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Northern demonstration facility prepares students for in-demand aquaculture careers

UW-Stevens Point is at the forefront of preparing students for careers in aquaculture, the fastest growing segment of food production systems in the world.

Aquaculture, or farming of aquatic organisms, produces more than half of the seafood consumed on the planet, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This trend is expected to increase through 2050, says the World Resources Institute.

UW-Stevens Point was the first university in Wisconsin to offer an aquaculture minor and the first accredited university in the nation to offer full semester aquaponic courses. Sustainable aquaculture meets consumer demand for seafood while taking pressure off wild populations and enhancing food security, safety and quality, notes Chris Hartleb, biology professor, who launched the program.

In Wisconsin, aquaculture is used for food production and also for baitfish for anglers, aquarium fish and stocking efforts for sport fish or conservation species, such as walleye or lake sturgeon. Aquaculture encompasses health and biosecurity, genetics, systems engineering, chemistry and nutrition, in addition to the culture of aquatic species.

In the state and across the nation, skilled and experienced professionals are needed in the growing aquaculture industry. UW-Stevens Point has the only program in the Midwest and one of few in the nation that offers students hands-on training and skills sought by the industry. This leads to nearly 100% job placement, Hartleb said, for students in aquaculture and aquaponics. A certificate program is available for aquaponics – growing greens and other vegetables in water fertilized by fish.

The world's largest aquaponics facility, Superior Fresh in Hixton, Wis., partners with the UW-Stevens Point Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility (NADF) for research initiatives as well as internships and employment. Its president, Brandon Gottsacker, is a UWSP graduate.

"UW-Stevens Point guided me toward this exciting new industry by providing me unique opportunities to learn about aquaculture," he said.

Located in Bayfield, NADF provides real-world learning to students through 12-week summer internships and apprenticeships. Students learn aquaculture systems operation, fish husbandry, critical thinking, applied fish biology and water chemistry. They are involved in current research and demonstration projects which include data collection, observation and interactions with partners.

"This was an amazing experience for me, and through this internship I discovered what I wanted to do for a career," said Brianna Dunbar, a recent graduate and aquaculture technician at Superior Fresh.

UWSP NADF conducts research on a variety of fish including Atlantic salmon, arctic char, lake trout, and walleye at all life stages and in a variety of culture systems. Students participate in industry-led research studies and collaborate with research partners. They also work with various types of rearing systems including incubation and larval systems, recirculating aquaculture systems, pond and raceway systems and learn best management practices. Current examples of research projects are here.

Students interested in sustainable food systems, conservation of natural resources, fish biology and culture, aquarium science, and natural resources associated with fish hatcheries and propagation may be interested in aquaculture careers, said Hartleb, NADF director. "UWSP NADF offers applied learning opportunities to students while meeting industry needs for new fish culture systems, new or improved fish for culture, and solving real-world problems that hinder the industry's growth."

Industry partners consider UW-Stevens Point's NADF a premiere program across the country for workforce development, he said.

Since its establishment in 2017, Superior Fresh has hired more than 12 Pointer graduates, Gottsacker said. "I can be confident in hiring students who attended UWSP by understanding the rigorous curriculum in biology, fisheries and aquaculture. The UWSP Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility has provided opportunities most students wouldn't get."

For more information about aquaculture education and NADF, visit aquaculture.uwsp.edu or email chartleb@uwsp.edu.

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