DOAG: Spotlight: Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology Education Center

This article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of the Ag Report.

 

 

Spotlight:  Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology Education Center

Lea Catherman, BRASTEC, and David Carey and Kristin DeRosia-Banick, DoAg Bureau of Aquaculture

 

The Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology Education Center (BRASTEC) is the only regional vocational school in the state wholly devoted to a mission of science and technical education related to the development of aquaculture in Connecticut, and is one of two with dedicated aquaculture programs. 

 

The establishment of an aquaculture school in Bridgeport was the result of years of collaboration among regional educators, local legislators, and statewide advisory committee members, culminating in a special act of the legislature that provided for the construction of this technical facility. 

 

The Connecticut State Board of Education approved the Bridgeport Board of Education’s request to be designated a Regional Vocational Aquaculture School on April 5, 1989.  The school was built between 1991 and 1993, and the first classes were held in the new facility in February of 1993. 

 

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg) has contributed to the school’s activities by providing an administrative mechanism for its aquaculture operations.  DoAg has designated state shellfish grounds to the school for conducting educational grow-out activities and has provided guidance and licensure to the school for aquaculture operations and shellfish harvest activities. 

 

BRASTEC currently maintains a DoAg Shellstock Shipper I license for the harvest and sale of shellfish, including hard clams and oysters, a Certificate of Aquaculture Operations: Fish Producer license, which allows the school to operate an educational fish hatchery and fish production facility, and an Aquaculture Seaweed Producer license, which allows the school to process and sell both farm-site cultivated Sugar Kelp and tank-cultivated Gracilaria. 

 

BRASTEC’s mission is to provide a rigorous educational program that ensures students are able to examine problems and make informed decisions concerning society’s relationship with the aquatic environment.  The Aquaculture Center serves a community of diverse students with a broad range of social, economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds who bring a variety of skills, talents, and learning styles.

 

BRASTEC offers students from school systems in the greater Bridgeport region an opportunity to enhance the traditional academic high school curriculum with a specialized emphasis on science and technology instruction, as related to the development of aquaculture in Connecticut.

 

The educational program is designed to provide students with learning experiences developed in collaboration with industry, government agencies, post-secondary educational institutions, and community organizations from local municipalities.

 

The school’s goal is to enable students to meet rigorous academic standards through selected educational experiences that require them to work with technologies used by professionals in the maritime industry and aquatic research community.  The school strives to maintain a unique educational program that is relevant, focused, innovative, and continually evolving, with an emphasis on high academic standards that will enable students to meet the needs of a changing world.

 

It is the philosophy of BRASTEC to provide an equal opportunity for the continued growth and development of students.  Staff believe in providing a supportive learning environment where students are encouraged to appreciate and respect all people, work cooperatively, and strive to become contributing citizens of society.   

 

The school believes in educating students to be environmentally aware, and to understand the relationship of man’s actions and the environmental impact of those actions, to foster an appreciation of the value of living things.  It believes students must learn to be capable problem solvers, rational decision-makers, and critical thinkers in order to be beneficial contributors to their communities.

 

BRASTEC’s student body consists of students from Bridgeport, Fairfield, Milford, Monroe, Shelton, Stratford, and Trumbull.  The enrollment reflects a successful and cooperative effort by participating school systems.  The quality and diversity of curriculum, program activities, and specialized facilities the school offers serves as the blueprint for future school choice programs.

 

The school’s facility provides students with specialized laboratories and classrooms that complement the marine-related curriculum.  Examples include a seafood science laboratory, an aquaculture finfish/shellfish lab, a marine construction shop, a marine propulsion and electronics lab, and a computer-assisted design and drafting lab. The school also contains a modern telecommunications system capable of several educational functions, including a computer network and a remote visual display system.

 

In addition, BRASTEC operates a 56-foot research vessel, the Catherine Moore, which has the capability for classroom instruction, boat navigation, and fishing operations to occur simultaneously.  These activities provide students with the opportunity to conduct marine biology, chemistry, and ecological experiments; to engage in commercial fishing techniques; and to learn on-board navigation and marine electronic communication techniques.  The school also operates smaller vessels for training and farm site maintenance.

 

A state-of-the-art hatchery facility with 22 fresh or saltwater recirculating systems enables students to raise Tilapia, Barramundi, Koi, and Gracilaria, and to participate in restoration projects for both Lobster and Atlantic Salmon.  Students learn about optimal conditions for culturing species, regularly monitoring water quality and growth, and harvesting fish for sale in the school’s seafood market.

 

Angie’s Seafood Market is a food-service classroom and functioning lab with lobster tank, display cases, and professional food preparation and storage equipment, where students learn food science, knife skills including filleting, ServSafe protocol, and seafood display and marketing techniques.  Open to the community two days a week, Angie’s provides students an opportunity, working with their teacher, to learn customer service and educate the public about the benefits and attributes of both cultured and wild-caught species.

 

Students in the marine ecology class are engaged in the production of Sugar Kelp at BRASTEC’s Long Island Sound farm site in cooperation with the University of Connecticut.  Students prepare seed lines and harvest Sugar Kelp while learning about the species’ benefits of bioremediation of excess nitrogen.

 

Bridgeport Aquaculture College Alliance (BACA) is an intensive program for selected seniors.  It provides UCONN certified classes in oceanography, environmental science, and statistical analysis, and engages participants in independent research projects, which can have a tremendous impact on future practices and technologies in aquaculture.

 

Future Farmers of America (FFA) is a vital component of the aquaculture education program. It provides opportunities to develop personal leadership skills and participate in career-development activities while making positive contributions to the local community.  BRASTEC students are strongly encouraged to become members of the Bridgeport Aquaculture FFA, a chapter of national FFA.

 

FFA members enjoy participating in activities during school such as public speaking events, chapter business meetings, field trips and fund-raising.  Team competitions with area FFA chapters are available to all members and are intended to promote sportsmanship and positive self-esteem while demonstrating knowledge of aquaculture. The year culminates with an annual awards event in the spring, where student members are recognized for their efforts.

 

BRASTEC provides excellent education and experience, and its students express great interest and enthusiasm in aquaculture.  However, few go on to pursue post-secondary training in aquaculture and seek employment in the field, because few opportunities to enter the industry exist within Connecticut.  Many choose instead to study related fields such as marine biology or engineering to assure better employment opportunities upon graduation. 

 

Commercial aquaculture includes hatchery operations for shellfish, finfish, and seaweed; commercial cultivation in coastal waters or land-based facilities; bottom cultivation of shellfish; and processing and packing of value-added products from those species. 

 

Connecticut currently has only 40 licensed shellfish operations, two licensed seaweed producers, one inland commercial eel grow-out facility, and no marine saltwater finfish grow-out operations.  The only Connecticut Grown aquacultured finfish recognized as an “approved food source” are produced by the state’s two aquaculture schools.

 

As a result, graduates of those schools must relocate to other states or countries to find related career opportunities.  BRASTEC has developed several international partnerships demonstrating the viability of aquaculture as an industry in other countries.

 

DoAg recognizes the critical need to create local opportunities for graduates of these outstanding schools, whose infrastructure and curriculum the state has invested significantly.  Graduates need opportunities upon graduation, following secondary education, and/or after initial aquaculture employment in another state. 

 

Aquaculture has excellent growth potential in Connecticut.  The state’s aquaculture schools provide the knowledge and experience.  What is most lacking is a means by which to enter the industry within the state, and financial assistance for those looking to start aquaculture operations here in Connecticut. 

 

DoAg’s Farm Transition Grant is a competitive, matching grant program created to strengthen the economic viability of Connecticut farmers and agricultural cooperatives, who may receive up to $49,999 in matching funds. The grantee’s match must be at least 50 percent and cannot include in-kind services.  It is a rebate grant requiring completion of the project before funding via reimbursement. Applicants have one year to finish an approved project after the contract is signed.

 

As currently structured, this grant limits participation of undercapitalized individuals and start-up operations, which includes most small aquaculture proposals.  Furthermore, the ability for an individual entering the industry to obtain a suitable place to plant and cultivate shellfish is limited by the language within Connecticut General Statutes Sec. 26-194, which awards leases to the highest responsible sealed bidder. 

 

To address these challenges and to foster development of new commercial aquaculture ventures, DoAg is developing an incubator area that will enable individuals interested in shellfish and seaweed aquaculture to obtain a license to plant and cultivate any aquaculture species within a designated portion of the incubator area.

 

BRASTEC succeeds in providing superior technical education and real world experience in a viable industry with great growth potential here in Connecticut.  The missing link is the bridge to local entrepreneurship that would allow graduates to use that knowledge and experience here in the state, producing food for residents and contributing to local economic growth. 

 

DoAg and BRASTEC look forward to working together and with the State of Connecticut to create those opportunities.