Fishermen become farmers at 'Cod Academy'

Farm Manager Clayton Coffin, from Great Bay Aquaculture, at the cod farm in Sorrento, Maine.

Cod Academy instructor Sebastian Belle (L), director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, talking to commercial fisherman and Cod Academy student Sewall Maddocks.

Jeremy Hobson: If you've eaten fish recently, chances are your dinner didn't spend his childhood swimming in the wild. He was probably raised in a tank
or an open-sea enclosure.

That was the case for more than half of the fish we consumed last year -- and that figure will probably rise. Starting this Monday, the state of Maryland will accept fish farming operations within the boundaries of oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay. And now some fishermen in the state of Maine have decided to test the waters of the fish farming industry.

Tom Porter from Maine Public Broadcasting has the story.


Tom Porter: A fishing boat leaves the tiny village of Sorrento, and heads out into the Atlantic Ocean. The men aboard however, are not going fishing, but farming. They're students training to run their own fish farms at the nation's first ever "Cod Academy." It's a program in Maine set up with the help of $183,000 in federal funding.

Sebastian Belle: It's never been done before in America and we're trying to see if it's a model that has some potential.

Sebastian Belle is director of the Maine Aquaculture Association and the project's lead instructor. He developed Cod Academy along with the University of Maine and a couple of private companies.

Belle: This is a very small program, we've only got enough money to run it for one year. We're trying to raise money to run it for some additional years.

It's based on successful programs in Norway and Japan to help underemployed commercial fishermen, or ex-fishermen, find new opportunities on the water.

About a mile out to sea, eight circular pens emerge from the mist. They look like giant rubber inner tubes, covered over with netting to keep out seabirds. Each so-called cage can hold up to 50,000 cod. Belle says the strong Atlantic tides out here keep the fish healthy, even though they're penned in.

Belle: It's a native fish to Maine. The growing conditions in Maine are very good for cod and it's kind of a natural choice for us as a state.

Cod Academy students are taught every aspect of running a fish farm: How to maintain healthy stock, how to balance the books, and how to feed the fish.

Students fling scoopfuls of specially-formulated pellets into one of the giant pens. The surface of the water literally bubbles as thousands of cod come up to feed. Meanwhile an underwater camera makes sure the fish are all being fed.

Bill Thompson: I'm not getting it spread over there very well.

One of the academy's four students is Bill Thompson. He's a 59-year-old former commercial fisherman.

Thompson: If the wild stocks came back to their fullest capacity, they still wouldn't be able to feed the world so I think this is the way of the future.

Thompson is studying alongside his son Bill, Jr., who's been a working fisherman for most of his 39 years. But with a wife and four kids to support, he wants more job security. He and his dad plan to set up a family cod farming business after they graduate later this summer.

Bill Junior: I look into the future, I can't see my kids set up in what I'm doing right now as far as you know, lobstering, urchining, I don't want to see them get a source that's depleting every year.

Not everyone, though, is happy. Jen Levin heads the sustainable seafood program at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Jen Levin: There are a number of concerns about aquaculture.

She says some critics are worried that bunching fish together in a farm setting could spread disease and breed unhealthy stock. But, she says the aquaculture industry is trying to address those concerns.

Levin: For example, the Global Aquaculture Alliance has developed best aquaculture practices that provide a certification for fish farms, making sure that it meets certain standards.

Levin says fish farms in Maine also use crop-rotation-type techniques, to help counter the threat of disease. That means moving the fish to a new stretch of ocean every 3 years.

From Sorrento, Maine, I'm Tom Porter for Marketplace.

Cod Academy instructor Sebastian Belle (L), director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, talking to commercial fisherman and Cod Academy student Sewall Maddocks.

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