How to Run a Self Sufficient Intensive Aquarium (Aquaculture)

Two Parts:Setting up Your AquacultureFollowing a Standard Design

If you want to rear fish for food, whether in your backyard or as starting a serious aquaculture career, then this is the guide you are looking for. Self-sufficient aquaculture is so easy; it only requires water aeration, nitrogen removal by aquaponics, and solids removal.

Part 1
Setting up Your Aquaculture

  1. 1
    Know your fish. You'll need to know what fish are suitable for your aquaculture.
    • Freshwater, relatively fast-growing fish {genus/family (species)} are:
      • Tilapia (e.g. O. niloticus, Taiwan Red, ND56, O. mossambiccus, etc)
      • Catfish (e.g. Pangasius Catfish, Channel Catfish)
      • Carp (e.g. Lampan (Tinfoil barb), Jelawat (Mad barb), Silver Carp, Grass carp)
      • Characidae (e.g. Pacu)
      • Eel (e.g. Anguilla anguilla)
      • Macrobrachium rosenbergii (giant river prawn)
      • Marble Goby (Oxyeleotris marmorata)
      • Snakehead (Channa striata)
    • Brackish water fish, mostly carnivorous:
      • Chanos (e.g. Milkfish)
      • Sparus (e.g. gilt-head (sea) bream)
      • Lates (e.g. Baramundi (Asian seabass)
      • Dicenthrarchus (e.g. European seabass)
      • Pomfret
      • Pompano
      • Grouper (e.g. Black-spotted grouper (tiger grouper), Orange-spotted grouper (green grouper), Humpback grouper (mouse grouper), giant grouper
      • Shrimp
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    Adjust the water so its suitable. You can grow marine fish using freshwater by tweaking Polyvalent Cation Sensing Receptor (PVCR) modulators in the water. pH, temperature, hardness, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, phosphates, biological oxygen demand, carbon dioxide, turbidity, coliform bacteria and macroinvertebrates are the properties of water that have to be monitored as tight as according to fish sensitivity to them.
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    Provide the right food. Some people prefer live glass shrimps as feed for intensive tanks because glass shrimps are very high in protein (40% proteins in wet weight) and they are slow to get caught by the fish. Well, some uses fish pellets which can be fed using an automatic timer feeder, which some of the hobbyist types can be as big as 37 litres. Some folks use duckweed which provides about 25% - 45% crude proteins in dry weight basis. However, the FCR for duckweed at around 3.87 and the high moisture content of 93% makes duckweed a poor feed and unrealistic for aquaculture. One tilapia at mature weight of 1kg will require the sustenance from 49 sqm of well-fertilised duckweed pond. [1]
    • Among these foods, you have to take into consideration the feed your fish may prefer, as some carnivorous fish requires at least 40% protein-based diet. Research also show that low carbohydrate protein-based diet yields better than a high carbohydrate-to-protein ratio feed. Daily feeding rates are highly dependent on fish type and age. A high quality feed should consist of adequate digestible proteins and calories.
    • An example of feeding regimen is as follows and use the following formula: Feed quantity = (number of fish in cage × average body weight of fish) × % daily feeding rate.[2]
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    Try to grow your own glass shrimp. Feed them with fish pellets and aerate the water which is very crucial. Do not place glass shrimps together with fish. For there are many kinds of duckweed, the smaller they are the better at biomass yields (e.g. Wolffia globosa, Lemna minor). The optimum growth rate under sunlight is an area doubled in 0.75~2 days. [3] If your growth rate is lower than this, optimise the growth condition by fertilising the water, increase water temperature, etc. Aside from fertilising the water, you may use filthy water from fish vessel and make an integrated aquaponic project. Always harvest duckweed as long as vegetation is dense, and must leave spaces in between duckweed.
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    Remove the nitrogen. Fish excretes ammonia as waste. Nevertheless, fish slime and pelletised feed can introduce considerable amount of crude proteins, which grows bacteria that decompose the nitrogenous wastes. In freshwater designs, water-floating plant is used to promptly absorb nitrogenous wastes which are ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. This is a holistic way to assimilate nitrate. Microbial digesters whether it is aerobic or anaerobic digesters have certain limitation in converting nitrates into nitrogen gas. Then, plants come into play very well in doing the job in lacking. In saltwater aspect, you may use Caulerpa sp. or Salicornia plant instead to scrub nitrogenous waste. Plants are the best biofilter as they are full spectrum. Water lettuce has high nitrogen assimilation (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate), has small individual sizes but dense roots. [4]
    • Commonly, aquarists love to apply biofilter which resides oxidising bacteria that convert ammonia to nitrite and nitrate. When ammonia is depleted, these bacteria also scrub nitrite, but they are not the big users of nitrogenous wastes, rather they extract metabolic energy from turning the toxic ammonia into decreasingly potent oxidised forms, i.e. nitrite then nitrate. That is why plants are preferred than bacteria as they are high users of nitrogenous waste and much cleanly assimilate nitrogenous waste from water. In plants, especially water-floating plants, leaf is a major part of the organs that absorbs nutrients and followed by the root system. Plants preferably assimilate ammonia than nitrite, and nitrite than nitrate as additional energy is required to reduce the oxidised forms to form immediate substrates in amino acid biosynthesis. The major purpose of water-floating plant is to assimilate nitrogenous waste.
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    Try an aquaponic setup. This is an ultra-low maintenance aquaculture setup. It needs no water changes, but only requires electricity, sunlight and air. It is not consuming energy to drive water uphill when placing aquaponic trays at the same level as fish tanks. By the way, just do not forget that fish cannot eat if they cannot see the food, so allow plenty of light.
    • A fine solid remover, which is a cyclone, drastically slows down water speed and allow solid residues to sink by gravity to the bottom of the container. A timed water pump draws the solid-laden fluid from the cyclone bottom at intervals.
    • A pellet feeder is used to achieve low monitoring.
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    Set up an aerator. There should always be more than one oxygenator (aerator) in an aquarium system because break down of this important device can cause fish fatality in short time. To make a forced-air pump-aerator, connect the inlet of a water pump to a diaphragm air pump (normal aquarium air pump). Blades of the water pump slice air into very small bubbles, which can be way smaller than that of Venturi pumps.
    • Numerous people have voiced that blade-crushing of air can cause "eating away" of the pump blades which is not true. Blade-crushing as compared to venturi aeration is better, since energy is not wasted in accelerating water but rather creating smaller air bubbles. As for this particular design of oxygenator, it has been proven to be very effective at creating the smallest bubbles with high energy efficacy. Smaller bubbles are also easier to stabilise in water and stay with longer retention time. If you rear air-breathing fish such as snakeheads, an aerator is not needed.
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    Set up a water tray (with the plants and coral bones inserted). Aquaponic trays are connected to fish tanks by a pump and solids remover. The aquaponic trays contain water-floating plants or vegetables which absorb NPK residues at higher limits that can be harmful to fish. Water lettuce is an excellent non-vegetable floating plant which assimilates nitrogenous wastes. The plant roots can be eaten by fish and must therefore be placed in aquaponic tanks, not fish tanks. These plants would quickly absorb harmful ammonia from the water. Often when ammonia is depleted, the plants switch to nitrite assimilation, and then nitrate.
    • Place coral bones or calcium shells in the tray to stabilise the water pH at around 7. As oxygenator introduces carbon dioxide that decrease water pH gets in contact with calcium shells, this hardens the water by producing soluble calcium bicarbonate (carbonic acid + calcium carbonate -> calcium bicarbonate). Most importantly, neutral pKa of calcium bicarbonate maintains proper pH of water, reducing the formation of unionised form of ammonia (NH3) which is harmful to fish. [5]
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    Fertilise water with NPK fertiliser and sea salt. Fertilisers can replenish nutrients required by the aquaponic aspect but care should be taken to not apply too much at once. Fish feed and fish excretion themselves are most of the time enough to supplement the needs of the plants. Salt provides the most effective bath treatment, and is used to eliminate ciliated protozoan parasites, such as ich. Salt is used to curb the absorption of nitrite which causes gill diseases, and to mediate the osmotic pressure exerted by freshwater on wounds in the skin and gill.
    • To produce a 0.3% salt solution (a treatment dosage against most protozoan parasites), 1 tablespoon of salt is used per gallon of water; to produce a 0.6% salt solution (a treatment dosage against Trichodina), 2 tablespoons of salt for every one gallon of water; and to produce a 0.9% salt solution, 3 tablespoons of salt for every one gallon of water.[6]
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    Place adequate fish. Depending on your vessel size, put enough fish (determined by the volume of eventual matured fish). The rule of thumb is the lower fish stocking density, the faster fish grow. The maximum stocking density for any fish is 150kg adult size per unit cubic meter, which is extremely not recommended. It is better to mix different species of fish (polyculture) as this reduces fish fight. You should also put fish of same sizes and prevent ornamental items in fish tanks to avoid territorial fights as much as possible.
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    Provide for fish protection and mosquito control. Covering your tank is crucial as you do not want every visit greeted by dead fish on the floor. Put also some mosquito fish in aquaponic trays to devour mosquito larva as this project can breed tons of mosquito.

Part 2
Following a Standard Design

  1. 1
    Follow this summary diagram of a standard design, if desired.
    • Slanting waterbed designs allow efficient collection of excretory solids into treatment plants
    • Settling basin - further separate solids from water, sludge is dispatched at intervals, clean water is recycled back into system
    • Biofilter - natural-living microorganisms are bred in biofilters to disintegrate soluble waste in the water. Together with biofilter, it is also recommended to add arrays of water plants or hydroponics to sequester water-soluble nitrogenous wastes from the water.
    • Oxygenator - to saturate the water with oxygen and increase dissolved oxygen (DO) before water is released into pond. In large-scale aquaculture, it is not recommended to run aerators intermittently, but to trickle the flow until the water output is constantly saturated with fine air bubbles, so as to reduce waterborne diseases and increase fish metabolism.


  • What is anticipated:
    • Provide as much oxygen as possible. High dissolved oxygen (DO) is needed to carry out metabolism and digestion in the fish. The higher the DO, the more the fish eat, the faster they grow.
    • No food waste (food pellets). If you feed fish pellets using an automatic feeder, adjust properly until no feed is wasted as it pollutes the tank with ammonia.
    • Grow at their highest optimal temperature. Research on what is the optimal temperature for growth. Electric heater is needed in cold climates.
    • Redundancy in crucial equipment such as aerator is crucial to avoid mass fatality.

Things You'll Need

  • Fish tank vessels
  • Aquaponic trays
  • Coral bones
  • Water pump
  • Automatic food feeder
  • Wire gauzes
  • Plant fertilisers (NPK) and salt

Sources and Citations

  1. Urban Aquaculture by Barry A. Costa-Pierce,
  2. A Practical Guide to Feeds and Feed Management for Cultured Groupers,
  3. Duckweed - a potential high-protein feed resource for domestic animals and fish by R A Leng, J H Stambolie and R Bell,
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Article Info

Categories: Aquariums