This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Needs Assessment and Practical Solutions for the Aquaponics Industry




Pattillo, David Allen

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences

Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



This research serves as a needs assessment for the aquaponic industry, encapsulating the challenges, knowledge levels, information resource usage, production practices, and production scales of hobbyists, producers, and educators. An online survey was used to collect data from stakeholders including demographics, background, motivations, experiences, challenges, perceptions of core competency areas, usage of informational resources, aquaponic system styles, components, and production practices, fish and plant species produced, system area, volume, production output, and investment. This data was used to evaluate the current state of the aquaponics industry, create guidelines for newcomers, assess needs, and provide recommendations for improving the industry going forward. Major findings from this research are as follows: Study 1 - Top challenge areas experienced by stakeholders include 1 - operations and management, 2 - facilities, location, and system design, 3 - knowledge and educational resources, 4 - funding, 5 - economic viability, 6 - plant culture, 7 - marketing and distribution, 8 - fish culture, 9 - human factors, and 10 - regulations and certifications. Study 2 - The top needs for knowledge and information access based on the mean weighted discrepancy score (MWDS) for all groups were in the areas of fish health and disease (FHD) and plant pest, disease, and nutrient deficiencies (PPD), whereas food safety (FS), water chemistry (WC), system maintenance (SM), and system design (SD) needs were higher for some stakeholder groups than others. Study 3 - The most commonly used information sources overall were internet and videos, books and library, and classes and workshops. The most commonly desired information resource overall were other aquaponic growers, extension agents, classes/workshops, extension publications, and manufacturers/suppliers. The three most unused resources across all groups were friends and family, consultants, and social media. Study 4 - Overall, aquaponic systems were largely homemade/do-it-yourself, especially for hobbyists, while producers and educators often used a hybrid of homemade and commercially available technology. Funding sources were primarily personal funds, government grants, and private investor funds. Coupled systems were the most popular overall, which included recirculating aquaculture systems and either deep-water culture or media bed hydroponic units. Plant lighting sources included sunlight, light emitting diode, and fluorescent. Water sources were typically municipal or wells. Vegetable produce was the most common product sold, followed by training and education, food fish, and microgreens. Tilapia (Cichlidae) was the most commonly grown fish species across all groups, followed by ornamental fish (e.g. koi and goldfish; Cyprinidae) with 16 other species being reported. The most commonly grown crops overall were lettuce, leafy greens, basil, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs with many additional lesser-grown crops reported. Diversification of fish and plant crops with emphasis on high value and low per-unit production cost over time will be critical to profitability going forward. Study 5 - Fish and plant area, volume, annual production output and investment cost were greatest for producers. System sizes were different by background setting with rural systems generally being larger, more productive, and more expensive than urban systems, and suburban systems falling in between. The relationship between system area and volume, production output and investment were positive and linear when Ln-transformed. Producer systems generally had the greatest variance explained in the regression model, and hobbyists had the least variance. The ratio of plant area to fish area and plant to fish production output were highest for producers, demonstrating that producers tend to focus on plant production. Investment per unit area and volume were highest for producers, while investment per unit production was greatest for hobbyists. Greater industry-combined production area, volume, and invested dollars compared to previous studies suggest the aquaponic industry is growing. Attention to system scale optimization with an emphasis on high value and low per-unit production cost will be critical to the long-term profitability of the industry.