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A Fish Story

October 01, 1993 6 min read

But for now, these African fish are the focus of an unusual curriculum designed to provide students at South Bend High School with the scientific background they need to pursue careers in aquaculture, a billion-dollar global industry that the U.S. Agriculture Department expects will employ increasing numbers of high school and college graduates in coming years.

Lazelle, whose formal training is in earth science, is one of a small but growing number of teachers across the country who are using an aquaculture curriculum to lure students into learning the mathematics and science required to be fish farmers.

A few feet below the wooden deck where the tanks are mounted, 25 aquariums serve as habitats for younger, solitary tilapia, though an occasional goldfish or Siamese fighting fish can be seen flashing about, too. Each fish has been carefully tended by one of Lazelle’s students.

“If we’re talking about biology, we’re talking a lot of anatomy and reproduction,’' he says. “You could also incorporate some earth and physical science. And you get a lot of chemistry in there with water analysis.’'

Residents of South Bend, two hours southwest of Seattle in the heart of timber country, depend on the tidal Willapa River, which parallels the city’s main street, for much of their livelihood. Mounds of oyster shells piled as high as houses flank the road, and a sign at the city limits informs visitors that they have arrived in the “Oyster Capital of the World.’'

“This is the cleanest estuary in the lower 48 states,’' Lazelle says proudly.

Not surprisingly, the children of South Bend have long relied on fishing--and oystering in family beds--for recreation and to supplement their income. Youngsters often go on to work in the local shellfish industry, although few have ever received formal training in marine science.

Today, the industry that plays such a major role in the life of the community may be endangered by changes that have begun to appear in the natural fabric that supports South Bend and similar coastal communities. The annual runs of salmon up the nearby Columbia and other rivers of the region are much reduced from their levels earlier in the century, and many worry that runoff and pollution from logging operations could someday endanger oyster harvests.

The potential threats to natural resources are a major reason why some observers believe that aquaculture may be the wave of the future for students here and in other areas that have relied on the fishing industry.

A recent Agriculture Department report indicates that while per-capita consumption of seafood in the United States has fallen from 16.2 pounds in 1987 to 14.9 pounds in 1991, the percentage of farm-raised seafood eaten every year continues to grow rapidly. The study notes that fish farming has increased because environmental deterioration, overfishing, and other stresses have caused many wild stocks of both freshwater and marine fish to decline below the levels that can sustain commercial fishing.

Aquaculture, therefore, “is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, not only in the United States,’' says Ron Buckhalt, a spokesman for the private National Council for Agriculture Education, which developed the aquaculture curriculum with funding from the Agriculture Department.

Stocks of catfish, trout, and salmon, all threatened in the wild, are increasingly becoming staples of the aquaculture industry, as are the tilapia that Lazelle’s students are raising. In fact, the aquaculture industry in the United States is expected to grow by as much as 10 percent annually, creating a large number of jobs in the field.

These jobs will require knowhow. And while formal aquaculture programs have been available for some time at the college level, they did not exist for high school students until several years ago, when the council convinced the USDA to fund the development of a curriculum. The goal of that curriculum is to equip students with the entry-level skills needed to work in the industry and to provide a comprehensive grounding in marine science for the college-bound. “This, to us, was just another version of animal husbandry, which has been in the curriculum for years,’' Buckhalt says.

The curriculum was also designed to infuse important math, science, and other academic concepts into the course work of vocational students who might otherwise not be exposed to them. Lazelle, who team-teaches aqua- culture with instructors from two neighboring rural districts, says the curriculum’s flexibility and hands-on emphasis make it attractive to a wide range of students. “The kids here can take this for science credit, or, if they have enough science, they can also take it as an elective,’' he notes.

The agriculture education council, meanwhile, is disseminating its curriculum materials nationwide. Last year, the group convened 250 prospective aquaculture educators from across the country for five days of training in how to translate the 1,100page curriculum into meaningful instruction.

Perhaps the most unlikely participant at that meeting was Allen Giese, an agriculture instructor at Wahpeton (N.D.) High School. Giese and his students live in a landlocked area where the economy is based largely on the production of such crops as beans, soybeans, corn, and wheat. But the teacher says the aquaculture curriculum may help illuminate the future of agriculture for some students.

Giese, who also teaches at the Richland County Vo-Tech Center, has adapted much of the NCAE curriculum into a course called “applied biology/chemistry’’ that students can take to fulfill the state’s graduation requirements in science. Many students, he believes, are motivated by taking on a living project such as raising fish. “One of my goals is to get the kids to see a purpose for the applications of science,’' he says. “My other goal is to enhance the students’ ability in science and help them understand the theory and put it into practice.’'

Tom Garrison, director of vocational education for the Area 30 Technology Center in Greencastle, Ind., says adopting the aquaculture program has rejuvenated his school’s instructional program. Centering the educational program on a large and sophisticated aquaculture facility, he says, means that 70 percent of the school’s 400 students are involved in some aspect of the process of raising fish for commercial sale. Computer-science students, for example, monitor the temperature and levels of dissolved oxygen and acidity in the fish-production tanks.

Plans are under way to incorporate a hydroponics course into the curriculum that will use effluent from the tanks, which is rich in nitrogen, to raise commercial crops, such as tomatoes. The curriculum, says Garrison, “is the finest concept that you can imagine for integrating basic skills into agriculture education.’'

Starting such a program does not necessarily demand an expensive and elaborate system of tanks. According to Buckhalt, the curriculum requires equipment that can be built by a high school for less than $3,000. The tank system at South Bend High, for example, was built by vocational education students and teachers.

Despite the program’s early successes, aquaculture is scarcely a mainstay in the nation’s high school curriculum and probably won’t be any time soon. Robert Keenan, a teacher who has incorporated elements of aquaculture into his science program at Lansdowne High School in suburban Baltimore, notes that schools are often slow to adopt innovative ideas. But not all the resistance, he points out, comes from administrators. “Kids, being kids,’' he says, “they don’t want to jump into something they don’t know anything about.’'

Keenan has learned from experience that success in aquaculture can be elusive. The teacher has attempted to raise a small population of striped bass, known in Maryland as rockfish. At one time, these fish were plentiful in the nearby Chesapeake Bay, but their dwindling numbers have recently led to outright bans on fishing. Keenan concedes that he hasn’t had much luck raising the fish. “I’ve lost several crops,’' he says, “and I don’t know why.’'--Peter West

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as A Fish Story