Students raise tilapia, learn about sustainable food production

Students at Sea Pines Montessori Academy on Hilton Head Island are coming along swimmingly with a lesson on aquaponics.

Over the past five months, seventh- and eighth-graders in Dr. Sarah Baird's class have learned about the unique method of food production that combines aquaculture (growing fish) with hydroponics (growing plants).

Baird said people use the sustainable system to grow food in their backyards across the country.

"Not everybody has access to a grocery store," Baird said. "Some people need to grow their own food. ... This way they can grow their own fish in clean water. The water is cleaned with the plants, so they have a whole ecosystem that they can develop."

Baird said her class's project was made possible by a grant from Palmetto Electric's Bright Ideas program. She said Al Stokes of the Waddell Mariculture Center helped the class set up the system, using PVC pipes and 5-gallon water bottles. Two containers hold tilapia, while another half a container holds cilantro, mint and parsley.

The students have learned how to maintain the system and how to solve problems that come up in the process. They've researched the science and history behind aquaculture and hydroponics. And they gave a presentation on the system April 21 at an Earth Day celebration on Hilton Head.

Annalise Saponara, 14, said she has enjoyed learning about aquaponics. She hopes to get her family interested in it as well. She said it would be a fun project to do as a family.

"In third-world countries if they were to introduce hydroponics, they could have fish and vegetables," Annalise said. "Really you would have the best of both worlds."

Baird said since her class began the project around Christmastime, the plants in the aquaponics system have doubled in size. The number of fish, on the other hand, has dwindled. The class started with 11 fish and now only have two. She said she and her students learned the hard way that tilapia are territorial, and because they had a mixture of sizes in the system the bigger ones ate the little ones.

"I think that's part of science," she said. "You learn."

But Baird said the two remaining fish are a lot bigger than they were at the start of the project. They have gone from 2- to 3-inches long. She said it should take about nine months for the fish to grow to full size -- about 7- or 8-inches long.

"Some of (the students) really like it, are very interested in it," Baird said. "Some of them think the fish smell a little bit. But overall its been very positive."