Happy as a Clam with Aquaponics

Tom Bryan, at first glance, would not appear to be a likely Aquaponic gardener.

Frank Bryan, Inc. circa 1880's
Frank Bryan Inc., circa 1880’s

Tom’s family has been in the rock, gravel and cement business for over 130 years. His great, great grandfather, Frank Bryan, founded Frank Bryan, Inc., a gravel and concrete business on the historic South Side in 1883.

Their primary business is in dredging the rivers of Western Pa for the raw rocks and materials found on the bottoms of rivers and using it for construction material, mostly concrete. Today, Frank Bryan is the largest concrete manufacturer in the tri-state region.

So, how did Tom Bryan get into Aquaponics? As it turns out, the rivers of Western PA had been so polluted for so many years, that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) didn’t concern itself with Frank Bryan, Inc., until recently.

Dredging for rock
Dredging for rock on the Ohio river

Now that the rivers and streams of our region are recovering nicely, mostly due to the decline of the local steel industry since the 1980’s, the PA DEP has been taking a closer look at the possible impacts the Bryan family business may have on the local environment.

In particular, PA DEP is concerned about the local freshwater mussel population. As the Bryans dredge the local waters for the rich aggregate to make concrete, some live mussels inevitably get captured and killed.

There are over 300 different kinds of freshwater mussels in the United States and Canada. They generally look like clams and provide a vital function in a river’s ecosystem by eating algae and bacteria. Freshwater mussels are also a vital food source for racoons and other small mammals.

IBC tote bins for growing tilapia and algae
IBC tote bins for tilapia and algae

This is where Tom Bryan got creative with Aquaponics. He thought if there were a way to take the captured mussels from his operations, and bring them to full health, he could release them back into the wild.

In June of this year, Tom created an alternative, temporary habitat for some mussels using an Aquaponic setup in his Neville Island research facility. An IBC tote bin filled with Tilapia feeds another water tank that is used to grow algae. The algae eat the fish waste and the algae water is then fed to the mussels in a third tank. The mussels happily eat the algae and the water is returned to the Tilapia tank, cleaned of algae and fish waste.

Freshwater mussels and aquaponics
Freshwater mussels growing in an Aquaponic system producing algae

Whereas traditional Aquaponic gardeners will use the nutrient rich fish waste to grow vegetables, Tom Bryan is using Aquaponics to grow algae to feed to his mussels while they are temporarily away from their natural habitat.

So far, Tom has killed only one mussel out of 79. He has an interesting setup where a video camera records the slow movements of the mussels over long periods of time. Because they move so slowly, it is very hard for humans to notice their movements.

Tom calls his setup a “spa for mussels” and it is in an experiment to see if he reclaim some wayward mussels who get caught in the Bryan dredging operations. I call it another creative, inventive use of Aquaponics.

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