Fish, plants and the circle of life - Albuquerque Journal

Fish, plants and the circle of life

Española YMCA Teen Center director Ben Sandoval shows how the closed-loop aquaponics system works. (Glen Rosales/For the Journal)

In less than a week, lettuce, basil and cilantro seeds planted by a group of area students at the Española YMCA Teen Center in a fledgling aquaponics system had already grown to a height of two inches or more.

“I was actually really surprised, considering how much they have developed in a short amount of time,” said Janessa Sandoval, a seventh-grader at Mesa Vista Middle High School. “Normally, you would expect, OK, we planted them, let’s wait a few weeks and we’ll see if they’ve even start growing. When they started growing within a few days, it was surprising. It’s crazy to think that all that happened just because of some fish.”

According to the website,, “aquaponics is putting fish to work. It just so happens that the work those fish do (eating and producing waste), is the perfect fertilizer for growing plants.”

Water circulates through the fish tank, then up through grow beds, where it is filtered through the growing plants. Then, it returns clean back to the fish tank.

“It’s magical in a sense, what’s happening here,” said center director Ben Sandoval, who is the brainchild of the project. “It’s a circle of life. A contained ecosystem.”

The seed for the project was planted about five years ago when Sandoval visited a large-scale aquaponics setup while on vacation in Hawaii.

Española YMCA Teen Center members Janessa Sandoval, left, Eliseo Delgado, center, and Samuel Elijah Martinez discuss how quickly the plants grew in less than a week. (Glen Rosales/For the Journal)

“They were using tilapia to get the aquaponics running,” he said. “It was flat-out amazing and I thought, ‘How can I do this on a small scale and teach these kids?’ It’s been five years in the works in my mind. The delay was me being a little bit scared to do it. I didn’t think I had the skill set to do it without having a specialist come in.”

Off and on over the ensuing years, Sandoval would check out internet videos, but still came away unsatisfied.

“Everybody does it differently,” he said. “You can’t get 10 people to tell you the same thing.”

But, after a recent visit to a friend in Abiquiú who had a small-scale aquaponics setup, Sandoval was enthused.

“I just had to dive in and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” he said.

Using a spare aquarium that has been sitting in storage at the YMCA, the project began with some feeder goldfish.

“We wanted to get some good bacteria growing and get the system established with some measurable bacteria to start with,” he said. “If you start too early without bacteria, it’s more challenging. When you’re tracking the data, if you don’t have anything to start from because its chlorinated water, we didn’t want that. We wanted to start with something that we could actually have that was measurable.”

He recruited a number of YMCA members interested in the project.

“It’s all right,” said Española Valley High school freshman Samuel Elijah Martinez. “We get to expand our thinking to learning new things.”

They formed a class and the students began assembling the PVC piping that circulated the water and putting the wooden framework together. Then, they prepared the clay pebbles that help the filtering and growing process.

“We all did it as a group,” said Jordan Hoover, a sixth-grader at James H. Rodriguez Elementary. “We built the light, then we built the frame, and got a bucket and washed the clay pebbles. And we put them in our little container in the growing bed, and planted our things. I like plants and I like fish, and I like projects. It was very fun.”

It took about $130 in materials to begin the whole operation, Sandoval said, plus maybe 25-30 hours of sweat equity.

“But, now, it doesn’t even feel like I spent those hours (on it) because we’ve got plants growing,” he said. “It’s amazing, and it’s amazing them, too.”

The students smiled as they looked at their handiwork and healthy sprouts.

Students at the Española YMCA Teen Center are growing cilantro, lettuce and basil through a closed aquaponics system. (Glen Rosales/For the Journal)

“I think it was pretty cool,” said Eliseo Delgado, an eighth-grader at McCurdy Charter School. “I’ve seen a lot of people on social media have been doing it. When I first saw this class, I thought it was just growing plants with fish, but when I started thinking about it, I thought it was something I could use with my kids possibly.”

Seeing the plants actually sprouting made the process all worthwhile, he said.

“Earlier, before I came in here, my friends texted me the pictures and it was pretty cool because I thought, ‘How fast did these plants grow throughout the weekend?’ ”

Augustine Marquez, a sixth-grader at James H. Rodriguez, said the whole idea of the project was interesting because he already has a couple of fish.

“The main reason I wanted to learn is we have two fish at home, and I wanted to learn how to use fish water to grow plants and to learn how the fish cycle goes around the plants and fish water,” he said.

The whole idea of what they’re doing seemed a little strange at first, but Janessa Sandoval said that’s what makes it intriguing.

“I’ve always had a love of anything science-related,” she said. “I had never heard of aquaponics but, when my dad told me about it, I immediately got interested. It’s that idea of the opportunities and experiences that drive me to participate in classes like this.”

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