Aquaculture – Water-based Agriculture in the Arava

Monday, November 28, 2016 4:58 PM

Growing in-demand algae, vegetables, and breeding tropical fish in salty water? Not a problem in the Arava!

In order to provide a livelihood for people living in the Arava Desert, KKL-JNF supports innovative research whose goal is to find new and unexpected forms of agriculture that can thrive in this arid region. Aquaculture – water-based agriculture – is a highly specialized field with a very exciting future.
Innovative, cutting-edge research is the name of the game in Israel’s Arava Desert, which is why KKL-JNF has made it a top priority to support local research and development stations, with the help of its friends throughout the world. In this arid region farmers need means of making a living that will allow them to compete in international markets, transforming the unique Arava climate from a disadvantage into an advantage.
Dr. Yair Kohn, Research Coordinator for Aquaculture at the R&D station, said that two major projects in the exciting new field of aquaculture – water-based agriculture - are now being studied and developed. One field is what is known as Aquaponics, which refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture  with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by nitrifying bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.
Scientists at the R&D station are experimenting with raising St. Peter’s fish and barramundi in the Arava using this system, since both these fish love salty water. The water, which contains nutrients from the fish excretion, is being tested for watering lettuce, basil and cucumbers. These plants in turn clean the water, which can then be reused once again for the fish.  
Two years ago, the R&D station began looking into the possibility of taking advantage of microalgae that can be found in the Arava’s brackish water. The idea is to produce spirulina, a blue-green algae that can be consumed by humans and animals. It is used as a dietary supplement as well as a whole food, has a very high nutritional value, is in demand worldwide and what’s most important - spirulina love the light intensity and heat of the Arava.
Another research project involving algae that is being conducted in conjunction with the European Union is using the algae to clean heavily polluted industrial water. Scientists are currently looking into possibilities of cleaning wastewater from the food industry with algae so that it can be reused for irrigation of agricultural crops. Besides cleansing the water of pollutants, algae also provides important nutrients for the soil.
A number of farms in the Arava grow tropical or ornamental fish that are exported to Europe. Since the local water is brackish, this is an ideal industry for Arava farmers, as there are no lack of fish that thrive in salty water. For example, cardinal tetra is a very popular fish that is native to the Amazon and is very difficult to grow in captivity, but the talented researchers at the R&D station succeeded where no one else did. In fact, Israel is now considered one of the largest exporters of tropical fish to Europe.
Water has always been and always will be a major problem in the Arava. To remedy this situation, a number of small, local desalination plants have been built in the Arava. One of the problems of desalination is the very salty brine that is a by-product of the process, which, if not properly dealt with, can become an ecological hazard. Scientists at the Central Arava Research and Development Station won an international environmental prize for developing a method of growing fish in the brine.
“Arava farmers are entrepreneurs who don’t hesitate to experiment with new ideas,” Dr. Kohn says. “Over one hundred local farmers attended a one-day conference we sponsored on the topic of aquaculture. With the help and support of organizations like KKL-JNF, the Arava can look forward to a dynamic and innovative future.”