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November 16, 2022

Swimming upstream: First aquaculture apprenticeship program in U.S. launches in Maine

person with mussels on raft Courtesy / Maine Aquaculture Association A crew member at Marshall Cove Mussel Farm in Islesboro harvests rope-grown mussels from a wooden raft in Penobscot Bay.

Maine aquaculture is among the most diverse sea farming sectors in the nation, producing more than 25 species of finfish, shellfish and sea vegetable — more than any other U.S. state, according to the Maine Aquaculture Association.

In response to the growing industry, workforce development has become a primary focus for the aquaculture industry and, to that end, an apprenticeship program that is the first of its kind in the nation launched this week.

The program was formed after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $500,000 grant in January to Portland nonprofit Gulf of Maine Research Institute to develop various aquaculture workforce training programs.

Among the ideas were to develop and pilot the Maine Department of Labor's Aquaculture Apprenticeship Program, where participants are expected to gain experience, receive mentoring, get trained and tested on occupational competencies, and learn to use cutting-edge technology at commercial shellfish and sea vegetable farms.

The program will provide training for six Maine high school graduates beginning in 2023. It leverages partnerships between Maine Aquaculture Association in Hallowell with Maine aquaculture farms and is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Other partners include Educate Maine, the Maine Department of Labor and Southern Maine Community College.

Although Maine’s aquaculture industry is small compared with seafood farming elsewhere in the nation and the world, industry experts see opportunities for expansion in various sectors. Over the last 20 years, the industry has grown at an average rate of 2% per year. More than 99% of Maine sea farms are family-owned.

This year, Maine’s aquaculture workforce is estimated to include 880 employees across production and related activities, and more than 1,600 across the supply chain.

“The Aquaculture Apprenticeship Program is going to springboard Maine high school graduates into fulfilling careers in Maine aquaculture, providing a wonderful opportunity for them to work on the water and for local partner farms to train and hire them,” said Christian Brayden, Maine Aquaculture Association’s project manager who is spearheading the program.

Apprentices will complete 2,000 hours of on-the-job training in addition to 144 hours of classroom time at Southern Maine Community College. Skills to be learned on the job include safety protocols, vessel and vehicle operation, maintenance of tools and equipment, shellfish and seaweed production and management, crop and animal husbandry, and food safety. 

“We are interested in training an apprentice, with the hope that they would stay on as a long-term member of our team,” said Shey Conover, co-owner of Marshall Cove Mussel Farm of Islesboro. “We have experience hiring and training high school and college students interested in gaining experience on the water, and are able to offer training and opportunities for growth within our company.”

Apprenticeship training is distinguished from other types of workplace training by several factors, including paid work experience, classroom instruction, mentorship and a portable, nationally recognized credential. 

“Workforce training programs are fundamental to the sustainable growth of the industry,” said Carissa Maurin, the institute’s aquaculture project manager. 

Maurin said the program was developed using feedback from Maine’s aquaculture farmers, which helped identify gaps in training programs and create the Maine Aquaculture Workforce Development Strategy, with recommendations for a cohesive aquaculture training system, including an apprenticeship program.

Applications are now being accepted for host farms, and high school seniors graduating in 2023 are encouraged to fill out a preliminary interest form. 

For more information, click here.

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