Aquaculture Programs Preparing Students to Supply Fish in Future
Thursday, October 11th, 2012
Americans now eat more seafood than the Japanese, making the country second only to China in fish consumption, according to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Still, 91 percent of that seafood is imported – either wild-caught by crews from another country, caught by Americans but processed overseas or grown in fish farms elsewhere.
Programs like the one run by Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Fla., may one day change that.
“There is no doubt in my mind that aquaculture is here to stay and that Florida will be a big part of that future,” said John Scarpa, who teaches molluscan classes in the program.
Fishermen face the same question as ranchers and farmers: How do you feed the 9 billion people that will be here by 2050?
“There is no more (additional) food coming out of the ocean,” Scarpa said. “People seem to have a bit of trouble with that concept. We can grow more and more terrestrial animals like chickens. But when we talk about fish, we simply cannot catch more (wild) fish than we are catching now.”
To feed a growing worldwide population, seafood producers have turned to aquaculture, which already supplies half of the fish consumed each year.
Indian River State College has run a program for 15 years in cooperation with Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, allowing studies to get a two-year certificate in aquaculture.
“We are in a great partnership with Harbor Branch and are poised to go in the right direction,” Scarpa said.
Students can get an associate of applied science (AAS) degree or an associate of science (AS) degree, which includes credits that may transfer to a larger school.
But the agriculture school also launched a four-year program in 2008, continuing with the first two years of hands-on ag training but adding two years of business-focused schooling.
“You might think, what does business have to do with aquaculture or agriculture? But anybody with four years or more of education is going to be in management. He or she is going to need management skills and training,” said Ann McMullian, who heads the agriculture department at Indian River.
Even in the first two years, students are required to write up a business plan; that education becomes more in depth as a student pursues a four-year degree.
“You can grow a crop, but if you don’t have any business savvy, you aren’t going anywhere,” said McMullian.
Aquaculture has the same financial pressures as other food-producing fields, but also faces other unknowns, like different regulatory systems across the globe.
“There’re a lot of pressures that lead you to believe that there is potential for growth in aquaculture,” said Gary Burtle, an extension agent and professor at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus. Georgia’s aquaculture industry is small compared to Florida’s, with $15 million a year in sales, compared to about $62 million for its
neighbor to the south.
But the industry may grow in both states, as consumption of fish has grown over to 16 pounds a year on average. Looking to improve their diets, American’s have added more and more fish to their diets over the past four decades.
And, fish have a better feed conversion ratio – about 2-3 pounds of feed for a pound of fish, as opposed to 5-6 pounds of feed for a pound of meat in a terrestrial animal. (The simple explanation, Scarpa says, is that fish don’t need heavy skeletons to support their weight in water, as land animals require.)
Like other agriculture fields, fisheries still must deal with weather concerns and regulatory expenses, as well as the cost of feed. “After 30 years in this field, I believe that growth seems possible when compared to other products,” Burtle said. “The bottom line is, the fish species we are growing (in the Southeast) have value. They have a high feed conversion, good flavor and good fatty acids that people are looking for. This is an industry that’s just waiting on the economics to catch up.”
In Scarpa’s classes at Indian River State, some students are recent college grads who want a career that will keep them outdoors. Other students are second-career entrepreneurs, like a retired Coast Guard officer who planned to start his own business.
“The classes run the spectrum, but most of the people are just connected to the ocean,” Scarpa said.