Food Fish, Christopher Toole’s Tilapia

In August of 2010, Christopher Toole quit his job at Sovereign Bank, grew a beard and bought some fish. Today, he is teaching children at a South Bronx community center how to grow those fish in an urban setting. For the last two years, Toole devoted himself to perfecting a way to raise tilapia in the city. Trash bins. Recycled of course.

Annie Rose: How do you explain what you do to your fifth grade students?

Chris: It is called Aquaponics. Aquaponics is growing fish in a controlled environment. At the community center, we use hoses that recirculate the water in the trash bins so it is constantly keeping the water clean.

Annie Rose: How big is the biggest tilapia you have?

Chris: Right now, about 1.5 lbs., a little over one foot long.

Annie Rose: How big do you let the fish grow until you eat them?

Chris: Do you want popcorn tilapia? Do you want a tilapia sandwich? One pound feeds two people. From fry, it takes 9-10 months at the fastest.

Annie Rose: What do you feed them then?

Chris: Many things including and especially duckweed and black soldier fly larvae. We’ve also experimented with maggots, other insects, worms, various fish, flax and various other plants.

Annie Rose: How did you begin growing your fish?

Chris: We first started out with live Chinatown fish that were about a pound and grew ‘em. We needed to learn – to figure out how many one pound fish we could manage in a trash barrel. I didn’t know until I did it. Now I know. I know exactly.

After that, we went online and ordered 500 tiny tilapias “fry” that would officially start the project. We chose tilapia because they are easy to grow and to care for.

Annie Rose: Lets talk about the love life of a tilapia. Have any of your tilapias mated?

Chris: Yes we have had breeding successes!!! We mostly let nature run its course with our guidance and intervention.

Annie Rose: Is fish farming legal in New York City?

Chris: No, unless you’ve got a certain type of home. But is it legal to grow a little food? Sure. Is it legal to be a farmer? Sure.

Annie Rose: The Humane Society is working on the Farm Animal Protection Project to be sure animals raised for food purposes in both urban and rural farms have enough room to grow. Would they find fault with fish raised in trashcans?

Chris: The commercial industry uses one gallon of water per pound of tilapia. That is pretty intense. It makes this trashcan look like a swim in the ocean.

Annie Rose: What do you use for money?

Chris: My 401 k.

Annie Rose: Why this intense interest in fish farming from someone who was previously a businessman?

Chris: We need food, specifically good quality protein to eat.

Annie Rose: What is the name that appears under employment on your tax return?

Chris: Aquapon

Annie Rose: What is the difference between your trashcan tilapia and the organic tilapia they sell at Whole Foods?

Chris: Is there such a thing as an organic tilapia? That word’s been bastardized and patented and copyrighted. By definition anything that’s alive is organic, its carbon based – look up the word!

Annie Rose: Do you dislike the name “trashcan tilapia”?

Chris: It’s a bin – a can is something made of metal! I call them food fish.

Annie Rose: What good does fish farming do for our environment?

Chris: If nothing else, fish farming gives the oceans, seas, rivers, streams, lakes and other natural growing waters a rest. It also educates and is a critical step on the path towards Urban Food Sustainability.

Annie Rose: Do you name the fish?

Chris: Ya, Lunch and Dinner.

Annie Rose: When you kill a fish that you have harvested, do you cut off their heads? Is it quick and dirty?

Chris: The ideal way to harvest them is to understand how they exist to being alive and part of that is they are cold-blooded fish. So what do we do? Well we cool them down. So, we put them into the freezer or a bucket of ice and let them slip into a coma. That is the correct and most humane way to do it.

Annie Rose: Who has had the pleasure of eating one of the fishes you have grown?

Chris: We are not yet at millions and millions served, more like dozens and dozens, tipping quickly towards hundreds & thousands… Children and adults at the community center, professional chefs, tourists & other customers, friends and relatives to name a few.

Annie Rose: What is your favorite way to cook your tilapia you raised?

Chris: Putting one on the George Foreman on the terrace right next to where I grew them is my favorite way: a trash barrel, one comes out, throw it on the Foreman with a little lemon, eat it right there. Gorgeous. That is the best way to eat it. I mean, in the urban environment.

Annie Rose: What’s with the beard?

Chris: I am trying to grow things.

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