Transition Culture

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Ecological Aquaculture (2005)

**Ecological Aquaculture – Laurence Hutchinson. Permanent Publications 2005**


We live in a climate where rainfall is relatively high, yet our agricultural systems have evolved in such a way as to get rid of it as soon as it hits the ground. Channelled into ditches, down land drains, off roofs and into storm drains, this essential resource is made to feel distinctly unwelcome, while its speedy removal results in high levels of nutrients, pollutants and silt being deposited into our water courses.

I write this review in Ireland, where the landscape’s traditional ‘sponges’ of native woodland, blanket and raised bogs have been systematically removed from the landscape, particularly over the last 40 years, which, combined with the draining of marginal land has resulted in increases in river and groundwater pollution as well as incidents of flooding. The reason for draining much of this land? Cows. While the increases in the numbers of cattle have brought significant economic benefits to the farming community, we now find ourselves in a position where the health benefits of eating beef and dairy products are increasingly being questioned, problems such as BSE and Foot and Mouth are never more than an arm’s length away, and farm diversification is being called for from a chorus of diverse organisations. We need a new way of looking at our undulating, moist landscape with its marshy bits and streams.

I have a neighbour who has a beautiful amphitheatre shaped field, the lowest point of which is the bottom of the bowl as it were, and is usually full of water. I have watched over the years as he has gone at it with diggers, trying to install land drains (where can they go, it’s the lowest part of the field?), dumping gravel, all sorts, just to remove this ‘problem’ of the wet bit in his field. Every time I saw the pond return I took great delight in the fact that in this green manicured field there was at least a small bit of diversity, and that that stubborn pool represented a future for agriculture, if only my neighbour had been able to see it as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Ecological aquaculture is the missing piece of the temperate permaculture jigsaw puzzle. The UK and Ireland have little in the way of traditional aquaculture, at least little that has survived as a living tradition that can be passed on. Other parts of the world, such as southern China, have the most amazingly well evolved and refined aquaculture systems, and most of the great long lasting societies included an element of aquaculture (such as the Maya). As permaculturists we are taught that we should be designing ponds and aquaculture systems into our designs, but the nitty gritty of how to do this in a permaculture context has eluded us. How can we, in this climate, design productive aquacultures, when we have so little in place, and so little tradition to learn from?

‘Ecological Aquaculture’ is a clear and scientific guide to aquaculture that answers many of these questions. Aquatic ecosystems are very different from terrestrial ecosystems. We have to relearn the rules as well as the species. Those of us who garden are familiar with the plants, the pests, the slugs’n’bugs, the growing techniques; with ponds we have to start from scratch. Some of the fundamentals are the same though. As on land we start with the soil, in aquaculture we start with the food chain. If our food chain is strong, we need no external inputs of animal feed – one of the defining characteristics of a sustainable system. In an intensive fish farm, three tons of fish have to be dragged from the sea to produce 1 ton of farmed salmon or trout. This is clearly a nonsense, and the systems proposed here offer a far more sane approach to fish production.

Hutchinson carefully and clearly takes us through the aquatic food chain, and how to create it within a pond system. The book is scientific but it never bamboozles. He addresses issues such as controlling disease (if the system is properly balanced disease is an extremely rare occurrence), and how to assess the quality of your water resource. He looks at a range of scales for practicing aquaculture, from the back garden to the farm, and his section on pond design and creation is excellent. This is clearly a man who gets terribly excited when standing in a field hearing the digger arriving up the lane. Ponds do that to people, some of my best friends are pond fiends, who like nothing more than creating new ponds and watching them slowly fill with water. It is a passion many muddy 7 year old boys would identify with.

This book is a great resource for the temperate aquaculturist, but it is by no means complete. Some things are missing, which perhaps an expanded second edition could include in order to make it a more complete guide. I would have liked more detail on how aquaculture ponds fit into the wider permaculture context, indeed permaculture as a design approach gets very few mentions in the book (unusual for a book from Permanent Publications, permaculture is usually central to their books). Also I would have been interested to get some figures as to how much protein per acre could be produced from this system as opposed to conventional dairy farming or other forms of agriculture. I think that in order to be able to spread aquaculture more widely we need to be able to argue the point in terms of why these systems are preferable to what conventional agriculture wants to cover our land with. I would also have liked to see more information on harvesting and marketing, as well as expected yields and economic viability on a range of scales. Also the whole area of value adding, in these days of Farmers Markets and Slow Food, is an important one. Beyond just selling fish as fish, what local delicacies could be revived or continued, thus giving the grower the opportunity for an enhanced income, i.e. smoked fish.

As I mentioned above, aquatic ecosystems are such a new world to most us of more familiar with land based systems, that I feel there are quite a few things in this book you would need to be shown as well as just reading them in a book. I would feel that if I wanted to set up an aquaculture system I would want to combine this book with a course on the subject, spending time with Laurence, studying his ponds and how they work, building up a confidence that I could actually do this. In that context this book is more like an information manual that needs to be, at least for those new to aquaculture, used as a reference alongside a more practical and experiential training.

Those of us working to spread temperate permaculture have been waiting a long time for a practical, accessible and inspiring book on temperate aquaculture. That book would allow us to begin installing systems and creating models that can be used to argue that with our rainfall, terrain and dietary requirements, integrated ecological aquaculture offers an essential component of a localised, sustainable agriculture. ‘Ecological Aquaculture’ isn’t that book, but it is three-quarters of the way towards being it. It is however an extremely important and useful guide to the creation of aquaculture systems, and a detailed guide to the principles and practices behind them. It offers a new way of looking at land and its potential that could have huge implications for struggling rural communities. It is an absorbing and fascinating read, and one which opens the door to a whole new world and its inhabitants. I learnt a great deal from this book, the author’s depth of knowledge is evident throughout. May it help us towards the day when water is seen as a precious resource in our landscape rather than a problem to be disposed of as quickly as possible.