Story by Douglas Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton
U.S. Navy Sailors are routinely surrounded by it, work next to it, and like everyone else, can’t live without it.
The importance of water – including habitat, conservation and environmental stewardship – was demonstrated during the 22nd annual Kitsap Water Festival that included a team of Naval Hospital Bremerton’s (NHB) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Sailors on April 18, 2017.
The STEM team showcased an exhibit called aquaponics to approximately 1,000 students from 21 Kitsap County elementary schools at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds.
“We showed the students our aquaponics system where we can use waste directly from fish to fertilize plants. I think the exhibit was very well received. We had literally hundreds of children and adults come by to see it. Many of the kids were initially attracted by the fish, but ended up asking very intelligent questions about how the system worked,” said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Nicholas Behel, Biomedical Equipment Technician.
Aquaponics is a soilless agricultural method that uses the nitrogenous waste produced by sea life and then broken down by bacteria to fertilize water grown crops. The name itself is a combination of aquaculture – raising fish – and hydroponics – raising plants without soil.
“It’s really an efficient, easy system to make. One of our shipmates in our Biomedical Repair Shop is transferring to Japan in a couple of months. He built a similar system and asked if anyone was interested in taking his fish. He said he would help build another aquaponics system if anyone was interested. I took him up on his offer and the whole shop ended up helping out in the construction. We showed the students that you can raise vegetables and fish together,” Behel said, noting that building the system for the exhibit was a lot of fun, yet the real enjoyment was being able to interact with interested community members who were participating in the festival.
Hospitalman Roy Wells of Family Medicine helped out, pretty much everyone in the Biomedical Repair Shop assisted in some fashion, and HM1 John Lapage attended the event and helped show and explain the exhibit to all the students,” added Behel.
With April 22, 2017 as the designated date of this year’s ‘Earth Day,’ as the possibility arose to join in the Kitsap Water Festival, Behel immediately agreed to take part and tailor the STEM team presentation with a water conservation theme, which is exactly what aquaponics does.
The advantages of the aquaponics process are many. It’s a natural fertilizing, self-sustaining system with fish eating plant waste and plants consuming fish waste. Flexible designs can be sized according to space limitations and needs and placed in a variety of environments. Yet the flexibility does have some limitations. One thing aquaponics does not currently do is provide food or foliage on any U.S. Navy ship.
“It was funny that we were asked several times if the exhibit was demonstrating the way the Navy grows food on ships. But I appreciated being able to portray the Navy in a positive light,” Behel said.
The basic system components include a fish tank for the sea life, a plant bed for the plants which is often filled with clay pebbles that provide a medium in which beneficial bacteria can grow. A water pump is needed to transfer water from the fish tank to plant bed and a siphon valve is needed to create a fill-drain cycle which provides plants with nutrients and water without causing root rot.
“I hope we inspired some of the students at the event to be excited about science related material like our system,” said Behel.
The Kitsap Water Festival was a day-long affair that celebrated and educated on the region’s local water resources. NHB and the other exhibitors from area businesses, agencies and community programs presented to the students fun-filled, learning activities and exhibits that all centered on water conservation and environmental stewardship.
The event also showed what can be accomplished – from fish to plant – with a little practical use of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.