By Dr. Hollee Freeman, dosage Director, MathScience Innovation Center
Chances are you’ve heard quite a bit of news lately about food deserts in the region. You may be part of the increasing number of urban farmers who grow their own fruit, vegetables or even raise chickens in your home, backyard or community garden. We have a sense of how to farm the land but how do we farm the sea? And why would we want to?
The science of sea farming, or aquaculture, is much more than fishing or harvesting aquatic plants and animals. Aquaculture is a way of cultivating food under controlled, sustainable conditions to ensure that food deserts of the sea do not exist and thus we have a steady and sustainable food source, as well as a clean and healthy marine environment.
In the last two years, Virginia has become even more of a leader in this area. In 2014, shellfish aquaculture in the state yielded $55.9 million in dockside value (up to a 33% increase from 2013) of which oysters accounted for $15.4 million (an increase of $4.2 million or 39% when compared to 2013). Recently, First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, announced the Tangier/Middle Bay Region as Virginia’s Eighth Oyster Region and cited Virginia as the “Oyster Capital of the East Coast”. During the dedication, Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore agreed and reflected on Virginia’s growth as a leader in the oyster and aquaculture industry. Oysters, while a sizeable industry, are not the “only game in town” as Virginia’s own Blue Ridge Aquaculture is the world’s largest indoor producer of tilapia, yielding nearly 4 million pounds yearly.
As we know, communities benefit from an informed youth population. Raising awareness of issues involving the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed will strengthen the resolve of individuals to protect this valuable economic and recreational resource. Also, aquaculture as an industry continues to grow as demand for healthy food increases, particularly in Virginia. The aquaculture industry also affords a wide variety of career options such as animal production and protection, research, prep cook, aquaculture scientists, wildlife specialist, fish culturist and many more. A career in aquaculture truly has “something for everyone”.
What is Aquaculture? Aquaculture is the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments. Such enterprises may yield consumables, such as finfish and shellfish, as well as stock for replenishing native populations, such as trout.
Why is aquaculture important? Conventional methods of harvesting wild fish and finfish compromise the wild populations and often result in unsustainable practices. For example, harvests of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay have decreased by 90% since 1960. Oyster “farming” provides a sustainable supply of product without impacting the wild populations.
Isn’t fish farming bad for the environment? Historically, aquaculture ventures have been criticized for failing to provide a sanitary method of producing vast amounts of product. However, eco-friendly practices can be successful. Blue Ridge Aquaculture in Martinsville, VA, uses a state of the art recirculating system to produce tilapia in a clean and ecologically conscientious way. Smaller scale aquaponics tanks, such as the one used at the MathScience Innovation Center, can successfully raise 100 pounds of tilapia without impacting the environment. Oyster farming actually improves the Chesapeake Bay – as more oysters are consumed more are “planted”, which increases the numbers of these biological “filters” in the Bay.
What is the job market in aquaculture? Jobs in aquaculture continue to increase. As the industry has grown, there has developed a scarcity of applicants knowledgeable in the field. To help meet the ever-rising demand for employees, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) operates an “oyster boot camp” to train small numbers of interns on a working oyster farm. Graduates of this OAT (Oyster Aquaculture Training) Program have been hired in Virginia as well as other states.
What are the career options in aquaculture? Jobs are varied and appeal to a diverse population: blue-collar positions in the outdoors leading to farm management, laboratory jobs in algal culture or oyster genetics, engineering and system design, marketing, retail sales, culinary arts, fisheries, transportation logistics to name a few.
For more information on our aquaculture (and other) free programs for students, as well as a calendar of events, please contact the MathScience Innovation Center. 804-343-6525 www.myMSiC.org