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Fishing out of water: New aquaculture class explores burgeoning industry

Whole Oceans rendering - courtesy John Gutwin of Pepperchrome/Ellsworth American

The University of Southern Maine (USM) and a Maine-based aquaculture company have teamed up to offer a students a unique glimpse into the burgeoning field of aquaculture.

USM has partnered with Whole Oceans — a company planning this year to construct a land-based Atlantic salmon farm on the site of the former Verso Paper Mill Bucksport — to offer a course in aquaponics and recirculatory aquaculture systems (RAS).

The course, “Practical Guide to Aquaculture,” will present an overview of aquaponic growing and RAS, taught at a lay level for non-scientists. The course will also discuss the business of land-based farming and aquaculture, as well as the global context of aquaponics and recirculating aquaculture.

Aquaponics, a form of RAS, is a system that combines conventional aquaculture — raising fish and other aquatic creatures in tanks — with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water).

As water travels from fish tanks, set below a plant grow bed, beneficial bacteria transform nitrogenous fish waste (in the form of ammonia) to nitrate, which is then used by plants, which then return clean water to the fish tanks.

Theo Willis, associate professor of environmental science and policy and course instructor, said the course material is relevant now more than ever, as companies begin to explore Midcoast Maine as a haven for developing these types of systems.

Two land-based aquaculture systems have been proposed for midcoast Maine, including Whole Oceans, which plans to begin production of 5,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon in its first phase, eventually expanding upward of 25,000 metric tons of the fish.

“Because of Maine's relatively pristine waters the state is in a great position to take advantage of the consumer's desire for organic foods from known origins,” Willis said. “It's a relatively new industry and sector so there's lots of room for entrepreneurs right now.”

There’s nothing fishy about it — people love Atlantic salmon.

More than 2 million metric tons of Atlantic salmon are produced globally, according to Whole Oceans — a $10-plus billion industry — yet only 4 percent of U.S. demand is produced domestically.

Aquaponics is a growing field, Willis said, particularly in environmentally-clean Maine.

Several facilities have opened recently that use an aquaponic model to grow vegetables, including Springworks Farm in Lisbon, Maine, that cater to a public hungry for organic, sustainably-produced vegetables.

But the opening of Whole Oceans would be transformative for the Midcoast region of Maine, particularly Bucksport, which saw massive job losses after the Verso Paper Mill permanently shuttered in 2014.

The company estimates 50-60 new positions in the Bucksport area for its first phase of production, with more down the road. That includes a variety of positions from animal husbandry technicians to tradespeople, fish biologists and engineers as well as sales, marketing and corporate staff.

Willis said Whole Oceans’ plan speaks volumes to a state facing a current — and further looming — skilled labor shortage, something USM and the University of Maine System are working hard to combat.

“Workforce development is very important to us,” said Jennifer Fortier, outreach & development associate at Whole Oceans. “We want to encourage Maine residents to become trained in the skills needed for this burgeoning industry.”

Willis echoed that sentiment.

"Any successful business model needs workers … Those workers need to know what they are doing,” Willis said. “There's an opportunity for workforce development here."

The class, while mostly online, will incorporate in-person field experience, Willis said. Later in the spring, the class will meet over several weekends to tour aquaponic and related facilities in Maine.

Whole Oceans will play an active role in the course instruction, Willis said, with several of their senior personnel teaching modules on aspects of the land-based aquaculture business, plus technical aspects of land-based aquaculture.

The company is also working on ways to reserve course seats for local Bucksport residents who may also be interested.

This isn’t USM’s first exploration into the burgeoning field of aquaponics. Last fall, students in Dr. Karen Wilson’s Research and Analytical Methods class cultivated nine pounds of rainbow Swiss chard and five pounds of cilantro using the baby offspring of Blue and White Nile Tilapia in an aquaponic environment.

Willis said this new course is supported in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Business Development Grant, which is helping to lower course fees and tuition for part-time students or students who are only interested in this one course.

If interest continues to grow, Willis said, the Department of the Environmental Science and Policy will look into offering a set of courses on campus that result in a certification for operating aquaponic and recirculating systems.

By Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs