The backers of a $250 million indoor salmon farm in Bucksport will hire plumbers, electricians, biologists and salespeople. But before they do, they want to answer a question for potential workers and others in town: What, exactly, is land-based aquaculture?
That’s why Whole Oceans is working with the University of Southern Maine to offer an online class for 25 students starting in late January that explores that very subject, according to Jennifer Fortier, a development and outreach associate for Whole Oceans, which is based in Portland.
The company still has eight permits pending with regulators, but it’s confident it can break ground on the salmon farm this coming spring, have the first fish in the facility on the site of the closed Verso paper mill by the end of the year, and carry out the first harvest 24 months later.
Whole Oceans expects to start with 50 to 60 workers, with more hires when it adds a feed mill and starts more labor-intensive processing operations. It also has a commitment from an American distributor to sell its salmon for up to 10 years, Fortier said.
But the impact of the class will go beyond Whole Oceans, USM Professor of Environmental Science Theodore Willis said.
Willis said he hopes to prepare Mainers to work for any indoor aquaculture business in Maine.
“USM wants to really be involved in workforce development in the state,” Willis said, calling the first class “really an introduction to land-based aquaculture. It is essentially about, what is aquaculture? How does it work? How does it fit into the economy?”
Willis knows of three businesses that might start production in the next five years, including two eel growers in northern Maine. An aquaponics facility also is expanding in Lisbon, and a Norwegian company has proposed a salmon farm in Belfast.
So if the class goes well, the school might expand it into a curriculum.
“It can be a really broad subject,” Willis said. “You can go from growing microalgae all the way to tuna in outdoor cages, but we are focused on fish and growing that fish indoors.”
The class will cost $978 per student. Learning centers in Bucksport, Belfast and possibly Ellsworth will host it for those who lack internet access or want a more communal study experience, Willis said.
Of the 25 slots available this coming semester, at least 10 will be filled by scholarship students. Thirteen non-scholarship students have already committed to it, Willis said.
Whole Oceans, the town of Bucksport, USM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide scholarship funds. The scholarships are intended to reduce costs to $250 per student, with most of the aid going to Bucksport-area residents, Willis said.
The three-credit class, which can be taken for no credit and doesn’t require prior training, does not guarantee a job at Whole Oceans. It will instead serve as a primer for land-based aquaculture and aquaponics. It will increase understanding of what the company plans to do and the wide array of applications to the professions involved in growing sea and plant life indoors, marketing those products, and disposing of their waste, Willis and Fortier said.
“We are also interested in plants because aquaponics is the other half, and it’s a little different from a recirculated aquaculture,” Willis said.
The class will also help prevent misinformation about indoor salmon growers and help Bucksport develop an attachment to — maybe even an affinity for — the fledgling industry, Fortier said.