Not every school is open to housing pets, but in the basement of Ross School’s High School Building, Brandon Hecht ’19 is breeding and raising animals that he hopes will provide tremendous relief to impoverished families: tilapia. The avid fisherman and aquatic science enthusiast is breeding and growing tilapia in ways that he hopes will encourage growth in metropolitan areas. His goal is that the research might provide an avenue for those in disadvantaged communities to grow more of their own food.
“I have always been interested in marine biology; anything involving botany of fish fascinates me,” Brandon said. “When I discovered the art of aquaponics, I thought why not have some fun combining my two favorite hobbies while making a system that could feed poor communities and farm-to-table restaurants alike.”
Tilapia has garnered a negative reputation in recent years, due in significant part to inconsistent and poor farming practices that affect the health of the fish and cause environmental setbacks. Still, it remains the fourth most consumed fish in America: it’s inexpensive, mild-flavored, and high in protein, which makes it a versatile nutrition source. Moreover, the fish are hardy and easy to care for, making them a viable option for small farming.
Using the principles of vertical gardening, which make it possible to grow produce in spaces as limited as a wall, Brandon is working to combine hydroponics and aquaponics into a single-stream process that makes it easier to breed and farm-raise the fish in humane and environmentally sustainable ways. In Brandon’s system, fish waste is converted into food for the plants that cleanse the water where the fish live.
“This system minimizes the number of water changes and leaves no need for fertilizer,” Brandon said in his project blog. “It also saves more space by combining the production of farmed fish and hydroponically grown mixed greens.” Ultimately, Brandon envisions his method as something that can be adapted for commercial spaces. For example, a fountain in a public park or office has the potential to be modified into a three-tiered miniature farm, with the plants performing double duty as both ornamental decoration and a filtration source.
“Aquaponics is for everyone. The systems range widely in size and price, from 10-gallon systems that are good for apartments to 50,000-gallon commercial scale systems,” Brandon said.
As a student in Innovation Lab @Ross, Brandon has enjoyed the opportunity to dive into his passion for technology and environmental science. His past Innovation Lab @Ross projects have included studies about the habitats and behaviors of the tardigrade, a microscopic aquatic animal also known as the water bear; lead contamination in fruit and vegetable crops; and the impact of colored lighting on plant growth and development.
“Brandon's fascination with fish and compassion for the environment keep him working tirelessly in the EcoLab any chance he gets,” said Marine Science Teacher Hazel Wodehouse. “He is motivated by a desire to effect change in the world, aiming to make sustainable seafood and gardening more accessible and affordable in urban communities. His enthusiasm is contagious and he should be very proud of what he has accomplished.”