Washington County Community College and the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center have received a $500,000 USDA grant to develop aquaculture-specific training.
Seafood farms popping up all along the coast have Maine’s aquaculture industry primed for a boom and two organizations in the state are preparing to meet its workforce needs with a first-of-its-kind training program.
The Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and Washington County Community College received a $500,000 grant to be paid out over three years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop an aquaculture-specific training program at the college.
The program will aim to meet the growing need for tech-savvy, skilled workers in four of the largest aquaculture subsets: land-based recirculating aquaculture, marine fin-fish aquaculture, cold-water coastal shellfish aquaculture and marine macroalgae aquaculture. Students will graduate with either a workforce training certificate or an associate’s degree.
“Aquaculture is the fastest-growing form of agriculture in the U.S.,” said Chris Davis, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center.
Seaweed and kelp farming is growing rapidly, and a few pending sites for a new form of land-based fin-fish aquaculture known as recirculating aquaculture systems have the potential to employ hundreds.
“There’s a need for trained workers at various levels,” Davis said. “We’re trying to help meet that need.”
Nichole Sawyer, the college’s dean of workforce development and community engagement, said the school sees both the growth potential of the industry and the value of the state’s commercial fisheries and related sectors.
The funding will allow the training program’s organizers to closely examine the industry’s needs as they develop the curriculum, she said.
The aquaculture sector has been growing at roughly 2 percent per year for the past decade. Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, expects that growth to accelerate.
More young farmers just starting out are reaching the point where they need to hire more hands, and the retail market for seafood has expanded dramatically.
“I expect consumption of seafood to be significantly higher, and I think that will translate (to growth),” he said. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we saw the growth rate go up to 3 percent or 4 percent over the next couple of years.”
According to a report published by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the state’s aquaculture industry employed about 622 people in 2020. By next year, that number is expected to increase to 880 people employed through production and over 1,600 across the supply chain. By 2030, it’s likely to exceed 1,000 in direct employment, and 2,000 including the supply chain and downstream markets.
However, while the sector is expected to grow, “there is a workforce skills constraint,” according to the report. “Education and training are a constraint to enhanced productivity and growth.”
Officials hope the program will be easily replicated across the state’s community college system, training a statewide workforce.
“We’re invested in not only Washington County, but the entire coastal region,” Sawyer said.
Belle attributes the industry’s growth to three factors.
First and foremost, he said, is Maine’s reputation as the “preeminent (seafood) brand.” Within 24 hours, consumers in Chicago or Atlanta can have high-quality, fresh products from cold, clean water. Because of this, “We get paid between 10 and 20 percent more than any of our competition,” Belle said, noting that naturally attracts industry hopefuls.
The second reason is an increased demand for seafood across the country, rooted in a shift toward healthier diets. Before the pandemic, seafood farmers couldn’t grow enough food to keep up with the demand for their products, even at a high price point, Belle said.
Lastly, he attributes the industry’s rise to the need for jobs in traditional working waterfront communities.
“It’s virtually impossible to get a fishing license,” he said, so the sons and daughters of commercial fishermen are instead turning to aquaculture as another way to make a living on the water. Those families account for the largest number of new entrants into the sector, he said.
However, not everyone is thrilled about the industry’s expansion.
Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, a statewide coalition aimed at preventing the spread of what leaders call “large-scale, industrialized aquaculture,” fears that without proper regulatory constraints, the fast-growing aquaculture industry could disrupt traditional fishing activity and overtake the coast with large, industrial fish farm operations.
The foundation has been especially vocal in its opposition to a proposed 110-acre, in-water salmon farm in Frenchman Bay and is advocating for a statewide conversation to revamp the state’s permitting process.
The funding for the aquaculture training program comes just a few months before Washington County Community College is set to launch another, broader marine training program.
The coastal fisheries and marine technology program, scheduled to start in November, will teach students about the commercial fishing industry, its regulations and management practices, its environmental, ecological and scientific components, and the basic operations and maintenance of a commercial fishing vessel, including the electrical, electronic, hydraulic, fluid and engine systems.
The program was born out of a series of conversations with industry partners in which it was “clear everyone was wanting a very generalized program that would train folks a little bit in a lot of things,” said Sawyer, the college dean.
Some of the curriculum from the coastal fisheries program will likely be used to help develop curriculum for the aquaculture track, she said.
Aquaculture is multidisciplinary, Belle said, and employers are looking for workers with skills ranging from a good handle on math and science to traditional husbandry and farming practices.
Because of this, Belle and other industry professionals have worked to determine a set of standardized occupational competencies, many of which will be used by Washington County Community College and the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center as they develop the new program.
This set of standards will be the “first time this has ever happened in the U.S.,” Belle said.
The competency standards also will help develop a similar program at Southern Maine Community College, which Belle said will likely launch shortly after Washington County’s.
A third, more advanced-track program is offered through the Aquaculture Research Center at the University of Maine.
Belle expects the training programs will attract people from other states and other countries, putting “Maine on the map for being a center for excellence.”
The $500,000 award was among 19 agricultural workforce training grants totaling $9.4 million, and one of 12 awards totaling $4.9 million for rural economic development projects as part of the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.