Urban aquaponics is poised to be the next big thing in hip, big-city farming…but does anyone actually know what they’re doing?
Chistopher Toole starts up the inclined parking lot of his Riverdale, Bronx, apartment complex towards his “fish mobile,” a beat-up 2004 grey Dodge Sprinter van decorated with bright images of fish and ocean landscaping. The tall, bespectacled man reaches the van, unlocks it and energetically slides the door open to reveal dense clutter: four fifty-gallon plastic barrel tanks, crammed alongside stacks of empty boxes, air pumps, pails, plastic-wrapped packs of expanded shale, a “Say No To Frankenfish” postcard, and, yes, a six-person collapsible boat.
“I hope to have this five-cylinder turbo diesel van running on fish oil soon,” Toole says in hyper-caffeinated mode as an empty brown box tumbles down the heap and onto the ground.
It’s the spring of 2012, and forty-eight-year-old Toole is dressed for his stepson’s seventh birthday party: a pair of black pinstripe dress slacks mismatched with a neon yellow and purple polo shirt. His long, bushy salt-and-pepper beard is tied at the end with a red velvet bow. Covering his shaggy hair is a baggy jester cap in the shape of a fish—an odd look for someone hoping to save the world.
The equipment jammed in Toole’s van are the tools of this former corporate banker’s newest obsession—aquaponics, or growing fish and plants together in the same recirculating water system. Think soilless hydroponic farming, but with fish.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Schreibman, the Brooklyn College biologist who is helping spread the urban aquaponics movement nationwide, Toole quit his job in the fall of 2010 to become a full-time fish farmer and began siphoning funds from his 401(k) into his project. Before quitting his job, he knew nothing about rearing fish, but by mid-January of last year, he had drawn coverage from local and international news outlets like the New York Post, CBS and the BBC, which dubbed him the city’s new aquaponics pioneer.
In the back of the van, the aquaponics neophyte is showing off equipment as Eddison Romeo, his roommate, stares in amazement at the disorganized pile. The two then turn their attention to the family van, another Dodge Sprinter painted bright red. Toole points to the fully expanded wheelchair ramp sticking out of the back—an elongated “fish tail,” he calls it. Inside, the van is missing two rows of seats. He removed them so he could transport up to three 275-gallon containers.
“He’s like that scientist from ‘Back to the Future,’” says Romeo, arching his eyebrows. “Crazy, but a genius.” Standing near the back of the van, Toole flips a remote control rocker switch. The mechanical “fish tail” slowly retracts. His emphatic proclamation breaks the calmness of the quiet residential neighborhood: “We need to find a way to eat, live and shit in one place!”
Toole’s plan is simple, but ambitious: create an urban fish farm, sell his homegrown “Bronx Best Blue Tilapia” to community gardens, restaurants and local farmers, and eventually branch out to other aspects of sustainable urban farming (chickens, mushrooms, etc.). What Toole doesn’t know is that Dr. Schreibman, the man who has dedicated over a decade to consulting dozens of aquaponics ventures in New York City and abroad, is starting to become a bit skeptical and weary of overzealous fish farmers like him.
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Twenty miles away, in a research lab at Brooklyn College, 1,800 purple-hued tilapias flip and flop along the gurgling surface of the water in large plastic tanks. Here, Dr. Schreibman, the seventy-seven-year-old aquaponics pioneer, has spent the last decade raising and studying these fish and answering dozens of weekly phone calls from a rapidly growing number of eager aquaponics acolytes like Toole. “They all speak the mantra, ‘I want to help,’ but they trip all over themselves,” says Schreibman. “The bottom line: it’s naiveté, youth and lack of experience. Most of these people have never seen fish before.”
On workdays, Dr. Schreibman, a short, grey-haired, gentle-faced man makes the twenty-minute drive from his beachfront Belle Harbor, Queens, home in the Rockaways to his lab. Inside his Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC), wooden beams and white PVC pipes connect state-of-the-art bio-filtration systems and pumps to long troughs, tanks and eight 250-gallon blue plastic tubs lined along what Shreibman calls “Tilapia Drive.” The soothing sound of trickling water mixes with the distinct stench of live fish.
Here, he spends hours studying the effects of water temperature, hormones and light on the reproductive systems of captive fish. Schreibman began studying aquaponics closely in the early 2000s and increasingly came to see it as a way to solve the world’s environmental problems. Aquaponics systems produce edible fish, are highly energy efficient, run on recycled water and theoretically can be built in basements, apartment buildings, rooftop gardens—almost anywhere you can imagine. “In the early years, I wasn’t able to convince people that we really needed to look for alternative forms of food production,” Schreibman says. “People are catching on nowadays.”
Aquaponics systems work like this: Fish waste is pumped through a settling tank, where ammonia is broken down into harmless nitrogen products. The nutrient-rich water is consumed and cleaned by the plants, the water is pumped back to the fish, and the process repeats. Tilapia, which is native to North Africa, is the preferred species. It is high in protein and grows fast—in nine months a small tilapia fry can grow to one-and-a-half pounds. Since the founding of AREAC in 1999, Dr. Schreibman has appeared in many articles, blog posts, radio and video interviews to tout aquaponics as “the technology of the future,” one with the capacity to revolutionize food production and solve issues related to rising food prices and decreasing wild fish supplies.
In places like Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Hawaii, aquaponics is indeed catching on as people become increasingly aware of the world’s likely grim environmental future and savvier about where their food comes from. The Recirculating Farms Coalition, a non-profit New Orleans-based organization made up of farmers, researchers and educators like Dr. Schreibman, has identified about 250 recirculating farms around the country, not including the thousands of individuals who are farming fish in their homes, basements and backyards.
In 2004, Dr. Schreibman co-authored a white paper with Cornell University outlining how aquaculture could transform New York into a $1.5-billion-a-year industry. “We all realized that New York State had tremendous potential if you got politicians on board and made them understand that you could provide food, put people to work and utilize facilities that were abandoned,” he says.
But while hydroponic farming and rooftop gardens have taken off in New York, Dr. Schreibman’s aquaponics revolution has not gone according to plan.
In 2010, Dr. Schreibman, along with business partner Kevin Ferry, launched Clear Water Aqua Farms two hours north of the city in Wassaic using $50,000 raised from friends and family. The 2,000-square-foot greenhouse was a place to rear steelhead rainbow trout, which the pair planned to sell to local restaurants and markets. But inclement weather took its toll. “It was one of the worst winters ever and we lacked funds,” Dr. Schreibman remembers.
Dr. Schreibman bowed out of the venture in the spring of 2011 and says he probably won’t try it again. “I’ve been a scientist for a long time. I’m an educator, remember?” The farm’s flop only contributed to his growing frustration with the industry. The aquaponics ideas he had for New York never really took off, and many of the ventures he consulted locally were helmed by farmers who hadn’t quite thought through their plans.
“Some guy recently called me, ‘So professor, I want to do fish farming, what do I need to know?’ Well, you need to know that you can’t do it,” he says with a chuckle. “He has no background. Where are you going to start? You realize how ridiculous the question is—‘What should I know?’”
After meeting Toole briefly at an elementary school talk in Forest Hills, Queens, Dr. Schreibman offered to show him around his lab and consult on Toole’s venture. “You know, he still hasn’t called me,” Dr. Schreibman says.
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Before people knew him as the highly energetic “aquaponics man,” Toole was a New York City area manager at Sovereign Bank, and before that, a stockbroker for Morgan Stanley. So how does a former corporate banker shift gears to become a full-time fish farmer?
When Toole was four years old, his father moved the family from Melbourne to Boston to work as a cellular biologist at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Summers were spent at the Woods Hole labs on the shores of Cape Cod. “Playtime was different for me,” Toole recalls. “I collected insects and spent my summers studying the ocean, observing tide pool organisms and being around fish.”
His enthusiasm for scientific discovery didn’t last long. “When it was time to attend college, I decided that I wasn’t into science,” he says. Instead, he studied business and engineering, eventually earning a degree in economics and spending the next seventeen years submersed in the corporate world.
In 2004, he stumbled upon a New York Times article about Dr. Schreibman. He had never heard of the aquaponics visionary, but the concept intrigued him. He continued working at the bank, but starting discussing aquaponics more with a childhood friend, and then a water expert at an Ohio fish farm, who told him that it’s much easier to learn about recirculating systems if you first learn how to properly and effectively grow plants in water without the fish. “He suggested that I first start with hydroponics,” says Toole. “Of course I ignored it. I just like my fish.”
In 2009, at “Fire on the Water,” a Manhattan business networking cruise, he met Anya Pozdeeva, a former botanist who would soon become his girlfriend. Pozdeeva was a Russian immigrant who worked as a financial advisor. Toole’s exuberance attracted her—he was an energetic man who told about his wild motorcycle adventures and sailing trips. He also spoke constantly about his fantasies of growing as much fish for food as he could.
“Chris was a bank manager, but he was talking about growing fish in the apartment all the time,” she says. “He would always ask, ‘Is it okay to put a big fish tank in here?’ No! Eventually, he did.”
In the fall of 2010, Toole, who had been suffering from retinal detachment, was recuperating from a series of laser eye surgeries that saved him from going blind. Pozdeeva, a model-esque blonde with deep-set blue eyes and a charismatic demeanor, could sense he was depressed. The “avalanche of passionate attention” that had attracted her to Toole was suddenly gone.
She recalls approaching him as he sat wallowing on the balcony of their fourteenth-floor apartment; views of the New Jersey Palisades stretched out before them. “You know, you don’t have to go back to the bank,” she said. “You can follow your dreams.”
“As soon as I said it, he jumped up and ran out the terrace door, free,” she says.
Toole ordered books on how to build DIY aquaponics systems instead of buying the $600 to $5,000 starter kits online. In their bedroom, he pieced PVC pipes bought at Home Depot together with air pumps and plant grow beds, creating what looked like a futuristic Bio-Dome science experiment. At a live fish market in Brooklyn, he purchased his first food fish: half a dozen full-grown White Nile tilapias, to test whether they’d survive in his newly created system.
On the balcony he added a small pop-up greenhouse, a messy “man cave” of aquaponics experimentation. He tested the fish in various water temperatures and worked on perfecting methods of symbiotically growing fish along with beans, basil and red leaf lettuce. But he had no training, only a trove of online information, and kept no scientific logs. It was purely fingers-crossed, trial-and-error experimentation.
By the end of the year, neighbor complaints about the terrace greenhouse and accusations that he was running a commercial fish farm (which he denies) led him to seek space at The Point, a non-profit community development organization in the Bronx geared towards cultural and economic revitalization. Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive director at The Point, said she would allow Toole to use the small back room there if he and Pozdeeva agreed to teach after-school aquaponics and botany classes.
“Now that he finally decided to follow his passion, stability is what I crave the most. Life is very unstable,” Pozdeeva says. “Even Dr. Schreibman does a lot of work, but he gets paid. We don’t. The worst part is not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
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It’s April 2012, and Dr. Schreibman is driving his gold Audi convertible in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, down Emmons Avenue—the main waterfront street lined with seafood restaurants, fish markets and fishing charter boats docked at wooden piers. The Brooklyn native points to Il Fornetto, a cozy waterfront restaurant he had attempted to sell his farm-raised tilapia to in the early 2000s, before the practice was popular. “The chef said nobody wanted it, but three or four years later, he came running to me asking, ‘Professor, do you have any more of that tilapia?’”
In recent years, tilapia has become a popular choice among foodies and chefs. It’s high in protein and has a less “fishy” taste. “Brooklyn College was one of the early institutions in the states growing tilapia before people could spell tilapia,” Dr. Schreibman says.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the U.S. imports ninety-one percent of fish consumed in the country, half of which is raised in ocean cages in Asia and Latin America. Here in the city, practically all of the fish consumed is imported from abroad, despite the fact that fish are grown all over New York State.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) operates twelve hatcheries which produce one million pounds of fish like trout, salmon and lake sturgeon. But in late 2012, the DEC announced a monumental change to regulation that could alter how the state’s hatcheries are used. Third parties are now allowed to buy black bass from licensed state hatcheries and resell them as food, whereas before, only licensed hatchery operators could sell them. Opening the New York State fish market could potentially attract new food fish farmers, create more jobs in the state and encourage existing hatcheries to diversify their businesses, perhaps with commercial aquaponics in mind.
New York City did have an aquaponics fish farm once. Philson Warner, coordinator of science, technology and sustainable agriculture at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, claims to have coined the term “aquaponics.” In 2001, he co-founded Inner City Oceans in an abandoned Bronx warehouse.
“It was successful, but the problem was we needed more space in the South Bronx to expand the farm and the city didn’t give us space they had promised us,” Warner says. “Overseas, they grow it in farms, use cheap labor, then import them here. I had to get to a level where I could compete with those guys.” To succeed, Warner said, he would have needed to produce ten million pounds of fish every year. His farm produced only one million pounds.
Even with the new regulation and an increased temptation for farmers to raise fish, there is still the reality of experience. Farmers looking to get into aquaponics lack the resources, money and insider research needed to make their venture less of a science experiment and more of a moneymaker. Dr. Schreibman is aware of this and urges commercial aquaponics venturers to go into it with experts on the team.
“When you’re a professor, as long as you’re funded—teaching and researching—you can always move ahead using fish as a model,” Dr. Schreibman says. “I’ve been a scientist for a long time. I can evaluate and look at data, and know what a dead fish or a sick plant looks like. Others can’t.”
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The Point is a boxy brick building on Garrison Avenue decked out in bright mural art and graffiti. Since the organization’s founding in 1994, a bevy of youth development, arts and community education programs taught by dancers, actors and environmental do-gooders like Majora Carter have taken place here. None have preached and taught the benefits of aquaponics—until now.
Twice a week in the back room, Toole teaches elementary school students about the anatomy of fish and how to feed and harvest them. His loud voice booms through the building; his long grizzly beard makes him stand out immediately.
When Toole installed two sixty-gallon aquaponics systems, the students—most of whom never imagined you could grow fish for food—were awestruck. Danny Peralta, director of arts and education at The Point, was also taken aback.
“I thought it was odd at first,” says Peralta. “Toole came in with a lot of ideas that were way over my head, but I think he’s humbled a bit since realizing what he wants to do is a process.” Toole’s over-enthusiastic ideas and zippy thinking can often be extremely hard to follow.
“We understand that we’re flawed,” Toole said, referring to himself and Pozdeeva. “We need to improve the level of professionalism, but we’re trying to figure it out.”
Regardless, Toole’s mountain-man looks, environmental ideas and eccentric approach have drawn attention. In early 2012, “Raising Trashcan Tilapia is Latest Trend in Urban Farming,” a DNAinfo.com article, piqued the interest of local and international media outlets. People were fascinated by how Toole had cleverly appropriated average household recycling bins, using them to raise food fish. Whether the resident expert was experienced enough in aquaponics to be treated as a regional spokesperson is another story.
Plastering the walls in The Point’s aquaponics room are butcher papers scribbled with terms like “orbicular” and “S.A.V.E.,” which refers to the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education—the educational organization Toole and Pozdeeva founded in 2010. The other side of their vision is Vertically Integrated Farms, a commercial business that sells aquaponic equipment, at-home mushroom growing kits and Blue and White Nile tilapia—six dollars to nine dollars for one- to two-inch fingerlings, thirty-five dollars for roughly six-inch breeders, or adults. Word-of-mouth drives most of their business. Toole and Pozdeeva don’t really keep track of the number of clients they have, but say they’ve bred about one thousand fish, not including the ones they’ve bought, eaten or given away to the kids at The Point.
Jonathan Boe, thirty-three, and Yemi Amu, thirty-one, two new Brooklyn aquaponics farmers, have worked together in the last few years to build a commercial aquaponics system at a community garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn. After finding Toole’s business online, they purchased twenty-five of his blue and white Nile tilapia fingerlings. “Toole was one of the only ones around here selling them,” says Boe.
Toole taught them how to properly introduce the fish into an aquaponics system, how to harvest them and monitor pH and ammonia levels. “He’s crazy, but so smart,” says Amu. “He’s also a few steps ahead of us.”
Toole has also tried to educate local chefs about aquaponics. At The Point Cafe, chef Kelston Bascom runs a catering company where he concocts gourmet Caribbean-inspired dishes for social events and clients like Patti Labelle and Jerry Seinfield. Until meeting Toole, the Trinidad native had vaguely heard of aquaponics, but had never seen a system or cooked with aquaponic fish.
“In 2011, Toole brought in a live tilapia to the kitchen, so I chopped its head off with a knife before pulling the guts out, scaling, battering and frying it for tempura,” he says. “It had a buttery, fresh flavor to it. I could tell it hadn’t been frozen.”
Usually, by the time a fish is caught and frozen, it takes roughly two weeks to get to Bascom’s kitchen. The shipment boxes his fish are packaged in come from all over: China, Argentina, Chile. Some fish farms in the Philippines occasionally overnight him a box of fresh fish on ice. But if Bascom paid nine dollars per pound for Toole’s fish, he would need to jack up the menu price for a fried, baked or grilled fillet to a whopping $30 just to turn a profit, he says.
Toole also showed Bascom how to harvest the fish by sticking it in the freezer for half an hour. This lowers its body temperature until it slips into a coma and eventually dies. One time, Bascom took the fish out of the freezer too soon. While the kids gathered around, excited to watch a fish demonstration session, the fish started to stir, slowly flapping its purply-grey fins until Bascom slammed the silver blade down.
“It’s not all love and kiss in the world. You make mistakes and move on,” says Toole.
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Pozdeeva rests on a red picnic table near the playground of her quiet Riverdale apartment complex after her son’s birthday party. The tall, slender woman wears a brown and pink flowered velvet coat. She’s soft spoken, but her hand gestures give her an air of confidence as she points out a patch of wild garlic mustard. “People throw them away, but it’s food,” she says. “It’s also very good for the immune system.”
If Toole is the energetic fish man, Pozdeeva is the laid-back plant woman, savvy in the very necessary other half of their business, which Toole admits to knowing little about.
“When I was little, my grandmother and I used to walk in vast, beautiful, majestic forests in the Ural Mountains,” she says. “She would point to specific plants, name them and tell me what they do. This one’s good for liver disease, or heart disease, or colds.”
On days when she’s not teaching botany classes at The Point or the New York Botanical Gardens, she’s at home, taking care of her and Toole’s two kids and cooking dinners from scratch each night for the whole family. She also juggles researching and writing blog posts about invasive plants and urban gardening for the Vertically Integrated Farms blog.
At one point, Pozdeeva and the kids were living in her mother’s one-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of the Riverdale building so the couple could make money from renting a bedroom in the apartment on the fourteenth floor. Toole stayed upstairs, sleeping in the living room to monitor the small aquaponics tank he had set up there. “I miss normal family life. I don’t know when it’s going to be over because I’m getting tired,” Pozdeeva says as she looks towards the sky and gently rubs her neck.
Finances are a strain on the couple. “There’s a certain amount of stress that comes with taking your financial position and driving it into the ground, especially with two kids,” she says. “I have savings, but he’s emptied his credit cards. We’re living frugally.”
But she says she’s not scared, “because I know that letting him follow his dreams is the only way for Toole to survive.” After moving to the United States by herself at twenty years old, she worked as a live-in babysitter and a waitress, then graduated with an economics degree from Fordham University in 2003. She became a financial advisor, but liked being her own boss better. On the side, she secretly worked on developing her online chocolate business, ADEVI Chocolates, and studied aphrodisiac herbs. Early this year, Pozdeeva published her first e-book, Food Under Your Feet, about foraging invasive weeds and harnessing their edible properties.
“The biggest challenge for us now is being our own witnesses,” she says. “Sometimes Chris takes it easy when he doesn’t have a whip. He doesn’t have much discipline and can panic easily.”
She lightens up; her hand gestures become more exaggerated. “But when you’re inspired, you become your own whip and you become driven and passionate.”
Pozdeeva gets up from the picnic table and makes her way to the playground swings. She pumps her legs and flies higher into the sky, smiling at Toole, who has returned from putting their twenty-one-month-old son to bed upstairs. He walks towards Pozdeeva, a camera pointed at her. She makes faces at the camera, lighting up with a childlike exuberance. In this moment, it looks like everything—despite all the fish, the plants, the financial troubles—will be O.K.
In the fall of 2012, Toole and Pozdeeva moved into a two-bedroom live-work space in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “One of the biggest problems we have is our lack of access to sufficient space resources, so we’re not as productive as we want to be,” Toole says. “But,” he admits, “part of that problem is our own making because we’re not really settled.” From the outside, things look on the up. The couple recently started serving as consultants for eatmermaid.org, an organization dedicated to assisting community supported fisheries and bringing sustainable seafood, work and education to underserved communities. This summer, they’ll co-host a one-day benefit to raise money for a permanent aquaponic solar greenhouse at The Point. Toole and Pozdeeva have also started to think beyond fish, selling sustainable food products like invasive weeds pesto and wild-harvested herbs on their website. “It’s not just fish,” Toole says. “It’s about finding a business model that makes sense for you.”
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Dr. Schreibman stands in his blue Crocs on a sandy beach in the Rockaways, admiring the scenery. “It’s another world,” he says appreciatively as the waves crash against the shore. The area is a natural escape for Dr. Schreibman; it’s seven miles from the lab where he spends most of his time. Before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the Rockaways last fall, Dr. Schreibman would often swim a one-mile lap along the beach 200 yards from his home.
Driving back up busy Flatbush Avenue to his lab, Dr. Schreibman pauses for a moment when asked what he’s most proud of. “Being able to get the word out, show the feasibility and importance of aquaponics and call attention to it,” he says. “People didn’t pay attention to it or understand it before.”
Despite his frustrations, he is optimistic that his success story is still to come.
“I’m certainly a champion of it, a positive-thinking person, and I think it’s going to happen and it will happen soon,” he says. “Maybe when the economy loosens up, so will the hold on the people who have that fire in their belly, who think they can make it work and go for that leap.”
Of course, the number of people who are taking that leap continues to grow. As Toole puts it: “If the many people out there who are willing to do aquaponics are given the space, the results would be explosive. Dr. Schreibman would be very happy.”
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Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.