Recirculating aquaculture system

Recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are used in home aquaria and for fish production where water exchange is limited and the use of biofiltration is required to reduce ammonia toxicity.[1] Other types of filtration and environmental control are often also necessary to maintain clean water and provide a suitable habitat for fish.[2] The main benefit of RAS is the ability to reduce the need for fresh, clean water while still maintaining a healthy environment for fish. To be operated economically commercial RAS must have high fish stocking densities, and many researchers are currently conducting studies to determine if RAS is a viable form of intensive aquaculture.[3]

Recirculating aquaculture systems at the Virginia Tech Department of Food Science and Technology

RAS water treatment processesEdit

A biofilter and CO2 degasser on an outdoor recirculating aquaculture system used to grow largemouth bass.
Water treatment processes needed in a recirculating aquaculture system.

A series of treatment processes is utilized to maintain water quality in intensive fish farming operations. These steps are often done in order or sometimes in tandem. After leaving the vessel holding fish the water is first treated for solids before entering a biofilter to convert ammonia, next degassing and oxygenation occur, often followed by heating/cooling and sterilization. Each of these processes can be completed by using a variety of different methods and equipment, but regardless all must take place to ensure a healthy environment that maximizes fish growth and health.


All RAS relies on biofiltration to convert ammonia (NH4+ and NH3) excreted by the fish into nitrate.[4] Ammonia is a waste product of fish metabolism and high concentrations (>.02 mg/L) are toxic to most finfish.[5] Nitrifying bacteria are chemoautotrophs that convert ammonia into nitrite then nitrate. A biofilter provides a substrate for the bacterial community, which results in thick biofilm growing within the filter.[4] Water is pumped through the filter, and ammonia is utilized by the bacteria for energy. Nitrate is less toxic than ammonia (>100 mg/L), and can be removed by a denitrifying biofilter or by water replacement. Stable environmental conditions and regular maintenance are required to ensure the biofilter is operating efficiently.

Solids removalEdit

In addition to treating the liquid waste excreted by fish the solid waste must also be treated, this is done by concentrating and flushing the solids out of the system.[6] Removing solids reduces bacteria growth, oxygen demand, and the proliferation of disease. The simplest method for removing solids is the creation of settling basin where the relative velocity of the water is slow and particles can settle at the bottom of the tank where they are either flushed out or vacuumed out manually using a siphon. However, this method is not viable for RAS operations where a small footprint is desired. Typical RAS solids removal involves a sand filter or particle filter where solids become lodged and can be periodically backflushed out of the filter.[7] Another common method is the use of a mechanical drum filter where water is run over a rotating drum screen that is periodically cleaned by pressurized spray nozzles, and the resulting slurry is treated or sent down the drain. In order to remove extremely fine particles or colloidal solids a protein fractionator may be used with or without the addition of ozone (O3).


Reoxygenating the system water is a crucial part to obtaining high production densities. Fish require oxygen to metabolize food and grow, as do bacteria communities in the biofilter. Dissolved oxygen levels can be increased through two methods, aeration and oxygenation. In aeration air is pumped through an air stone or similar device that creates small bubbles in the water column, this results in a high surface area where oxygen can dissolve into the water. In general due to slow gas dissolution rates and the high air pressure needed to create small bubbles this method is considered inefficient and the water is instead oxygenated by pumping in pure oxygen.[8] Various methods are used to ensure that during oxygenation all of the oxygen dissolves into the water column. Careful calculation and consideration must be given to the oxygen demand of a given system, and that demand must be met with either oxygenation or aeration equipment.[9]

pH controlEdit

In all RAS pH must be carefully monitored and controlled. The first step of nitrification in the biofilter consumes alkalinity and lowers the pH of the system.[10] Keeping the pH in a suitable range (5.0-9.0 for freshwater systems) is crucial to maintain the health of both the fish and biofilter. pH is typically controlled by the addition of alkalinity in the form of lime (CaCO3) or sodium hydroxide (NaOH). A low pH will lead to high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2), which can prove toxic to fish.[11] pH can also be controlled by degassing CO2 in a packed column or with an aerator, this is necessary in intensive systems especially where oxygenation instead of aeration is used in tanks to maintain O2 levels.[12]

Temperature controlEdit

All fish species have a preferred temperature above and below which that fish will experience negative health effects and eventually death. Warm water species such as Tilapia and Barramundi prefer 24 °C water or warmer, where as cold water species such as trout and salmon prefer water temperature below 16 °C. Temperature also plays an important role in dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations, with higher water temperatures having lower values for DO saturation. Temperature is controlled through the use of submerged heaters, heat pumps, chillers, and heat exchangers.[13] All four may be used to keep a system operating at the optimal temperature for maximizing fish production.


Disease outbreaks occur more readily when dealing with the high fish stocking densities typically employed in intensive RAS. Outbreaks can be reduced by operating multiple independent systems with the same building and isolating water to water contact between systems by cleaning equipment and personnel that move between systems.[14] Also the use of an Ultraviolet (UV) or ozone water treatment system reduces the number of free floating virus and bacteria in the system water. These treatment systems reduce the disease loading that occurs on stressed fish and thus reduce the chance of an outbreak.


Sturgeon grown at high density in a partial recirculating aquaculture system.
  • Reduced water requirements as compared to raceway or pond aquaculture systems.[15]
  • Reduced land needs due to the high stocking density[16]
  • Site selection flexibility and independence from a large, clean water source.[17]
  • Reduction in wastewater effluent volume.[18]
  • Increased biosecurity and ease in treating disease outbreaks.[14]
  • Ability to closely monitor and control environmental conditions to maximize production efficiency. Similarly, independence from weather and variable environmental conditions.[1]


Mean greenhouse gas emissions for different food types[19]
Food Types Greenhouse Gas Emissions (g CO2-Ceq per g protein)
Ruminant Meat
Recirculating Aquaculture
Trawling Fishery
Non-recirculating Aquaculture
Non-trawling Fishery
Starchy Roots

High upfront investment in materials and infrastructure.[20]

  • High operating costs mostly due to electricity, and system maintenance.[20]
  • A need for highly trained staff to monitor and operate the system.[20]
  • Higher greenhouse gas emissions than non-recirculating aquaculture.[21]

Special types of RASEdit


Combining plants and fish in a RAS is referred to as aquaponics. In this type of system ammonia produced by the fish is not only converted to nitrate but is also removed by the plants from the water.[22] In an aquaponics system fish effectively fertilize the plants, this creates a closed looped system where very little waste is generated and inputs are minimized. Aquaponics provides the advantage of being able to harvest and sell multiple crops. Contradictory views exist on the suitability and safety of RAS effluents to sustain plant growth under aquaponics condition. Future conversions, rather ‘upgrades’, of operational RAS farms to semi-commercial Aquaponic ventures should not be deterred by nutrient insufficiency or nutrient safety arguments. Incentivizing RAS farm wastes through semi-commercial aquaponics is encouraged. Nutrients locked in RAS wastewater and sludge have sufficient and safe nutrients to sustain plant growth under aquaponics condition.[23]


Home aquaria and inland commercial aquariums are a form of RAS where the water quality is very carefully controlled and the stocking density of fish is relatively low. In these systems the goal is to display the fish rather than producing food. However, biofilters and other forms of water treatment are still used to reduce the need to exchange water and to maintain water clarity.[24] Just like in traditional RAS water must be removed periodically to prevent nitrate and other toxic chemicals from building up in the system. Coastal aquariums often have high rates of water exchange and are typically not operated as a RAS due to their proximity to a large body of clean water.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Michael B. Timmons and James B. Ebeling (2013). Recirculating Aquaculture (3rd ed.). Ithaca Publishing Company Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 978-0971264656.
  2. ^ Thomas B. Lawson (1995). Fundamentals of Aquaculture Engineering. Springer US. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-4615-7049-3.
  3. ^ Jenner, Andrew (February 24, 2010). "Recirculating aquaculture systems: The future of fish farming?". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
  4. ^ a b Hall, Antar (December 1, 1999). A Comparative Analysis of Three Biofilter Types Treating Wastewater Produced in Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (Master of Science). hdl:10919/30796. Retrieved September 22, 2020.
  5. ^ Robert Stickney (1994). Principles of Aquaculture (2nd ed.). Wiley. p. 91. ISBN 0-471-57856-8.
  6. ^ Summerfelt, Robert; Penne, Chris (September 2005), "Solids removal in a recirculating aquaculture system where the majority of the flow bypasses the microscreen filter", Aquacultural Engineering, 33 (3): 214–224, doi:10.1016/j.aquaeng.2005.02.003
  7. ^ Chen, Shulin; Malone, Ronald (1991), "Suspended solids control in recirculating aquaculture systems", Proceedings from Aquaculture Symposium in Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: 170–186
  8. ^ Odd-Ivar Lekang (2013). Aquaculture Engineering (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-470-67085-9.
  9. ^ Kepenyes, J. "Chapter 15 Recirculatig Systems and Re-use of Water in Aquaculture". FAO. Retrieved October 3, 2015.
  10. ^ Losordo, T.; Massar, M.; Rakocy, J (September 1998). "Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: an overview of critical conditions" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 17, 2015. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
  11. ^ Summerfelt, Steven (1996). "Engineering of water reuse systems" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on January 2, 2011. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  12. ^ Malone, Ron (October 2013). "Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: A Review of Current Design Practices" (PDF). North Carolina State University. p. 5. Retrieved October 3, 2015.
  13. ^ Odd-Ivar Lekang (2013). Aquaculture Engineering (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 136. ISBN 978-0-470-67085-9.
  14. ^ a b Yanong, R. "Fish Health Management Considerations in Recirculating Aquaculture Systems - Part 1: Introduction and General Principles" (PDF). Retrieved August 25, 2015.
  15. ^ Martins, C.; Eding, E.; Verdegem, M.; Heinsbroek, L.; Schneider, O.; Blancheton, J.; d'Orbcastel, E.; Verreth, J. (November 2010), "New developments in recirculating aquaculture systems in Europe: A perspective on environmental sustainability" (PDF), Aquacultural Engineering, 43 (3): 83–93, doi:10.1016/j.aquaeng.2010.09.002
  16. ^ Helfrich, L.; Libey, G. "Fish Farming in Recirculating Aquaculture Systems" (PDF). Retrieved August 25, 2015.
  17. ^ Barry Costa-Pierce; et al. (2005). Urban Aquaculture. CABI Publishing. p. 161. ISBN 0-85199-829-1.
  18. ^ Weldon, Vanessa (June 3, 2011). "Recirculating systems". Retrieved October 3, 2015.
  19. ^ Michael Clark; Tilman, David (November 2014). "Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health". Nature. 515 (7528): 518–522. Bibcode:2014Natur.515..518T. doi:10.1038/nature13959. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 25383533. S2CID 4453972.
  20. ^ a b c Rawlinson, P.; Forster, A. (2000). "The Economics of Recirculation Aquaculture" (PDF). Oregon State University. Retrieved October 3, 2015.
  21. ^ Michael Clark; Tilman, David (November 2014). "Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health". Nature. 515 (7528): 518–522. Bibcode:2014Natur.515..518T. doi:10.1038/nature13959. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 25383533. S2CID 4453972.
  22. ^ Diver, S. (2006). "Aquaponics Integration of Hydroponics and Aquaculture" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on April 17, 2012. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
  23. ^ Lunda, Roman; Roy, Koushik; Másílko, Jan; Mráz, Jan (September 2019). "Understanding nutrient throughput of operational RAS farm effluents to support semi-commercial aquaponics: Easy upgrade possible beyond controversies". Journal of Environmental Management. 245: 255–263. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.05.130. PMID 31158677. S2CID 174808814.
  24. ^ David E. Boruchowitz (2001). The Simple Guide to Freshwater Aquariums. T.F.H. p. 31. ISBN 9780793821013.

External linksEdit