By Eric Cassiano
Aquaculture is one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors. As the need for aquaculture increases, the opportunity for several careers develops. Many K-12 schools have identified and addressed this growing need by implementing aquaculture within their curriculums. Island Coast High School (ICHS) in Lee County has one of the largest K-12 aquaculture programs in Florida.
It all started in 2006 when Joe Mallon was hired and wanted to teach his kids about sustainability. Mallon was an environmental biologist by degree and commercial diver by trade, knowing nothing about aquaculture. However, his girlfriend, Cherie Sukovich, had worked at Deland Middle School, where there was an aquaculture production system, and thought it might appeal to what they were trying to accomplish. After many years of trial and error, learning through doing and advice from aquaculture producers and researchers, Mallon was able to piece together an aquaculture program.
Currently, ICHS has nine aquaculture production systems, which produce roughly 500 tilapia every two months. ICHS uses the tilapia for charity events to raise money, but also sells them to other schools within Lee County with the all profits going back into ICHS’s aquaculture program. In addition to tilapia, Mallon grows red claw crayfish and has grown freshwater prawns and cichlids in the past. Vegetables are also grown and supplied to the school in his adjoining hydroponics system, which includes tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, kale and okra.
The ICHS aquaculture program is a three-to-four-year program that enrolls roughly 80 new students every year. The students are eager to participate in the daily activities such as feeding the fish, maintaining fish and system health, as well as maintaining current systems and building new ones. The kids are also provided opportunities that reward them for their involvement and allow them to continue their aquaculture endeavors.
When the opportunity arises, the students compete in the annual Future Farmers of America Aquaculture Career Development Event, which is held each year at the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory. As of 2016, the Florida Aquaculture Association developed an Aquaculture Industry Certification program with incentives for students, teachers and administrators to implement aquaculture curriculums in K-12 schools. Both programs require knowledge of basic aquaculture principles practiced in Florida and the United States.
Some of the students who go through ICHS’s aquaculture program continue on in their aquaculture studies. For example, Colton Montegunas completed high school and then continued his aquaculture studies at Auburn University and is currently employed in the aquaculture sector. Although not all of the students will pursue an aquaculture career, the goal of the program is to educate students on what aquaculture is so they become educated voters and consumers while providing pathways for those that do wish to continue.
For more information on the Island Coast High School aquaculture program, visit https://ich.leeschools.net/our_students/academic_resources/Academies/academy_of_natural_resources
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