. And I lucked out.”
Looking at the future
From his base in Thailand — he says he retired there because he didn’t want to retire in Florida like everyone else — Rakocy now works on a project called The Aquaponics Doctors. Along with Dr. Wilson Lennard, an Australian with a background in biology who started research aquaponics in the mid-2000s. Together, they offer consulting on everything from how to set up an aquaponics system to what crops to grow to what system components might be cheaper and more efficient. Their goal is to help make aquaponics a larger part of the growing community. On the research side, UVI no longer has a dedicated program as when Rakocy ran it, but there are six universities in North America with fully functioning aquaponics programs.
One area of the world Rakocy says he hopes embraces aquaponics fully is in the Middle East. He and Lennard have consulted on projects in Abu Dhabi and Rakocy says that region of the world is perfect for aquaponics because of its relative lack of water. Not unlike the Virgin Islands, Rakocy says, the Middle East lacks the water necessary to produce food in the quantities it needs.
“They don’t have any water and aquaponics is very conservative on water,” he says. “The only water we lose is from vaporization and some from removing sludge. But there are techniques where you can get water back into the system.”
“All you do is harvest your plants and feed your fish and plants,” he says. “It’s a very stable system.”
In addition to his work consulting and helping plan projects, Rakocy travels the world and speaks on aquaponics at different conferences while also squeezing in some well-deserved travel time for himself. To date, he has been invited to speak on aquaponics in countries like Canada, Norway and Saudi Arabia. He has also given presentations in Brazil, China and Thailand. In short, Rakocy has been all over the world lecturing on aquaponics. His hope now is for aquaponics to expand beyond hobbyists and smaller growers producing one or two bays of crops. Currently, he says commercial growers using aquaponics are confined to niche markets and specialty crops. Most aquaponic food sales, he says, are direct, local and in relatively small quantities.
“What’s so appealing about aquaponics to people — especially to home gardeners — is that you can raise plants easily and incredibly productively,” Rakocy says. “There’s no weeding. And if you follow the UVI method, there’s very little monitoring.”
One day, Rakocy hopes, bigger commerical growers will also adopt aquaponics and more researchers will take on the challenge of improving the technology. But he’s also happy to have gotten this far.