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SRAC Publication No.


March 1999

Recirculating Aquaculture Tank

Production Systems
Management of Recirculating Systems
Michael P. Masser1, James Rakocy2 and Thomas M. Losordo3

Recirculating systems for holding Production Systems: Component bacteria and algae, which prolifer-
and growing fish have been used Options. ate in response to high levels of
by fisheries researchers for more Recirculating systems are mechan- nutrients and organic matter. This
than three decades. Attempts to ically sophisticated and biological- can cause increases or decreases in
advance these systems to com- ly complex. Component failures, tank water levels, reduce aeration
mercial scale food fish production poor water quality, stress, dis- efficiency, and reduce biofilter effi-
have increased dramatically in the eases, and off-flavor are common ciency. Flow rate reduction can be
last decade. The renewed interest problems in poorly managed avoided or mitigated by using
in recirculating systems is due to recirculating systems. oversized pipe diameters and con-
their perceived advantages, Management of these systems figuring system components to
including: greatly reduced land takes education, expertise and shorten piping distances. The
and water requirements; a high dedication. fouling of pipes leaving tanks (by
degree of environmental control gravity flow) is easily observed
allowing year-round growth at Recirculating systems are biologi- because of the accompanying rise
optimum rates; and the feasibility cally intense. Fish are usually in tank water level. If flow rates
of locating in close proximity to reared intensively (0.5 pound/gal- gradually decline, then pipes
prime markets. lon or greater) for recirculating must be cleaned. A sponge, clean-
systems to be cost effective. As an ing pad or brush attached to a
Unfortunately, many commercial analogy, a 20-gallon home aquari-
systems, to date, have failed plumber’s snake works well for
um, which is a miniature recircu- scouring pipes. Air diffusers
because of poor design, inferior lating system, would have to
management, or flawed econom- should be cleaned periodically by
maintain at least 10 pounds of fish soaking them in muriatic acid
ics. This publication will address to reach this same level of intensi-
the problems of managing a recir- (available at plumbing suppliers).
ty. This should be a sobering
culating aquaculture system so thought to anyone contemplating Flow blockage and water level
that those contemplating invest- the management of an intensive fluctuations also can result from
ment can make informed deci- recirculating system. the clogging of screens used to
sions. For information on theory retain fish in the rearing tanks.
and design of recirculating sys- Screen mesh should be the largest
tems refer to SRAC Publication
System operation size that will retain the fish (usu-
No. 451, Recirculating Aquaculture To provide a suitable environment ally 3/4 to 1 inch). The screened
Tank Production Systems: An for intensive fish production, area around pipes should be
Overview of Critical Considerations, recirculating systems must main- much larger than the pipe diame-
and SRAC Publication No. 453, tain uniform flow rates (water and ter, because a few dead fish can
Recirculating Aquaculture Tank air/oxygen), fixed water levels, easily block a pipe. Screens can be
and uninterrupted operation. made into long cylinders or boxes
that attach to pipes and have a
1Auburn University; The main cause of flow reduction
large surface area to prevent
2University of the Virgin Islands; is the constriction of pipes and air
blockage. Screens should be tight-
3North Carolina State University diffusers by the growth of fungi,
ly secured to the pipe so that they Biological filters (biofilters) can particulates are too small to be
cannot be dislodged during feed- fail because of senescence, chemi- removed by conventional particu-
ing, cleaning and harvesting oper- cal treatment (e. g., disease treat- late filters and cause or compli-
ations. ment), or anoxia. It takes weeks to cate many other system problems.
An essential component of recir- months to establish or colonize a
culating systems is a backup biofilter. The bacteria that colonize Water quality management
power source (see SRAC a biofilter grow, age and die.
These bacteria are susceptible to In recirculating systems, good
Publication No. 453). Electrical water quality must be maintained
power failures may not be com- changes in water quality (low dis-
solved oxygen [DO], low alkalini- for maximum fish growth and for
mon, but it only takes a brief optimum effectiveness of bacteria
power failure to cause a cata- ty, low or high pH, high CO2,
etc.), chemical treatments, and in the biofilter (Fig. 1). Water qual-
strophic fish loss. For example, if ity factors that must be monitored
a power failure occurred in a oxygen depletions. Biological fil-
ters do not take rapid change and/or controlled include temper-
warmwater system (84o F) at sat- ature, dissolved oxygen, carbon
urated oxygen concentrations well!
dioxide, pH, ammonia, nitrite and
containing 1/2-pound fish at a solids. Other water quality factors
density of 1/4 pound of fish per Particulates
that should be considered are
gallon of water, it will take only Particulate removal is one of the alkalinity, nitrate and chloride.
16 minutes for the oxygen con- most complicated problems in
centration to decrease to 3 ppm, a recirculating systems. Particulates Temperature
stressful level for fish. The same come from uneaten feed and from
system containing 1-pound fish at undigested wastes. It has been Temperature must be maintained
a density of 1 pound of fish per estimated that more than 60 per- within the range for optimum
gallon would plunge to this cent of feed placed into the sys- growth of the cultured species. At
stressful oxygen concentration in tem ends up as particulates. Quick optimum temperatures fish grow
less than 6 minutes. These scenar- and efficient removal of particu- quickly, convert feed efficiently,
ios should give the prospective lates can significantly reduce the and are relatively resistant to
manager a sobering feeling for biological demand placed on the many diseases. Biofilter efficiency
how important backup power is biofilter, improve biofilter efficien- also is affected by temperature but
to the integrity of a recirculating cy, reduce the overall size of the is not generally a problem in
system. biofilter required, and lower the warmwater systems. Temperature
Certain components of backup oxygen demand on the system. can be regulated with electrical
systems need to be automatic. An Particulate filters should be immersion heaters, gas or electric
automatic transfer switch should cleaned frequently and main- heating units, heat exchangers,
start the backup generator in case tained at peak efficiency. Many chillers, or heat pumps. Tempera-
personnel are not present. Auto-
matic phone alarm systems are
inexpensive and are essential in CLOSED RECIRCULATING SYSTEM
alerting key personnel to power N2
failures or water level fluctua-
tions. Some phone alarm systems NO3 NITRIFICATION
allow in-dialing so that managers ION BALANCE
can phone in and check on the
status of the system. Other com- H+ GAS STRIPPING
ponent failures can also lead to
disastrous results in a very short CO2
time. Therefore, systems should ADDITION
be designed with essential backup TAN
components that come on auto- SOLIDS BACTERIA
matically or can be turned on DISSOLVED
quickly with just a flip of a REFRACTORY
switch. Finally, one of the sim- O2
plest backups is a tank of pure AERATION
oxygen connected with a solenoid INERT
valve that opens automatically SOLIDS
during power failures. This oxy- RFM 6/6/90 SOLIDS REMOVAL
gen-solenoid system can provide
Figure 1. Diagram of fish wastes and their effects on bacterial and chemical
sufficient dissolved oxygen to interactions in a recirculating system.
keep the fish alive during power
Courtesy of Ronald F. Malone, Department of Civil Engineering, Louisiana State University, from
failures. Louisiana Aquaculture 1992, “Design of Recirculating Systems for Intensive Tilapia Culture,”
Douglas G. Drennan and Ronald F. Malone.
ture can be manipulated to reduce Water said to be “saturated” with sent). Lethargic behavior and a
stress during handling and to con- oxygen contains the maximum sharply reduced appetite are com-
trol certain diseases (e.g., Ich and amount of oxygen that will dis- mon symptoms of carbon dioxide
ESC). solve in it at a given temperature, stress.
salinity and pressure (Table 1). Carbon dioxide can accumulate in
Dissolved oxygen Pure oxygen systems can be incor- recirculating systems unless it is
porated into recirculating systems. physically or chemically removed.
Continuously supplying adequate These inject oxygen into a con-
amounts of dissolved oxygen to Carbon dioxide usually is
fined stream of water, creating removed from the water by
fish and the bacteria/biofilter in supersaturated conditions (see
the recirculating system is essen- packed column aerators or other
SRAC Publication No. 453). aeration devices (see SRAC
tial to its proper operation.
Dissolved oxygen (DO) concentra- Supersaturated water, with DO Publication No. 453).
tions should be maintained above concentrations several times high-
60 percent of saturation or above 5 er than saturation, is mixed into pH
ppm for optimum fish growth in the rearing tank water to maintain
DO concentrations near satura- Fish generally can tolerate a pH
most warmwater systems. It is range from 6 to 9.5, although a
also important to maintain DO tion. The supersaturated water
should be introduced into the rapid pH change of two units or
concentrations in the biofilter for more is harmful, especially to fry.
maximum ammonia and nitrite rearing tank near the bottom and
be rapidly mixed throughout the Biofilter bacteria which are impor-
removal. Nitrifying bacteria tant in decomposing waste prod-
become inefficient at DO concen- tank by currents generated from
the water pumping equipment. ucts are not efficient over a wide
trations below 2 ppm. pH range. The optimum pH range
Proper mixing of the supersaturat-
Aeration systems must operate ed water into the tank is critical. for biofilter bacteria is 7 to 8.
continuously to support the high Dissolved oxygen will escape into The pH tends to decline in recir-
demand for oxygen by the fish the air if the supersaturated water culating systems as bacterial nitri-
and microorganisms in the sys- is agitated too vigorously. If the fication produces acids and con-
tem. As fish approach harvest size water is mixed too slowly, zones sumes alkalinity, and as carbon
and feeding rates (pounds/sys- of supersaturation can cause gas dioxide is generated by the fish
tem) are near their maximum lev- bubble disease. In gas bubble dis- and microorganisms. Carbon
els, oxygen demand may exceed ease, gases come out of solution dioxide reacts with water to form
the capacity of the aeration system inside the fish and form bubbles carbonic acid, which drives the
to maintain DO concentrations in the blood. These bubbles can pH downward. Below a pH of 6,
above 5 ppm. Fish show signs of result in death. Fry are particular- the nitrifying bacteria are inhibit-
oxygen stress by gathering at the ly sensitive to supersaturation. ed and do not remove toxic nitro-
surface and swimming into the gen wastes.
current produced by the aeration Carbon dioxide
device (e. g., agitator, air lift, etc.) Optimum pH range generally is
where DO concentrations are Carbon dioxide is produced by maintained in recirculating sys-
higher. If this occurs, a supple- respiration of fish and bacteria in tems by adding alkaline buffers.
mental aeration system should be the system. Fish begin to stress at The most commonly used buffers
used or the feeding rate must be carbon dioxide concentrations are sodium bicarbonate and calci-
reduced. above 20 ppm because it interferes um carbonate, but calcium
with oxygen uptake. Like oxygen hydroxide, calcium oxide, and
Periods of heavy feeding may be sodium hydroxide have been
sustained by multiple or continu- stress, fish under CO2 stress come
to the surface and congregate used. Calcium carbonate may dis-
ous feedings of the daily ration solve too slowly to neutralize a
over a 15- to 20-hour period rather around aeration devices (if pre-
rapid accumulation of acid.
than in two or three discrete
meals. As fish digest food, their
respiration rate increases dramati- Table 1. Oxygen saturation levels in fresh water at sea level
cally, causing a rapid decrease in atmospheric pressure.
DO concentrations. Feeding small Temperature DO Temperature DO
amounts continuously with auto- oC oF oC oF
matic or demand feeders allows mg/L (ppm) mg/L (ppm)
DO to decline gradually without 10 50.0 10.92 24 75.2 8.25
reaching critical levels. During 12 53.6 10.43 26 78.8 7.99
periods of heavy feeding, DO 14 57.2 9.98 28 82.4 7.75
should be monitored closely, par-
ticularly before and after feedings. 16 60.8 9.56 30 86.0 7.53
Recirculating systems require con- 18 64.4 9.18 32 89.6 7.32
stant monitoring to ensure they 20 68.0 8.84 34 93.2 7.13
are functioning properly. 22 71.6 8.53 36 96.8 6.95
Calcium hydroxide, calcium oxide Table 2. Percentage of total ammonia in the un-ionized form at
and sodium hydroxide dissolve
differing pH values and temperatures.
quickly but are very caustic; these
compounds should not be added Temperature (oC)
to the rearing tank because they
pH 16 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32
may harm the fish by creating
zones of very high pH. The pH of 7.0 0.30 0.34 0.40 0.46 0.52 0.60 0.70 0.81 0.95
the system should be monitored 7.2 0.47 0.54 0.63 0.72 0.82 0.95 1.10 1.27 1.50
daily and adjusted as necessary to
maintain optimum levels. Usually, 7.4 0.74 0.86 0.99 1.14 1.30 1.50 1.73 2.00 2.36
the addition of sodium bicarbon- 7.6 1.17 1.35 1.56 1.79 2.05 2.35 2.72 3.13 3.69
ate at a rate of 17 to 20 percent of 7.8 1.84 2.12 2.45 2.80 3.21 3.68 4.24 4.88 5.72
the daily feeding rate is sufficient 8.0 2.88 3.32 3.83 4.37 4.99 5.71 6.55 7.52 8.77
to maintain pH and alkalinity
within the desired range (Fig. 2). 8.2 4.49 5.16 5.94 6.76 7.68 8.75 10.00 11.41 13.22
For example, if a tank is being fed 8.4 6.93 7.94 9.09 10.30 11.65 13.20 14.98 16.96 19.46
10 pounds of feed per day then 8.6 10.56 12.03 13.68 15.40 17.28 19.42 21.83 24.45 27.68
approximately 2 pounds of bicar-
8.8 15.76 17.82 20.08 22.38 24.88 27.64 30.68 33.90 37.76
bonate would be added daily to
adjust pH and alkalinity levels. 9.0 22.87 25.57 28.47 31.37 34.42 37.71 41.23 44.84 49.02
Alkalinity, the acid neutralizing 9.2 31.97 35.25 38.69 42.01 45.41 48.96 52.65 56.30 60.38
capacity of the water, should be 9.4 42.68 46.32 50.00 53.45 56.86 60.33 63.79 67.12 70.72
maintained at 50 to 100 mg as cal- 9.6 54.14 57.77 61.31 64.54 67.63 70.67 73.63 76.39 79.29
cium carbonate/L or higher, as
9.8 65.17 68.43 71.53 74.25 76.81 79.25 81.57 83.68 85.85
should hardness. Generally, the
addition of alkaline buffers used 10.0 74.78 77.46 79.92 82.05 84.00 85.82 87.52 89.05 90.58
to adjust pH will provide ade- 10.2 82.45 84.48 86.32 87.87 89.27 90.56 91.75 92.80 93.84
quate alkalinity, and if the buffers
also contain calcium, they add to daily. If total ammonia concentra-
tissue damage in several species
hardness. For a more detailed dis- tions start to increase, the biofilter
of warmwater fish. However,
cussion of alkalinity and hardness may not be working properly or
tilapia tolerate high un-ionized
consult a water quality text. the feeding rate/ammonia nitro-
ammonia concentrations and sel-
dom display toxic effects in well- gen production is higher than the
Nitrogen wastes design capacity of the biofilter.
buffered recirculating systems.
Ammonia is the principal nitroge- Ammonia should be monitored
nous waste released by fish and is
mainly excreted across the gills as
ammonia gas. Ammonia is a 8.5 Discontinue
byproduct from the digestion of supplemental aeration
protein. An estimated 2.2 pounds
of ammonia nitrogen are pro- 8.0
duced from each 100 pounds of
feed fed. Bacteria in the biofilter Optimum
convert ammonia to nitrite and 7.5 sodium Reduce daily
nitrite to nitrate, a process called bicarbonate bicarbonate
nitrification. Both ammonia and addition
nitrite are toxic to fish and are,
therefore, major management Increase
problems in recirculating systems aeration
(Fig. 2).
6.5 Add
Ammonia in water exists as two sodium
compounds: ionized (NH4+) and bicarbonate
un-ionized (NH3) ammonia. Un- & aerate
ionized ammonia is extremely
0 100 200 300 400 500
toxic to fish. The amount of un-
ionized ammonia present depends Alkalinity, mg/L as CaCO3
on pH and temperature of the
water (Table 2). Un-ionized Figure 2. The pH management diagram, a graphical solution of the ionization constant
ammonia nitrogen concentrations equation for carbonic acid at 25oC.
as low as 0.02-0.07 ppm have been Courtesy of Ronald F. Malone, Department of Civil Engineering, Louisiana State University, from
Master’s Thesis of Peter A. Allain, 1988, “Ion Shifts and pH Management in High Density Shedding
shown to slow growth and cause Systems for Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus) and Red Swamp Crawfish (Procambarus clarkii),”
Louisiana State University.
maintain a pH of 7.5. After the
Table 3. Nutrient solution for pre-activation of biofilter.
activation period the nutrient
Nutrient Concentration (ppm) solution is discarded.
Dibasic ammonium phosphate, (NH4)2HPO4 40 Many fish can die during this
Dibasic sodium phosphate, Na2HPO4 40 period of biofilter activation.
Managers have a tendency to
Sea salts “solids” 40 overfeed, which leads to the gen-
Sea salts “liquids” 0.5 eration of more ammonia than the
Calcium carbonate, CaCO3 250 biofilter can initially handle. At
first, ammonia concentrations
increase sharply and fish stop
Biofilters consist of actively grow- tioning properly. Subdividing or feeding and are seen swimming
ing bacteria attached to some sur- compartmentalizing biofilters into the current produced by the
face(s). Biofilters can fail if the reduces the likelihood of a com- aeration device. Deaths will soon
bacteria die or are inhibited by plete failure and gives the manag- occur unless immediate action is
natural aging, toxicity from chem- er the option of “seeding” active taken. At the first sign of high
icals (e. g., disease treatment), lack biofilter sludge from one tank or ammonia, feeding should be
of oxygen, low pH, or other fac- system to another. stopped. If pH is near 7 the fish
tors. Biofilters are designed so that may not show signs of stress
Activating a new biofilter (i. e., because little of the ammonia is in
aging cells slough off to create developing a healthy population
space for active new bacterial the un-ionized form.
of nitrifying bacteria capable of
growth. However, there can be sit- removing the ammonia and As nitrifying bacteria, known as
uations (e. g., cleaning too vigor- nitrite produced at normal feed- Nitrosomonas, become established
ously) where all the bacteria are ing rates) requires a least 1 in the biofilter, they quickly con-
removed. If chemical additions month. During this activation vert the ammonia into nitrite. This
cause biofilter failure, the water in period, the normal stocking and conversion takes place about 2
the system should be exchanged. feeding rates should be greatly weeks into the activation period
The biofilter would then have to reduced. Prior to stocking it is and will proceed even if feeding
be re-activated (taking 3 or 4 advantageous, but not absolutely has stopped. Once again, fish will
weeks) and the pH adjusted to necessary, to pre-activate the seek relief near aeration and mor-
optimum levels. biofilters. Pre-activation is accom- talities will occur soon unless
During disruptions in biofilter plished by seeding the filter(s) steps are taken. Nitrite concentra-
performance, the feeding rate with nitrifying bacteria (available tions decline when a second group
should be reduced considerably commercially) and providing a of nitrifying bacteria, known as
or feeding should be stopped. synthetic growth medium for a Nitrobacter, become established.
Feeding, even after a complete period of 2 weeks. The growth These problems can be avoided if
water exchange, can cause ammo- medium contains a source of time is taken to activate the biofil-
nia nitrogen or nitrite nitrogen ammonia nitrogen (10 to 20 ters slowly.
concentrations (Fig. 3) to rise to mg/l), trace elements and a buffer Nitrite concentrations also should
stressful levels in a matter of (Table 3). The buffer (sodium be checked daily. The degree of
hours if the biofilter is not func- bicarbonate) should be added to toxicity to nitrite varies with
species. Scaled species of fish are
generally more tolerant of high
nitrite concentrations than species
24 System Ammonia - N such as catfish, which are very
Nitrite - N sensitive to nitrite. Nitrite nitrogen
Concentration, mg/L

as low as 0.5 ppm is stressful to
18 catfish, while concentrations of
as nitrogen

15 less than 5 ppm appear to cause

little stress to tilapia. Nitrite toxici-
12 ty causes a disease called “brown
9 blood,” which describes the blood
color that results when normal
6 blood hemoglobin comes in con-
3 tact with nitrite and forms a com-
pound called methemoglobin.
0 Methemoglobin does not transport
oxygen properly, and fish react as
Figure 3. Typical ammonia and nitrite curves showing time delays in establishing if they are under oxygen stress.
bacteria in biofilters. Fish suffering nitrite toxicity come
Courtesy of Ronald F. Malone, Department of Civil Engineering, Louisiana State University, from to the surface as in oxygen stress,
Master’s Thesis of Don P. Manthe, 1982, “Water Quality of Submerged Biological Rock Filters for
Closed Recirculating Blue Crab Shedding Systems,” Louisiana State University. sharply reduce their feeding, and
are lethargic. Nitrite toxicity can a low level of suspended solids take 3 to 4 weeks. Table 4 summa-
be reduced or blocked by chloride may serve a beneficial role within rizes general water quality
ions. Usually 6 to 10 parts of chlo- the system as long as they do not requirements of recirculating sys-
ride protect fish from 1 part irritate the fishes’ gills. tems.
nitrite nitrogen. Increasing con- If organic solids build up to high
centrations of nitrite are a sign levels in the system, they will Water exchange
that the biofilter is not working stimulate the growth of microor-
properly or the biofilter is not Most recirculating systems are
ganisms that produce off-flavor designed to replace 5 to 10 per-
large enough to handle the compounds. The concentration of
amount of waste being produced. cent of the system volume each
solids at which off-flavor com- day with new water. This amount
As with ammonia buildup, check pounds develop is not known,
pH, alkalinity and dissolved oxy- of exchange prevents the build-up
but the system water should of nitrates and soluble organic
gen in the biofilter. Reduce feed- never be allowed to develop a
ing and be prepared to flush the matter that would eventually
foul or fecal smell. If offensive cause problems. In some situa-
system with fresh water or add odors develop, increase the water
salt (NaCl) if toxic concentrations tions, sufficient water may not be
exchange rate, reduce feeding, available for these high exchange
develop. increase solids removal, and/or rates. A complete water exchange
Nitrate, the end product of nitrifi- enlarge biofilters. should be done after each produc-
cation, is relatively nontoxic tion cycle to reduce the build-up
except at very high concentra- Chloride of nitrate and dissolved organics.
tions (over 300 ppm). Usually
nitrate does not build up to these Adding salt (NaCl) to the system For emergency situations it is rec-
concentrations if some daily is beneficial not only for the chlo- ommended that the system have
exchange (5 to 10 percent) with ride ions, which block nitrite toxi- an auxiliary water reservoir equal
fresh water is part of the manage- city, but also because sodium and to one complete water exchange
ment routine. Also, in many recir- chloride ions relieve osmotic (flush). The reservoir should be
culating systems some denitrifica- stress. Osmotic stress is caused by maintained at the proper temper-
tion seems to occur within the the loss of ions from the fishes’ ature and water quality.
system that keeps nitrate concen- body fluids (usually through the
trations below toxic levels. gills). Osmotic stress accompanies Fish production
handling and other forms of
Denitrification is the bacteria-
stress (e. g., poor water quality).
mediated transformation of
nitrate to nitrogen gas, which A salt concentration of 0.02 to 0.2
percent will relieve osmotic stress. Stocking
escapes into the atmosphere.
This concentration of salt is bene- Fish management starts before the
ficial to most species of fish and fish are introduced into the recir-
invertebrates. It should be noted culating system. Fingerlings
Solid waste, or particulate matter, that rapidly adding salt to a recir- should be purchased from a rep-
consists mainly of feces and culating system can decrease utable producer who practices
uneaten feed. It is extremely biofilter efficiency. The biofilter genetic selection, knows how to
important to remove solids from will slowly adjust to the addition carefully handle and transport
the system as quickly as possible. of salt but this adjustment can fish, and does not have a history
If solids are allowed to remain in
the system, their decomposition
will consume oxygen and pro- Table 4. Recommended water quality requirements of recirculating
duce additional ammonia and systems.
other toxic gases (e. g., hydrogen
Component Recommended value or range
sulfide). Solids are removed by
filtration or settling (SRAC Temperature optimum range for species cultured - less
Publication No. 453). A consider- than 5o F as a rapid change
able amount of highly malodor- Dissolved oxygen 60% or more of saturation, usually 5 ppm
ous sludge is produced by recir-
or more for warmwater fish and greater than
culating systems, and it must be
disposed of in an environmental- 2 ppm in biofilter effluent
ly sound manner (e. g., applied to Carbon dioxide less than 20 ppm
agricultural land or composted). pH 7.0 to 8.0
Very small (colloidal) solids Total alkalinity 50 to 100 ppm or more as CaCO3
remain suspended in the water. Total hardness 50 to 100 ppm or more as CaCO3
Although the decay of this mater-
ial consumes oxygen and pro- Un-ionized ammonia-N less than 0.05 ppm
duces some additional ammonia, Nitrite-N less than 0.5 ppm
it also serves as attachment sites Salt 0.02 to 0.2 %
for nitrifying bacteria. Therefore,
of disease problems in his/her growth and near the system maxi-
mum—the highest feeding rates at Table 5. Estimated food con-
hatchery. Starting with poor quali-
ty or diseased fingerlings almost which acceptable water quality sumption by size of a
ensures failure. conditions can be maintained. typical warmwater fish.
Fish should be checked for para- When more feed is required, fish Average Body weight
sites and diseases before being stocks should be split and moved weight per fish consumed
introduced into the system. New to new tanks. This would gradual- (lbs.) (g) (%)
fish may need to be quarantined ly reduce the stocking rate over
the production cycle. 0.02 9 5.0
from fish already in the system so
that diseases will not be intro- Another approach is to divide the 0.04 18 4.0
duced. A few fish should be rearing tank(s) into compartments 0.06 27 3.3
checked for parasites and diseases with different size groups of fish 0.25 113 3.0
by a certified fish diagnostician. in each compartment. In this
approach, the optimum feeding 0.50 227 2.75
Once diseases are introduced into
a recirculating system they are rate for all the compartments is 0.75 340 2.5
generally hard to control, and consistently near the biofilter’s 1.0 454 2.2
treatment may disrupt the biofil- maximum performance. As one 1.5 681 1.8
ter. group of fish is harvested, finger-
Fish are usually hauled in cool lings are immediately stocked into
water. As they come into the sys- the vacant compartment or tank. Table 6 approximates a feeding
tem they usually have to be tem- Compartment size within a tank schedule for a warmwater fish
pered or gradually acclimated to may be adjusted as fish grow, by (e.g., tilapia) stocked into an 84o F
the system temperature and pH. using movable screens. recirculating system as fry and
Fish can generally take a 5o F harvested at a weight of 1 pound
change without much problem. Feeding after 250 feeding days. Feed con-
Temperature changes of more Knowing how much to feed fish version is estimated at 1.5: 1, or
than 5o F should be done at about without overfeeding is a problem 1.5 pounds of feed to obtain 1
1o F every 20 to 30 minutes. Stress in any type of fish production. pound of gain.
can be reduced if the system is Feeding rates are usually based on Tables 5 and 6 are estimates and
cooled to the temperature of the fish size. Small fish consume a should be used only as guidelines
hauling water and then slowly higher percent of their body which can change with differing
increased over a period of several weight per day than do larger fish species and temperatures.
hours to days. (Table 5). Most fish being grown Growth and feed conversion are
Recirculating systems must oper- for food will be stocked as finger- estimated by weighing a sample
ate near maximum production lings. Fingerlings consume 3 to 4 of fish from each tank and then
(i. e., maximum risk) capacity at percent of their body weight per calculating the feed conversion
all times to be economical. It is not day until they reach 1/4 to 1/2 ratios and new feeding rates from
cost effective to operate pumps pound, then consume 2 to 3 per- this sample. For example, 1,000
and aeration devices when the cent of their body weight until fish in a tank have been consum-
system is stocked with fingerlings being harvested at 1 to 2 pounds. ing 10 pounds of feed a day for
at only one-tenth of the system’s A rule-of-thumb for pond culture the last 10 days (100 pounds
carrying capacity. Therefore, fin- is to feed all the fish will consume total). The fish were sampled 10
gerlings should be stocked at very in 5 to 10 minutes. Unfortunately, days earlier and weighed an aver-
high rates, in the range of 30 fish this method can easily lead to age of 0.33 pounds or an estimat-
per cubic foot. Feeding rates overfeeding. Overfeeding wastes ed total of 330 pounds.
should be optimum for rapid feed, degrades water quality, and
can overload the biofilter.

Table 6. Recommended stocking and feeding rates for different size groups of tilapia in tanks, and
estimated growth rates.
Stocking rate Weight (g) Growth rate Growth period Feeding rate
(number/ft3) Initial Final (g/day) (days) (%)
225 0.02 0.5-1 - 30 20 - 15
90 0.5-1 5 - 30 15 - 10
45 5 20 0.5 30 10 - 7
28 20 50 1.0 30 7 - 4
14 50 100 1.5 30 4 - 3.5
5.5 100 250 2.5 30 3.5 - 1.5
3 250 450 3.0 70 1.5 - 1.0
A new sample of 25 fish is collect- minutes. Multiple feedings at the (depending on the type and sever-
ed from the tank and weighed. same location in a tank can ity of off-flavor). If fish remain in
The 25 fish weigh 10 pounds or an increase dominance because a few the purging tanks for an extended
average of 0.4 pounds per fish. If fish jealously guard the area and period, their feeding rate may
this is a representative sample, do not let other fish feed. In this need to be reduced, or off-flavor
then 1,000 fish should weigh 400 situation, use feeders that distrib- may develop within the purging
pounds. Therefore, the change in ute feed widely across the tank. system.
total fish weight for this tank is Fish can be fed by hand, with See SRAC Publication No. 431,
400 minus 330, or 70 pounds. The demand feeders, or by automatic Testing Flavor Quality of Preharvest
fish were fed 100 pounds of feed feeders, but stationary demand Channel Catfish, for detailed infor-
in the last 10 days and gained 70 and belt type feeders tend to mation on off-flavor.
pounds in weight. Feed conver- encourage dominance. Whichever
sion then is equal to 1.43 to 1 (i.e., method is used, be careful to
100 ÷ 70). In other words, the fish evenly distribute feed and not to
Stress and disease control
gained 1 pound of weight for each overfeed. The key to fish management is
1.43 pounds of feed fed. The daily Always purchase high quality stress management. Fish can be
feeding rate should now be feed from a reputable company. stressed by changes in tempera-
increased to adjust for growth of Keep feed fresh by storing it in a ture and water quality, by han-
the fish. cool, dry place. Never use feed dling (including seining and haul-
To calculate the new feeding rate, that is past 60 days of the manu- ing), by nutritional deficiencies,
multiply the estimated total fish facture date. Never feed moldy, and by exposure to parasites and
weight (400 pounds) by the esti- discolored or clumped feed. diseases. Stress increases the sus-
mated percent body weight of Molds on feed may produce afla- ceptibility of fish to disease, which
feed consumption for a 0.4-pound toxins, which can stress or kill can lead to catastrophic fish losses
fish (from Table 5). Table 5 sug- fish. Feed quality deteriorates if not detected and treated quick-
gests that the percent body weight with time, particularly when ly. To reduce stress fish must be
consumed per day should be stored in warm, damp conditions. handled gently, kept under proper
between 2.75 and 3 percent. If 3 A disease known as “no blood” is water quality conditions, and pro-
percent is used, then 400 times associated with feed that is defi- tected from exposure to poor
0.03 is 12.0. Thus, the new feeding cient in certain vitamins. In a case water quality and diseases. Even
rate should be 12 pounds of feed of “no blood,” the fish appear sound and light can stress fish.
per day for the next 10 days, for a pale with white gills and blood Unexpected sounds or sudden
total of 120 pounds. Using this appears clear, not red. Another flashes of light often trigger an
sampling technique the manager nutritional disease known as “bro- escape response in fish. In a tank,
can accurately track growth and ken back syndrome” is caused by this escape response may send
feed conversion, and base other a vitamin C deficiency. The only fish into the side of the tank, caus-
management decisions on these management practice for “no ing injury. Fish are generally sen-
factors. blood” disease and “broken back sitive to light exposure, particular-
syndrome” is to discard the feed ly if it is sudden or intense. For
Feeding skills being used and purchase a differ- this reason many recirculating
ent batch or brand of feed. systems have minimal lighting
Feeding is the best opportunity to around the fish tanks.
observe overall vitality of the fish. Fines, crumbled feed particles, are
A poor feeding response should not generally consumed by the Diseases
be an immediate alarm to the fish but add to the waste load of
manager. Check all aspects of the the system, increasing the burden There are more than 100 known
system, particularly water quality, on particulate and biological fil- fish diseases, most of which do
and diagnose for diseases if feed- ters. Therefore, it is recommended not seem to discriminate between
ing behavior suddenly diminish- that feed pellets be sifted or species. Other diseases are very
es. screened to remove fines before host specific. Organisms known to
feeding. cause diseases and/or parasitize
Fish can be fed once or several fish include viruses, bacteria,
times a day. Multiple feedings fungi, protozoa, crustaceans, flat-
spread out the waste load on the worms, roundworms and seg-
biofilter and help prevent sudden Off-flavor in recirculating systems mented worms. There are also
decreases in DO. Research has is a common and persistent prob- non-infectious diseases such as
shown that small fish will grow lem. Many times fish have to be brown blood, no blood and bro-
faster if fed several times a day. moved into a clean system, one ken back syndrome. Any of these
Feeding several times a day seems with clear, uncontaminated water, diseases can become a problem in
to reduce problems of feeding where they can be purged of off- a recirculating system. Diseases
dominance in some species of fish. flavor before being marketed. can be introduced into the system
Many recirculating system man- Purging fish of off-flavor can take from the water, the fish, and the
agers feed as often as every 30 from a few days to many weeks system’s equipment.
Diseases are likely to enter the ■ Cessation of feeding systems, chemical treatments can
system from hauling water, on the ■ Mortalities severely disrupt the biofilter.
fish themselves, or on nets, bas- Biofilter bacteria are inhibited to
kets, gloves, etc., that are moved Whenever any of these symptoms some degree by formalin, copper
from tank to tank. Hauling water appear the manager should check sulfate, potassium permanganate,
should never be introduced into water quality and have a few fish and certain antibiotics. Even sud-
the system. Fish should be quar- with symptoms diagnosed by a den changes in salt concentration
antined, checked for diseases, and qualified fish disease specialist. will decrease biofilter efficiency. If
treated as necessary. Equipment The most common diseases in the system is designed properly, it
should be sterilized (e. g., chlorine recirculating systems are caused may be possible to isolate the
dip) before moving it between by bacteria and protozoans. Some biofilter from the rest of the sys-
tanks. If possible, provide sepa- diseases that have been particular- tem, treat and flush the fish tanks,
rate nets and baskets for each tank ly problematic in recirculating and then reconnect the biofilter
so they will not contaminate other systems include the protozoal dis- without exposing it to chemical
tanks. Disease can spread rapidly eases Ich (Ichthyophthirius) and treatment. However, there is a
from one tank to another if equip- Trichodina, and the bacterial dis- danger that the biofilter will re-
ment is freely moved between eases columnaris, Aeromonas, introduce the disease organism.
tanks or if all the water within the Streptococcus and Mycobacterium. It Whenever a chemical treatment is
system is mixed together as in a appears that Trichodina and applied, be prepared to exchange
common sump, particulate filter Streptococcus diseases are prob- the system water and monitor the
or biofilter. lematic in recirculating systems DO concentration and other water
with tilapia, while Mycobacterium quality factors closely. Fish usual-
A manager needs to be familiar
has been found in hybrid striped ly reduce their feed consumption
with the signs of stress and dis-
bass in intensive recirculating sys- after a chemical treatment; there-
ease which include:
tems. fore, feeding rates need to be
■ Excitability monitored carefully.
It may be possible to treat dis-
■ Flashing or whirling eases with chemicals approved for Tables 7 and 8 give possible caus-
■ Skin or fin sores or discol- fish (see SRAC Publication No. es and management options based
orations 410, Calculating Treatments for on the observation of the fish or
Ponds and Tanks), although few water quality tests.
■ Staying at the surface
therapeutants are approved for
■ Erratic swimming use on food fish species other Conclusions
■ Reduction in feeding rate than catfish and rainbow trout.
Treatment always has its prob- Recirculating systems have devel-
■ Gulping at the surface oped to the point that they are
lems. In the case of recirculating
being used for research, for orna-
mental/tropical fish culture, for
maturing and staging brood fish,
Examples of fish diseases for producing advanced fry/fin-
gerlings, and for producing food
fish for high dollar niche markets.
They continue to be expensive
ventures which are as much art as
science, particularly when it
comes to management. Do your
homework before deciding to
invest in a recirculating system.
Investigate the efficiency, compati-
A–Columnaris B–Aeromonas bility and maintenance require-
ments of the components.
Estimate the costs of building and
operating the system and of mar-
keting the fish without any return
on investment for at least 2 years.
Know the species you intend to
grow, their environmental require-
ments, diseases most common in
their culture, and how those dis-
eases are treated. Know your
potential markets and how the
fish need to be prepared for that
C–Streptococcus D–Mycobacterium
(cataract and pop-eye)
market. Be realistic about the
(granular liver and spleen)
Table 7. Possible options in managing a recirculating tank system based on observations of the fish.
Observation Possible cause Possible management
Excitable/darting/erratic swimming ■ excess or intense reduce sound level/pad sides of tank/reduce
sounds/lights light intensity
■ parasite examine* fish with symptoms
■ high ammonia check ammonia concentration
Flashing/whirling ■ parasite examine fish with symptoms
Discolorations/sores ■ parasite/bacteria examine fish with symptoms
Bloated/eyes bulging out ■ virus or bacteria examine fish with symptoms
■ gas bubble disease check for supersaturation and examine fish
with symptoms
Lying at surface/not swimming off ■ parasite examine fish with symptoms
■ low oxygen check dissolved oxygen in tank
■ high ammonia or nitrite check ammonia and nitrite concentrations
■ bad feed check feed for discoloration/clumping and
check blood of fish
■ high carbon dioxide check carbon dioxide level
Crowding around water inflow/aerators ■ low oxygen check dissolved oxygen in tank
■ parasite/disease examine fish with symptoms
■ high ammonia or nitrite check ammonia and nitrite concentrations
■ bad feed check feed for discoloration/clumping and
check blood of fish
Gulping at surface ■ low oxygen check dissolved oxygen in tank
■ parasite/disease examine fish with symptoms
■ high ammonia or nitrite check ammonia and nitrite concentrations
■ high carbon dioxide check carbon dioxide level
■ bad feed check feed for discoloration/clumping and
check blood of fish
Reducing feeding ■ low oxygen check dissolved oxygen in tank
■ parasite/disease examine fish with symptoms
■ high ammonia or nitrite check ammonia and nitrite concentrations
■ bad feed check feed for discoloration/clumping and
check blood of fish
Stopping feeding ■ low oxygen check dissolved oxygen in tank
■ parasite/disease examine fish with symptoms
■ high ammonia or nitrite check ammonia and nitrite concentrations
Discolored blood – ■ high nitrite examine fish with symptom; add 5 to 6 ppm
Brown chloride for each 1 ppm nitrite; purchase
new feed and discard old feed
Clear (no blood) ■ vitamin deficiency examine fish with symptom; check feed for
discoloration/clumping; purchase new feed
and discard old feed
Broken back or “S” shaped backbone ■ vitamin deficiency examine fish with symptom; purchase new
feed and discard old feed
*Have fish examined by a qualified fish diagnostician.
money, time and effort you are Finally, design the system with an Exclude diseases at stocking.
willing to invest while you are in emergency aeration system, back- Perform routine diagnostic checks
the learning curve of managing a up power sources, and backup and be prepared to treat diseases.
recirculating system. system components. Monitor Reduce stress whenever and how-
water quality daily and maintain ever possible. STAY ALERT!
it within optimum ranges.

Table 8. Possible management options based on water quality and feed observations.
Observation Possible management
Low dissolved oxygen (less than 5 ppm) ■ increase aeration
■ stop feeding until corrected
■ watch for symptoms of new parasite/disease
High carbon dioxide (above 20 ppm) ■ add air stripping column
■ increase aeration
■ watch for symptoms of new paraside/disease
Low pH (less than 6.8) ■ add alkaline buffers (sodium bicarbonate, etc.)
■ reduce feeding rate
■ check ammonia and nitrite concentarations
High ammonia (above 0.05 ppm as un-ionized) ■ exchange system water
■ reduce feeding rate
■ check biofilter, pH, alkalinity, hardness, and dissolved oxygen
in the biofilter
■ watch for symptoms of new parasite/disease
High nitrite (above 0.5 ppm) ■ exchange system water
■ reduce feeding rate
■ add 5 to 6 ppm chloride per 1 ppm nitrite
■ check biofilter, pH, alkalinity, hardness, and dissolved oxygen
in the biofilter
■ watch for symptoms of new parasite/disease
Low alkalinity ■ add alkaline buffers
Low hardness ■ add calcium carbonate or calcium chloride
Discolored/clumped feed ■ purchase new feed and discard old feed
■ watch for symptoms of new parasite/disease
The work reported in this publication was supported in part by the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center through Grant No. 94-38500-0045
from the United States Department of Agriculture, Cooperative States Research, Education, and Extension Service.