The Best Fish For Small Aquaponics & Backyard Farmers: A Beginners Guide

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Aquaponics benefits are many for backyard farmers, hobbyists and gardeners!  When you compare aquaponics vs traditional farming, aquaponics uses far less water, takes up less space, doesn’t use pesticides or fertilizers and produces fish and vegetable crops that are 100% organic.

What are the best fish for small aquaponics? Your choice will very much depend on whether you would like to eat your fish. If so, the best fish for small aquaponics farms could include tilapia, bluegill, catfish, trout and crappie. If however, you would like ornamental fish or fish that you can sell, you can consider koi, goldfish, guppies and Tetra.

Fish play an exceptionally important role in urban and backyard aquaponics systems so it is important to choose the right types of fish if want to set up a successful DIY aquaponics system. 

In this article, we will look at the ideal environments for each fish type so that you can make the best decision before investing in your backyard aquaponics system.

Before you begin setting up an aquaponics fish farming system, you will need to make several very important decisions – one of the most important being what types of fish to raise in your aquaponics fish tank. Things you will need to consider include:

  • What size is your aquaponics system? Can the space you have support the types of fish you choose?
  • What is the water temperature, water quality and pH of your system?
  • What type of environment do your fish thrive in?
  • Do the types of fish you choose match up with the types of aquaponics vegetables and plants you would like to grow? For example, if you plan on growing cool-season aquaponics vegetables, will the aquaponic fish you choose be happy in the same environment in which the plants thrive?
  • Will the types of fish you choose provide all the nutrients that your aquaponics vegetables and plants will need?
  • Would you like to eat the fish you raise, sell them or are they simply ornamental fish?

Let’s take a look at some of the best fish for small aquaponics. These types of fish are wonderful options and most of them are suitable for you if you are a beginner aquaponics fish farmer.

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics Fish Tanks: Edible Fish

Tilapia

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Tilapia
NILE TILAPIA (OREOCHROMIS NILOTICUS)
One of the best fish for small aquaponics and an all-time favorite amongst both commercial and backyard aquaponics fish farmers!
Photo Credit: Germano Roberto Schüür, CC BY-SA 4.0

Edible: Yes
Diet: Omnivorous
Water Temperature: 82°F – 86°F / 28°C – 30°C
Size: Up to 24in / 60 cm
Tank Mates: Yes
pH level: 6.5 – 9.0
Harvest Time: 6-9 Months To One Pound

Tilapia is considered to be one of the best fish for small aquaponics systems because they are hardy and happily adapt to most environments. They are also resistant to diseases and parasites which makes them an attractive choice for aquaponics beginners and experts alike and you will usually find them right at the top of any “best fish for aquaponics” lists!

The worldwide harvest of farmed tilapia has now surpassed 800,000 metric tons, and tilapia are second only to carps as the most widely farmed freshwater fish in the world.

The Fish Site

Tilapia have a varied diet and can survive on worms, insects, duckweed, aquatic plants, algae as well as pallet foods.  

Tilapia prefer water temperatures of around 82° – 86°F or 28°C – 30°C but can survive outside of this range. They will however die if the water temperature goes below 50°F (10°C).

In their ideal growing environment, Tilapia can breed very quickly, spawning every 4-6 weeks. This could be a problem for a small aquaponics farm and you may need to consider a second tank as your stock increases. 

Bluegill

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Bluegill
BLUEGILL (LEPOMIS MACROCHIRUS)
Bluegill are quick-growing fish that are low in cholesterol and carbohydrates, but high in protein.
Photo Credit: Scott Harden, CC BY-SA 4.0

Water Temperature: 65℉ to 80℉ or 18°C to 27°C
Edible? Yes
Size: 5in to 12in / 12cm – 30cm
Diet: Omnivorous
Harvest Time: 12 Months to 1 pound
Tank Mates? Yes
Ideal pH: 6.5 to 8.5

Bluegills are omnivorous fish that are native to North America. In their natural environments, they live on a diet of insects, zooplankton, snails, algae, aquatic plants as well as other fish and their eggs (protein makes up about 30% of their diet).

Bluegills are one of the best fish for small aquaponics because they grow quite quickly and in one year can reach a length of about 12 inches or 30 centimeters. It will take them about two years to reach a good size for breeding. You can expect your Bluegills to live for about 5 to 6 years if well cared for. 

Bluegills are schooling fish, with the average school consisting of 10 to 20 fish. Bluegill fish, that belong to the same school, will protect each other from predators and will also search for food together.

One disadvantage of using Bluegill in your aquaponics farm is that they tend to enjoy eating their own young, although they do happily live with other fish species. You will therefore need to separate the babies and their eggs into another aquaponic fish tank so that the adults don’t eat them!  

Catfish

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Channel Catfish
CHANNEL CATFISH (ICTALURUS PUNCTATUS)
 Catfish are a rich source of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. As an added benefit they are low in calories.
Photo Credit: Engbretson, Eric / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain

Edible
Diet: Omnivorous
Water Temperature: 65°F – 86°F / 18°C – 30°C
pH level: 7.0 to 8.5
Growth Rate: 2 – 3 Pounds in 24 Months
Tank Mates: Yes
Size: 0.39in-106in / 1cm – 2.7m

Catfish are one of the best fish for small aquaponics because they are an excellent source of vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fats. They are also packed with lean protein, vitamins and minerals and are low in calories, a perfect choice if you want to lose weight.  

There are over 3,000 species of catfish that vary from small, peaceful fish to large more aggressive species. In ideal conditions, it isn’t uncommon to see some species of catfish reach 3 pounds (1.4kg) within 12 months!  

Catfish have one of the greatest ranges in size within a single order of bony fish. Many catfish have a maximum length of under 12 cm (4.7 in). Some of the smallest species of the Aspredinidae and Trichomycteridae reach sexual maturity at only 1 cm (0.39 in)…

Piraíba (Brachyplatystoma filamentosum) can grow exceptionally large and are native to the Amazon Basin. They can occasionally grow to 200 kg (440 lb), as evidenced by numerous catches. Deaths from being swallowed by these fish have been reported in the region.

Wikipedia

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are considered one of the best fish for small aquaponics because they are easy to breed and raise and they adapt well to aquaponics fish tanks. Mature catfish could spawn up to 9 times in a season and their eggs usually hatch within 10 days.

Catfish eat a wide variety of foods including frogs, snails, crabs, frogs, algae, and aquatic plants and are happy to scavenge for debris as well. 

Although they are known to survive in a wide range of conditions, they prefer warmer water temperatures of about 75 – 86°F / 24 – 30° C. In colder temperatures, their metabolism and food consumption slows down so they will produce less fish waste which means less nutrient-rich water for your aquaponic vegetables and plants.

Catfish are happy to live with other aquaponic fish such as crappie, tilapia, and koi.

Trout

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Rainbow Trout
RAINBOW TROUT – ONCORHYNCHUS MYKISS
Rainbow trout are very successful predators and they will eat just about everything they catch, including crustaceans and small fish.
Photo Credit: Ken Hammond / USDA, Public domain

Edible
Diet: Carnivorous
Water Temperature: 45°F – 72°F / 7 – 22°C
Size: 15 in / 38cm
pH level: 6.5 to 8.0
Tank Mates – No
Harvest Time: 12 – 14 months

Trout are extremely popular fish that are farmed for their taste and high value. They have a good growth rate and are ready for harvest at about 12 to 14 months. In colder areas they are considered one of the best fish for small aquaponics fish tanks because they prefer colder water temperatures and thrive when the water temperature is in the 45°C – 65° F / 7°C – 18°C range.  If you live in a warmer area you would need to investigate ways of cooling the water temperature so that they don’t get too warm.

Trout are an excellent choice for your aquaponics fish tank if you plan on growing aquaponic vegetables that prefer cooler temperatures eg. broccoli, cabbage, and collard greens.

Trout have a diverse diet and enjoy algae, insects, shrimp, fish and other aquatic invertebrates such as dragonflies and flies. The flavor of the fish is very dependent on the diet of the fish. 

Rainbow trout are a popular choice for backyard aquaponics fish farms because they have a high nutritional value, are low and fat and have an excellent flavor. They are commercially farmed and sold to consumers, supermarkets and restaurants as fresh, frozen or smoked.

Trout grow to about 15 inches / 38 centimeters in 9 months and you will need to make sure that they have lots of space so that they don’t outgrow their aquaponics fish thank. Overcrowding in your aquaponics fish tank can cause problems such as aggression, dirty water and stunted growth.

Trout tend to be territorial and can become aggressive especially if smaller fish are added to their tank. However, some aquaponics farmers have had success with other fish types as long as they are around the same size. You may need to think about additional aquaponic fish tanks if you plan on keeping trout of different sizes and ages.

Crappie

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Crappie
BLACK CRAPPIE (POMOXIS NIGROMACULATUS)
Crappies are not always very active during the day and they feed mostly at dusk or dawn.
Photo Credit: Engbretson, Eric / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain

Water Temperature: 68℉ to 72℉ / 20°C – 22°C
Edible? Yes
Harvest Time: 12 Months to 1 pound
Tank Mates? No
Ideal pH: 6.0 to 7.5
Size: 5in – 19in / 12cm – 48cm

Crappie are hardy fish so they are good for beginners. Although they can survive in water temperatures as high as 80°F / 26°C and as low as 55°F/ 12°C, they thrive when the water temperature is in the 70°F to 75°F / 21°C – 23°C range and will grow faster in warmer water. If the water temperature becomes too low they become sluggish and they won’t produce as much waste which could affect the growth of your aquaponics vegetables.

Crappies can start breeding at 12 months so you could end up with a lot more crappies than you had planned for! They don’t do well with other fish because they tend to fight, defending their eggs, young and themselves against perceived threats and predators.

Crabbies tend to be fussy when it comes to eating. They love minnows but these can become expensive if your aquaponics farm is on a tight budget. They will however eat commercially made fish foods as well as larvae, small insects and crawfish.

If crabbies don’t end up on the plate they can quite happily live up to 7 years if well cared for.

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics Fish Tanks: Non-Edible Fish

Koi

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Koi
KOI (CYPRINUS RUBROFUSCUS)
Female koi fish are playful and a lot more social than male fish.
Photo Credit: Asturio Cantabrio, CC BY-SA 4.0

Non-Edible
Diet: Omnivorous
Water Temperature: 59°F – 77°F / 15°C – 25°C
pH levels: 7.0 to 8.0
Size: 12in – 36in / 30cm – 91cm

Koi are one of the most beautiful ornamental fish in the world! They are one of the best fish for small aquaponics fish tanks because they have a high retail value. They are very popular amongst beginner aquaponic backyard farmers because they adapt well to most water conditions and are fairly parasite and disease-resistant. They are also hardy, resilient and easy to care for.

Koi fish can be worth millions – the most expensive Koi fish ever sold was worth $1.8 million (more than R25 million).

Koi are a type of carp, a common fish that can be found all over the world, but what makes Koi so special is their coloring and lineage.

There are regular competitions to name the top Koi and just like prized dog breeds.

Business Insider

Koi generally do well in aquaponics fish tanks with other large aquaponics fish as long as they don’t fight and there is enough space for each species that you keep. 

They are omnivores and usually eat just about any food including green vegetables. They seem to really enjoy algae which is good news for your aquaponics system and your budget!    

They tend to grow and eat well, however, the more they eat, the more fish waste they produce. This can be both a good and a bad thing for your small aquaponics farm. Good because your aquaponics vegetables and plants get a large amount of nutrient-rich water to thrive in. Bad because you will have to monitor the amount of fish waste produced.  If you notice that your filtration system isn’t handling the amount of fish waste produced, a more efficient filter may need to be installed.

For optimal growth, Koi prefer living in water temperatures of around 59°F -71°F / 15°C -25°C. 

Koi can live up to 30 years in optimal living conditions. 

Goldfish

Best Fish For Aquaponics - Goldfish
GOLDFISH (CARASSIUS AURATUS)
Contrary to popular belief, goldfish and koi are not the same species.

Inedible
Diet: Omnivorous
Water Temperature: 78°F – 82°F / 25°C -27°C
pH levels: 6.0 to 8.0
Size: Up to 14in / 35cm
Tank Mates: Yes

Goldfish are one of the best fish for small aquaponics fish tanks because they are tough and very easy to breed and take care of.  They can live for over 10 years in ideal living conditions and are perfect for small aquaponics systems. 

Although goldfish can survive in water temperatures of 50°F to 73°F / 10°C – 23°C, they thrive when the water temperature is between 78°F – 82°F / 25°C -27°C. Keep in mind that rapid changes to the water temperature can be fatal for them.

Goldfish usually grow according to the size of the fish tank they live in. In an aquaponics fish tank where they have a lot of space, you can expect them to grow to about 1ft / 30cm.

When they are kept as pets in small fish tanks and aquariums, goldfish tend to stay about 1-2 inches long and never grow larger than 6 inches (15 centimeters), according to the DEC. However, in the wild, goldfish often reach 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 cm) in length.

Live Science

Goldfish have a varied diet which can include flakes, pellets, green vegetables as well as live and protein foods.

There are two different goldfish species, the single-tail and the twin-tail. The single-tail goldfish tend to swim faster and can sometimes be more aggressive than the twin-tail. It is therefore a good idea to avoid keeping these two types of goldfish in the same fish tank. That said, goldfish generally have very calm temperaments so they will happily live with other types of fish in their aquaponics fish tank.

Guppies

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Guppies
GUPPIES (POECILIA RETICULATA)
Guppies eat their own young – include lots of vegetation in your tank so that the baby fry a place to hide!

Water Temperature: 72℉ – 82℉ / 22°C – 27°C
Edible? No
Tank Mates? Yes
Ideal pH: 6.8 to 7.6
Size: 0.6in – 2.4in / 1.5cm – 6cm

Guppies, along with goldfish, are one of the best fish for small aquaponics fish tanks. They are a wonderful option for aquaponics beginners because they are hardy, low maintenance and easy to care for. They also have some economic value if you would like to sell them. They tend to live well with other non-aggressive fish such as tetra.

There are almost 40 species of guppies, with the most popular guppy fish for small aquaponics being the common guppy and the Endler guppy. The common guppy prefers cooler water while the Endler guppy likes warmer water temperatures.

Guppies are omnivorous and they need a varied diet to stay healthy. They eat pellets, fish flakes, green herbs, vegetables and live foods like bloodworms. Protein-rich foods help to boost their beautiful coloring!

Guppies have a short life span of 1 to 3 years but in ideal conditions can reach sometimes live to 4 or 5 years. They are livebearers, meaning that they carry their spawn within their bodies. They reproduce quickly with one female giving birth to 50 to 100 baby guppies each time. You will need to place the newborns into a separate fish tank so that they are protected and not eaten by other fish.

Read More: Popular Aquaponics Books

Tetra

Best Fish For Small Aquaponics - Neon Tetra
NEON TETRA (PARACHEIRODON INNESI)
Neon tetras love to live in schools of at least 6 to 10 fish. They tend to become stressed when separated from the group.

Water Temperature: 75℉ – 81℉ / 23°C – 27°C
Diet: Omnivorous
Edible? No
Tank Mates? Yes and No
Ideal pH: 6.8 to 7.8
Size: 1.5in / 3.8cm

Tetra fish come from the Amazon Jungle and therefore prefer warmer water temperatures of between 75°F to 81°F / 23°C – 27°C. There are about 150 different species of tetra fish, the most common being the neon, glowlight, diamond and cardinal tetras. Generally, tetras weigh just a tenth of a gram and grow to about 1.5 inches / 3.8 centimeters and are ideal for both mini and small indoor aquaponics systems because they are so tiny.  

They are easy to breed and care for and can be sold as pets. They grow quite quickly and are fully grown at around six months old. It is best to keep your baby tetras in a separate tank until they are about 3 months old to protect them.

Tetras are also omnivorous and enjoy a varied diet of algae, tiny insects, larvae, bloodworms and pellet foods.   

Tetras are very calm and peaceful fish and they are quite happy to share their fish tanks, but only with smaller, nonaggressive breeds. Fish that are even slightly bigger or aggressive will most likely eat them.

Infographic – Best Fish For Small Aquaponics Systems

Infographic - The Best Fish For Small Aquaponics Systems - Edible and Non-Edible Fish

Conclusion

While many aquaponics beginners and experts consider the fish in this article to be some of the best fish for small aquaponics, there are of course so many other types of fish you can choose from depending on your aquaponics fish farm size. We would love to hear your thoughts on what the best fish for small aquaponics are. Let us know in the comments section below and we will update our article!

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