Though modern aquaponics first appeared as university research projects directed at the commercial aquaculture sector, it has been at the hobby and backyard scales where aquaponics has flourished. It is estimated that there are 3,000 to 5,000 hobby and backyard aquaponic systems in the United States and more than 5,000 in Australia; the two countries to date with the greatest aquaponic activity, though other countries will certainly follow. As aquaponics receives more attention in the media these numbers are sure to increase many fold. There has been a steady increase in the number of companies that sell small aquaponics systems, associated equipment and information. Aquaponic systems can even be found in the catalogs of major retail chains.
Another development has been the adoption of aquaponics by schools which install and operate small aquaponic systems to serve as the basis of science curricula. It has been estimated that 1,000 schools in the U.S. are using aquaponics to teach basic sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) and applied sciences such as fish husbandry, horticulture, fish and plant nutrition, fish and plant physiology, water quality testing, water treatment, etc. When the fish and crops are ready for harvest, business and marketing lessons can be taught. Students become more interested in science when they are engaged in the practical application of science and experience factors such as the feeding frenzy of fish, the flow of water through the system and the rapid growth of vegetables.
Commercial development of aquaponics has been slower to take off than hobby scale aquaponics, but there is steady progress in this area too. We are aware of several successful commercial operations in the U.S. and overseas, in the size range of one quarter acre (0.1 ha) or less. These are generally single family operations or an owner with a few employees. There is a 1-acre (0.4 ha) tilapia, tomato and lettuce operation in Abu Dhabi. Most commercial facilities are contained in greenhouses for environmental control and increased production. Several larger operations in the size range of 3 to 5 acres (1.2 to 2 ha) are currently being planned. Investors and lending institutions have been cautious when asked to fund commercial aquaponics, which is an emerging industry, because only a limited number of models demonstrating long-term financial success are currently available. Careful business planning is essential for economic success.
More universities are recognizing the burgeoning interest in aquaponics and its potential to meet future food needs. Two new aquaponic research programs have been launched at universities in the U.S. and another university has begun offering an accredited class in aquaponics. There are at least 12 commercial organizations in the U.S. that offer aquaponic short courses and the students in the U.S. and Australia receiving some sort of formal aquaponics education number in the thousands. Aquaponic enthusiasts in Australia and the U.S. mediate several aquaponic internet forums with membership exceeding 5,000 for each forum.
The U.S. Aquaponics Association held its founding conference in Orlando, Florida in September, 2011. In attendance were 255 aquaponic enthusiasts. A day later in Cancun, Mexico, the Second International Aquaponics Congress was held and was attended by 300 individuals from many countries. With so much interest and so many new developments and ventures, aquaponics will certainly contribute significantly to the future of sustainable food production.