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Tanks and Tables: Aquaculture Careers

Article by: Hollee Freeman, Director, MathScience Innovation Center – Chances are you’ve heard quite a bit of news lately about the problem of food deserts in the region. You may even be part of the increasing number of urban farmers who grow their own fruit, vegetables or even raise chickens in your home, backyard or community garden. We have a sense of how to farm the land but how do we farm the sea? And why would we want to?

The science of sea farming, or aquaculture, is much more than fishing or harvesting aquatic plants and animals. Aquaculture is a way of cultivating food under controlled, sustainable conditions to ensure that food deserts of the sea do not exist and thus we have a steady and sustainable food source, as well as a clean and healthy marine environment.

In the last two years, Virginia has become even more of a leader in this area. In 2014, shellfish aquaculture in the state yielded $55.9 million in dockside value (up to a 33% increase from 2013) of which oysters accounted for $15.4 million (an increase of $4.2 million or 39% when compared to 2013.) Recently, First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, announced the Tangier/Middle Bay Region as Virginia’s Eighth Oyster Region and cited Virginia as the “Oyster Capital of the East Coast.” During the dedication, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore agreed and reflected on Virginia’s growth as a leader in the oyster and aquaculture industry. However, oysters, while a sizeable industry, are not the “only game in town” as Virginia’s own Blue Ridge Aquaculture is the world’s largest indoor producer of tilapia, yielding nearly 4 million pounds yearly.

Given the commitment of the MathScience Innovation Center over the past 50 years, to exposing students to a wide range of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), we developed a new Environmental Sustainability Initiative. The highlight of this initiative is a two-week summer course for high school students, Tank to Table. Tank to Table highlights our in-depth content knowledge, cutting-edge resources and partnerships with community and businesses leaders while providing students with concrete lab, field and work experiences in aquaculture, which they may not normally have.

During the course, students will gain a better understanding of science, methodology and career pathways in aquaculture. Using MSiC campus resources such as our pond, 8,000 gallon aquaria, trout and hydroponic tilapia rearing facility, students will not only learn about the biology of oysters, but that of tilapia, and trout, as well. In addition, students will also learn about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, fisheries science, aquaculture system design and implementation, water chemistry, and culinary artistry through field experiences and area professionals.

Upon completion of the two-week course, students will have the opportunity to apply for a one-week paid internship on the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) oyster farms in Yorktown. Under the direction of Dr. Stan Allen, developer of the VIMS OAT (Oyster Aquaculture Training) program for college students, MSiC aquaculture students will gain first-hand knowledge of working alongside scientists and “oystermen.” These students will be chaperoned by MSiC staff and a local high school educator. Students not pursuing the internship will engage in Saturday shadowing opportunities with some of our partners including Rappahannock River Oysters, the Culinary Center of Richmond, Virginia State University, the James River Ecology School, Trout in the Classroom, and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

As we know, communities benefit from an informed youth population. Raising awareness of issues involving the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed will strengthen the resolve of individuals to protect this valuable economic and recreational resource. Also, aquaculture as an industry continues to grow as demand for healthy food increases, particularly in Virginia. The aquaculture industry also affords a wide variety of career options. A career in aquaculture truly has “something for everyone.”

FAQ: Aquaculture-What is it and why should we care?

What is aquaculture?
It is the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments. Such enterprises may yield consumables, such as finfish and shellfish, as well as stock for replenishing native populations, such as trout.

How does aquaculture differ from aquaponics?
Aquaponics involves self-contained systems that result in harvestable animals as well as plants. Waste products generated by the animals are processed by bio-filters and used by the plants as nutrients for growth.

Why is aquaculture important?
Conventional methods of harvesting wild fish and finfish compromise the wild populations and often result in unsustainable practices. For example, harvests of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay have decreased by 90% since 1960. Oyster “farming” provides a sustainable supply of product without impacting the wild populations.

Isn’t fish farming bad for the environment?
Historically, aquaculture ventures have been criticized for failing to provide a sanitary method of producing vast amounts of product. However, eco-friendly practices can be successful. Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Martinsville, VA, uses a state of the art recirculating system to produce tilapia in a clean and ecologically conscientious way. Smaller scale aquaponics tanks, such as the one used at the MathScience Innovation Center, can successfully raise 100 pounds of tilapia without impacting the environment. Oyster farming actually improves the Chesapeake Bay – as more oysters are consumed more are “planted”, which increases the numbers of these biological “filters” in the Bay.

What is the job market in aquaculture?
Jobs in aquaculture continue to increase. As the industry has grown, there has developed a scarcity of applicants knowledgeable in the field. To help meet the ever-rising demand for employees, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) operates an “oyster boot camp” to train small numbers of interns on a working oyster farm. Graduates of this OAT (Oyster Aquaculture Training) Program have been hired in Virginia as well as other states.

What are the career options in aquaculture?
Jobs are varied and appeal to a diverse population: blue-collar positions in the outdoors leading to farm management, laboratory jobs in algal culture or oyster genetics, engineering and system design, marketing, retail sales, culinary arts, fisheries, transportation logistics to name a few.

Additional Photos Courtesy: MathScience Innovation Center