Something Fishy This Way Comes
Urban aquaponics is poised to be the next big thing in hip, big-city farming…but does anyone actually know what they’re doing?
by Lani Conway
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.
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.
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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