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Fueled by industry, USM offers online course in aquaponics

Aquaponics student

A new online course in aquaponics and related aquaculture systems will be available online this coming spring semester.

The course, “Practical Guide to Aquaculture,” will present an overview of aquaponic growing and recirculating aquaculture, 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 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.

The course was inspired by the announcement of two land-based aquaculture systems being proposed for midcoast Maine, said Theo Willis, associate professor of environmental science and policy, who will be instructing the course.

"There is a lot of practical science involved with creating a mini ecosystem," Willis said. I think that the real world prospects of growing food and fish will make learning the science interesting, even for non-science people."

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, a company planning on bringing a land-based salmon farm to Bucksport on the site of the now-closed Verso Paper Mill, is a collaborator in the course. Willis said several of their senior personnel will teach modules on aspects of the land-based aquaculture business, plus technical aspects of land-based aquaculture.

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.

The field is growing, 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.

“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.”

That sentiment speaks volumes to a state facing a current — and further looming — workforce shortage, something USM and the University of Maine System are working hard to combat. The field of aquaponics, Willis said, will need skilled workers with the right kind of education to handle the tenuous ecosystem created in an aquaponic setup.

"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."

Willis said the 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.

 

Story and photo/video by Alan Bennett / Office of Public Affairs