Every day, the high schoolers fed algae to baby oysters and watched as the young spats grew. Peering through microscopes, they learned about oyster biology, marveling at the tiny heartbeats they saw.

The 13 students were part of the Promoting Careers in Aquaculture program, a partnership between Virginia Tech and Rappahannock Community College, funded by GO Virginia Region 6.

Coming from eight school systems in the Northern Neck and middle peninsula regions, the students started with a short online course about the science and practices of shellfish aquaculture. A hands-on course in June at the Rappahannock Community College campus allowed them to experience aquaculture in lab and field settings, growing oysters in the classroom and then touring oyster farms to learn from people in the industry.

Rappahannock Community College President Shannon Kennedy said the aquaculture industry has always been a huge part of the economy in the region, where major rivers and bodies of water include the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. It has been difficult, though, to get young people interested in the field.

“Through this project, we hope to better serve our industry partners by meeting their workforce training needs,” Kennedy said.

The Virginia Tech Center for Economic and Community Engagement with the help of the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hampton built a coalition of industry partners to share their expertise and provide hands-on, real-world lessons for students.

Mallory Tuttle, associate director of the Newport News Center who also works with the Center for Economic and Community Engagement to promote regional partnerships and collaboration throughout the Hampton Roads region, led the project. Afroze Mohammed, the center’s associate director of strategic alliances, developed the training curriculum for industry partners, and economic development specialist Anna Nagorniuk completed evaluation work. Both centers are part of Outreach and International Affairs­­.

“The program has given me an opportunity to engage and connect partners that all have a common goal of enhancing the aquaculture industry in the region,” Tuttle said. “This project is a great example of how Virginia Tech’s Center for Economic and Community Engagement can connect the university’s resources and world-class research to engage with a community and tackle a regional industry need.” 

The center also connected with educators such as Sara Beam, a marine science and environmental science teacher at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School, to help build course content.

“We have an amazing partnership that has helped us build a groundbreaking program that is the first of its kind in Virginia,” said Beam, who developed and delivered the program curriculum.

After completing the online and hands-on classroom components of the program, the students were paired with an industry partner for a 60- to 80-hour summer internship over four weeks.

Bob Lane is a retired Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and seafood engineer at the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center who is still serving as an affiliated faculty member. He helped leverage industry relationships for the program. “We were able to bring together a team of experts to address an actual issue experienced by industry — the need for a larger workforce. We created a program that educates and informs local students about aquaculture as a career pathway so that legacy operations can continue and new generations of aquaculturists and entrepreneurs can thrive,” he said.

Sarah Matheson-Harris, owner of Matheson Oyster Co. in Gloucester County, had two interns assisting her. They learned to sort and grade harvested oysters by size and shape to get them ready for market, as well as how to seed and harvest them.

“I learned about oysters in my marine science class at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School, so I knew how crucial they are to ecosystems and to the bay,” intern Ailin Harpole said. “However, I did not know that a booming operation was just down the road from where I have lived my whole life. Every day at my internship, I felt needed and like I was doing something that could make a difference.”

Working waterfronts, where oysters can be grown and harvested, are disappearing because of climate change, and it is incredibly difficult to create new ones due to the high expense of building near the water, Matheson-Harris said. Many businesses in the industry also are family-owned and go back generations, and there is a risk that the family may not want to continue with the business.

“It is important that we get young people interested in the industry to keep businesses with existing working waterfronts going,” Matheson-Harris said.

She was also thrilled to see many young women taking interest in an industry that is largely composed of men. “Our interns, both young women, learned quickly and worked hard, making the integration into our company seamless,” Matheson-Harris said.   

Industry partners included

  • KCB Oyster Holdings
  • Little Wicomico Oyster Co.
  • Matheson Oyster Co.
  • Oyster Seed Holdings
  • Rappahannock Oyster Co.
  • Sapidus Farms
  • Shores & Ruark Seafood
  • Steamboat Wharf Oyster Co.
  • Virginia Institute of Marine Science
  • Ward Oyster Co.

Virginia Tech, the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School, and Rappahannock Community College plan to apply for an implementation grant from GO Virginia to expand the program to more localities, students, and industry partners.

“Our staff and regional council hope to put the full weight of GO Virginia behind the aquaculture industry in our region,” said Ian Ginger, GO Virginia Region 6 program director. “We applaud the partners on this project for their efforts in establishing aquaculture as a viable pathway for K-12 students. It’s great to see young folks in the area being exposed to an exciting and rewarding career in their backyard.” 

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