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Business Trends: On the job

Training for aquaculture jobs includes courses designed to fit individual, business interests

Many in the aquaculture industry feel there is no replacement for hands-on training on the water.  - Photo by Melissa Wood
By Joanne Friedrick
December 05, 2011

When 6,000 fishermen in Florida were displaced by a net ban in the mid-1990s, some turned to a job-retraining program that taught them how to become clam farmers. Similarly, the state’s oyster farming industry was built out of another job-training opportunity in the mid-1980s.

Today, most of the aquaculture education isn’t coming from government-supported retraining efforts, but from various workshops and on-the-job programs offered through organizations such as Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Megan Davis, Harbor Branch associate director and director of aquaculture and stock enhancement, says opportunities like the creation of the clam industry in Cedar Key, Fla., are rare these days. Twenty years ago about 500 former fishermen took part in a year-long course put on by HBOI that was paid for by the Florida Department of Labor. In addition to training, they received a lease site, clam seeds and bags to start their business. Today, clam farming is a $20 million industry in Florida, she says.

In the past 15 years aquaculture training has been geared toward smaller programs at HBOI’s Aquaculture Center for Training, Education and Demonstration, also known as ACTED. In 1996, the center began offering about 30 different workshops on topics such as how to get started in aquaculture and hatchery techniques for both clams and shrimp.

Those workshops thrived for about 10 years, she says, but attendance began to fall off as other institutions started offering similar courses. “So we narrowed our focus on how to get started in aquaculture as well as marine fish and recirculating aquaculture,” she explains.

While the early programs were geared toward retraining people already in the seafood industry, today’s students don’t have a background as fishermen, “but come to this as a new career option,” says Davis.

Approximately 25 percent of students are currently working in the seafood or aquaculture industries and want more training.

The level of sophistication to perform certain jobs within the aquaculture industry has given rise to the need for training programs, she says. “You certainly have farms that hire day labor, but some of the more sophisticated jobs require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. You have the whole range there.”

About 13 years ago, she says, Harbor Branch teamed with Indian River State College to create one-year certification and two-year degree programs. Students spend half their time at the college and the other half at Harbor Branch.

Aquaculture presents a lot of opportunity, she says, especially when looking at the seafood trade deficit “and how much we need [seafood production] in our own country. This points out that there is a lot of room for growth in aquaculture,” she says.

Although she didn’t have specific numbers, Davis says job placement is fairly high for graduates of Harbor Branch’s programs, either with openings at HBOI or with local aquaculture businesses.

In Canada, aquaculture added about $325 million in gross value to that country’s economy in 2009, and operating revenue from finfish aquaculture increased nearly 21 percent to $908.2 million between 2008 and 2009.

Cyr Couturier, research scientist and chair of the aquaculture program at the School of Fisheries Marine Institute of Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland, and human resources chair for the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, notes that programs in Canada are structured similarly to those in the United States.

There are accredited programs from colleges and universities, he says, but also one- and two-year training courses for technicians and technologists. And some of the larger companies take on the training in-house, he adds.

Taking the training to where the people are has become more common, says Couturier. One- to three-day courses on topics such as feed management and fish husbandry are intensive and can be the equivalent to a 16-week classroom program. And Memorial’s Marine Institute is also developing some online modules, such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point safety courses.

For those looking to become managers in the aquaculture industry, Couturier says Memorial has a graduate program that provides training so someone can start a farm or manage someone else’s. An online pilot program focusing on aquaculture management is now available for students who already work in the industry. Couturier says course development is done by asking those in the industry what they need to improve.

“A lot of it is regulatory,” he says, such as diver and boater safety courses and medical emergency training. And for those who are familiar with boats, but not aquaculture, the training becomes focused on feeding and fish and shellfish health, he says.

Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association in Providence, R.I., says while formal education and even coursework are helpful, his advice to those wanting to learn about aquaculture is to spend time doing hands-on work for a month or more.

“There’s so much you can learn from the hands-on training,” he says, especially if someone has previous experience in the seafood industry. “Most people have most of the skills if they have worked on the water,” says Rheault.

“It’s just a fundamental difference in the perspective.”

Farmers work more 9-to-5 days with a yearlong perspective, Rheault explains, while fishermen are more seasonal and are looking for that day’s big payday.

Rheault would also like to see a minimum training program for those working in aquaculture and mandatory licensing so the environment is protected.

Looking at the East Coast industry, Rheault says there are opportunities for learning the business as aquaculture grows. Maryland, he notes, is pushing for more oyster aquaculture and the state is offering low-interest loans and seminars to spark interest. Virginia has a $40 million clam industry and is doing oysters as well, he says, and doubling production every year. Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts are all experiencing double-digit growth in shellfish aquaculture, he adds.

 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

December 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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