A handful of Maine fishermen have graduated from the nation's first ever "Cod Academy."
The program, run by the Maine Aquaculture Association, trains traditionally ocean-going fishermen to be fish farmers and is designed to help commercial and former fishermen find a new way to make a living on the water.
On a recent foggy morning, a fishing boat motors away from the public dock in the picturesque seaside community of Sorrento, but the fishermen on board are going farming, not fishing.
“Today we're probably going to be moving cages and sorting codfish so the students will get experience doing that,” says Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, which is running America's first Cod Academy, in partnership with the University of Maine and others.
More than a kilometer out to sea, eight large circular pens emerge from the mist, each enclosed by a rubber tube and covered over with netting to keep out seabirds. Inside each 50-meter-wide pen are up to 50,000 cod. Most of them will end up on dinner plates around the world.
This is Maine's only commercial cod farm. It's run by Great Bay Aquaculture, a New Hampshire-based fish-farming company and one of the partners in the Cod Academy.
Over the course of a year, the students are taught every aspect of managing a floating farm.
“One of the things we've been teaching the students is how to feed the fish and not overfeed the fish," Belle says. "So you want to give them enough feed and not waste any feed and make it as efficient as possible.”
As the boat floats alongside the fishpen, the trainee fish-farmers take turns scooping out handfuls of specially-formulated fish feed and flinging it into the pen.
Becoming fish farmers
Bill Thompson - one of the academy’s four students - says it takes practice to get it right. “I'm not getting it spread over there very well.”
The surface of the water literally bubbles as thousands of cod come up to feed. They’re monitored from the boat by an underwater camera.
The 59-year-old navy veteran and former commercial fisherman says taking the course has convinced him that aquaculture is the way to go.
“Even if the wild stocks came back to their fullest capacity, they still wouldn't feed the world," says Thompson. "So this is the way of future. And it's feasible for a family to run a business also.”
That’s why Thompson’s son, also named Bill, is a student at the academy as well.
The younger Thompson has been a working fisherman for most of his 39 years. He makes his living diving for urchins and fishing for lobster. But with a wife and four kids to support, he says it’s time for a change.
“I've seen a depletion of the source of everything I've been harvesting over the years," he says. "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.”
Starting the business
Becoming a fish farmer is not without financial risk. Program director Belle says students need to come up with a workable marketing and business plan before they can graduate. They'll be expected to raise about half the money toward any farming venture they want to create.
According to Belle, the Cod Academy is based on successful government-sponsored programs, started in Norway and Japan more than 30 years ago, to retrain displaced herring and tuna fishermen.
The U.S. program is beginning on a much smaller scale.
“It's never been done before in America and we're trying to see if it's a model that has some potential," says Belle, who hopes the program will help Mainers realize the huge potential in farming cod. “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.”
According to Belle, the strong tides help keep the fish active and healthy.
He acknowledges that aquaculture has its share of critics who are concerned that bunching fish together in a farm setting could spread disease and breed unhealthy stock.
“We're a relatively young business and, certainly when you start a new activity, you're going to make mistakes and fish farmers have made mistakes. And they've at times exceeded the carrying capacity of the environment.”
Belle says Maine's fish farmers have learned from those mistakes, and that they're also subject to regular strict environmental monitoring by state inspectors.
The Cod Academy's first four students graduated this month. They're now eligible to receive financial assistance from the Maine Aquaculture Association to start their own small-scale cod farms.