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Is a lack of education oppotunities American aquaculture's Achilles Heel?

Economics Education & academia +2 more

There is little doubt that education and training are vital to maintaining a competent aquaculture workforce, and that in turn a competent workforce is essential for the aquaculture industry to prosper. As outlined in a recent technical report from one of the industrys leading lights, the United States current provision for aquaculture education may be in need of a boost in some areas, writes Sam Andrews.

Lucy Towers thumbnail

The USA’s foray into aquaculture education and training really took off during the 1970s and into the 1980s. In line with growing job opportunities in the aquaculture industry and interest in the “blue revolution” in these years, postsecondary institutions across the country increasingly offered aquaculture-related and aquaculture-supporting degrees and training programmes.

Many who graduated from these programmes back then successfully entered the aquaculture sector, but now a large proportion of them are coming closer to retirement. At the same time, the opportunities for the younger generation to study aquaculture appear to be slowly declining.

Several reasons for the decline in educational provision are outlined in a technical report by Dr Gary Jensen, a former National Program Leader for Aquaculture with the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). His findings were recently published in the journal Fisherieswhere you can see the full report – and previously published in World Aquaculture, the magazine of the World Aquaculture Society.

Dr Jensen’s research surveyed institutions across the US that offered any level of aquaculture-related instruction. Some reported they had ended aquaculture programmes because of fewer job opportunities, particularly in government and academic sectors, as well as disappointing industry development in some areas. Other reductions appear to arise from aging teaching faculty and increased competition for limited extramural grant funds to support graduate students and programmes.

Interest from students in taking aquaculture and aquaculture-supporting courses has also seen changes over the past 15 years. Between 2000 and 2010, undergraduate, master’s, and PhD programmes all saw increases in the number of students completing programmes.

Between 2010 and 2015, the numbers of people completing both master’s- and PhD-level courses had increased, though at a significantly lower rate than in the previous five years. Unfortunately, the number of undergraduate degrees declined between 2010 and 2015 which, alongside ever-tightening budgets, has put some undergraduate programmes under financial pressure. A number of institutions also reported difficulty in recruiting American students for their advanced degree programmes – despite offering attractive stipends.

Given these trends, it is perhaps unsurprising that since 2010 there has been a significant slow-down in the creation of new aquaculture programmes. Some educators have launched new online courses, which include aquaculture and hatchery management, as well as a range of aquaculture-supporting topics, such as fish nutrition and genetics/breeding.

Such internet-based courses have the advantage of being able to reach students anywhere in the world, and provide specialised training.

Given the ever-changing landscape of aquaculture systems and operations, and challenging regulatory requirements covering a range of environmental and operational facets, specialised training is likely to become increasingly important for further growth of US aquaculture in a globally competitive seafood market.

Certainly America’s aquaculture education is not alone in seeing a decline in student interest. Looking across the border to Canada, a number of long-running aquaculture programmes have seen enrolments drop off, with some even being forced to close down.

One of those institutes offering aquaculture programmes is the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland (MI).

“For the first 20 years or so the aquaculture programme was quite popular,” says Keith Rideout, the Institute’s Aquaculture Instructor. “We had to turn people away. About 12 years ago, since 2004, we started seeing a decline in enrolment.”

Exactly why enrolment numbers have fallen is unclear, but, echoing Dr Jensen’s concerns, Mr Rideout believes that loss of faculty has played its part.

“We had a couple of very important connections with the main Memorial University campus, who were great conduits from undergraduate studies into all types of graduate programmes.”

He speculates that public perception of the aquaculture industry has also played a part. “The controversy on the various issues – the PCBs in aquaculture feed, escapement, using fish to feed fish, and so on, coupled with the loss of those mentors is, I think, part of the reason we have seen a downturn.”

Unlike some of those surveyed in America by Dr Jensen, Rideout does not feel that there is a decline in opportunities for work globally, and certainly not in Atlantic Canada.

“Globally aquaculture is expanding,” says Mr Rideout. While work itself may be available in Atlantic Canada and in other parts of the world, the opportunities are not always located in places where trained graduates want to relocate.

“The jobs are in rural areas – small towns. Many of the students are not interested in going to these areas. They have gone and studied for four to eight years in a larger centre, they have experienced the amenities of cities, and now to go back to a rural town with few amenities is not easy for many people.”

The Marine Institute offers more than 20 industry-driven programmes, from undergraduate and graduate degrees to advanced diplomas of technology and technical certification, as well as a number of short courses and industrial response programmes.

Alongside aquaculture, these programmes cover a suite of marine-related topics such as ocean mapping, nautical science, marine engineering, water quality and fisheries.

In more recent years, the Marine Institute has embraced online delivery for a number of their programmes. “It is a model that makes a lot of sense,” says Mr Rideout, reflecting on the Institute’s online Technology Management (Aquaculture Technology) programme, which is designed for people already working in the aquaculture industry, but who are moving into managerial roles. “You are providing opportunities for people who cannot leave their jobs, who are unable to leave home to get this graduate credential, but can study.”

Online programmes are not without their challenges. While many industry employers, particularly those in America and Europe, are not concerned by degrees and certificates that have been earned online, in regions where there is less awareness of online programmes such as in the Middle East and Africa, they can be perceived as inferior qualifications.

Another challenge arises from students and professors who want to be able to interact with each other in a traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ setting. “We are trying to make the online environment as interactive as the classroom environment,” says Mr Rideout, “and it is getting better all the time. Students can learn as much from their fellow students as they can from their professors, so it is important we give them the opportunity to do that.”

Certainly the Marine Institute is not looking to give up on aquaculture anytime soon. It is in the early stages of transforming its Advanced Diploma in Sustainable Aquaculture into a full master’s degree programme, and remains committed to providing qualifications directly relevant to the industry.

“Employers on the production side are not looking for a master’s degree necessarily,” says Mr Rideout.

“They are not even looking for advanced diplomas. They want technically sound individuals. So if we can provide a programme that creates a good technical employee, the industry is satisfied.” Mr Rideout also points out that many of the Marine Institute’s undergraduate and graduate programmes incorporate a work-experience component.

Students’ interest in aquaculture fields is driven in part by excitement about the future of aquaculture development, and the diverse range of jobs in industry, academia and government available to them. Industry innovation and ingenuity will continue to create new efficiencies and pioneering breakthroughs in aquaculture – and these are usually linked to professional training and education in this fast-evolving field.