The Tsao Of Sustainable Food

Bernie Tsao harvets lettuce. Coco Zickos photos

A new program at KCC blends aquaculture and hydroponics to raise both vegetables and fish, and a new class is open to the public

Aquaponics is the perfect marriage between aquaculture and hydroponics.

“It’s a beautiful relationship,” says Bernie Tsao, Kaua’i Community College aquaculture and aquaponics coordinator and instructor.

Growing fish (aquaculture), either for food or ornamentation, can help facilitate the development of healthy plants.

Systems can be any size for one person, a family or a commercial operation. Even an individual who doesn’t have much space to work with can grow virtually any kind of plant in a 10-gallon aquarium. Because there is no soil, no associated pathogens will occur, and weeding is not an issue. And the only gardening required is at waist-level versus digging in the ground.

These are not the only benefits of aquaponics. The technique reduces the impact of overfishing and helps restore balance in the ecosystem.

The systems are 100 percent re-circulated as the fish fertilize the plants whose roots are nourished in the water. The water regenerates through a biofilter system, where it is treated, and harmful toxins to the fish are removed.

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“Compared to traditional agriculture, you’re only using 1/10 of the water,” says Tsao.

Cutting back on the consumption of nature’s resources would allow for more sustainable food management, facilitating a minimization of global food shortages.

“It’s not because the world couldn’t grow enough to feed the people, it’s the distribution,” says Tsao, who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in California.

When the importation of products is not required and food is locally grown, concern over availability diminishes.

“If every individual takes responsibility for themselves, at least in their own household, that would really make a huge impact in being more sustainable,” he says.

Decreasing world hunger has been a passion of Tsao’s since he was a child.

“I remember when I was growing up my mom would make me eat every grain of rice out of my bowl. I would never leave anything,” he says. “The reason is because she shared with me that a lot of people in the world were starving and didn’t have any food. So up to today, I eat everything.

“That really stuck with me.”

Tsao tends to fish in an aquaculture tank

While his classmates were interested in becoming firefighters or doctors, Tsao says he was “dreaming about how to feed the world.”

After studying aquatic biology and mechanical engineering in college, Tsao traveled around the world to places such as Northern Thailand, Cambodia and Brazil to help develop aquaculture facilities for orphanages, rehabilitation centers and others that were economically challenged.

For 22 years, Tsao has been involved in aquaculture development, and approximately one-and-a-half years ago he began the aquaponics program at KCC, which helps increase awareness of the technology.

There are two systems located on campus for students to hone their skills: one suitable for a family and another commercialsized. The goal is for students to eventually start their own aquaponic system in their backyards.

The long-term goal is to not only help Kaua’i produce more locally grown food, but to create more jobs to maintain and manage the commercially operated systems.

Tsao even dreams of retrofitting resort koi ponds with aquaponic systems so they can grow their own produce to use in restaurants.

“This is the cutting edge of intensive food production,” he says.

The course will be offered again beginning Feb. 18 at KCC. The classes are limited to 20 students and are held once a week for one month.

For more information, email Tsao at or visit