Piloting a boat out onto the lake for a bout of fishing sounds like a day of relaxation, but it’s serious business when it comes to aquaculture. Pulling fish out of the water isn’t necessarily a matter of trophy-hunting or eating — it can be a matter of research. One Arkansas university is training the next generation of leaders who will lead the aquaculture and fisheries industry.
Many college students never set foot outside a classroom when it comes to instruction, but at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), students in the Aquaculture and Fisheries Department get first-hand experience in the field. Whether they are taking water quality samples or harvesting fish for study, students in this unique program receive a hyper-focused education that prepares them to enter the aquaculture and fisheries industries.
Best known for row crop agriculture, Arkansas is also a hotbed for aquaculture. According to the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, Arkansas ranks second in the United States for aquaculture production. Both the faculty and students at UAPB’s program are helping to feed that program by providing critical research that helps Arkansas fisheries and producing the new generation of aquaculture specialists.
UAPB’s aquaculture and fisheries program is a relative newcomer to the Historically Black College, which dates back to the late 19th century. Before merging with the University of Arkansas system, UAPB was known as Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (and before that as Branch Normal College), and was established to provide teacher education and later agricultural training. Through the aquaculture and fisheries program, the university aimed to continue that mission, focusing on a specific industry subset that was not a systematic part of the UA system. The aquaculture and fisheries program was formed in 1988, and department chair Dr. Rebecca Lochmann has been with the program for most of this time, helping to establish its academic and research bonafides.
“When we first started, the only academic program was the bachelor’s degree program,” Lochmann said. “The master’s program really increased our research power.”
The bachelor’s degree program in Aquaculture and Fishery Sciences features four concentrations: a general track, aquaculture, fisheries science and aquaculture and seafood business. Since the late 1980s, the program has been gradually expanding, adding additional higher degree tracks. In 1997, the university added a master’s degree track and a doctorate degree track in 2011.
Like any college program, undergraduates go through a requisite series of classes, including biology, chemistry, statistics business and more. But where the program shines is its fieldwork and laboratory opportunities, according to Dr. Michael Eggleton, who serves as the undergraduate coordinator for the Aquaculture and Fisheries Science program at UAPB.
“There are a lot of very hands-on skills. At the undergraduate program, we’ve got half-a-dozen classes in the laboratory but it’s very hands-on,” he said. During their undergraduate career, students will learn how to take water quality samples, harvest fish, work on sampling studies and more. Not just any undergraduate program teaches students how to determine the age of a fish population — a process that Eggleton describes as being similar to dating trees by their “tree rings.” Except the process for fish involves dissecting them to counting the rings on a fish’s otoliths, its bones in the inner ear.
Graduate students perform similar work to the undergraduates but take on increasing levels of responsibilities and perform their own research, which goes toward their studies. “They really take ownership of the research, even more so than the professors. Their involvement is at a very high level,” Eggleton said.
Due to the increased level of engagement that graduate degrees require, the UAPB department recommends that aquaculture and fisheries science students shoot for their master’s degree. Lochmann said that a bachelor’s degree likely won’t provide opportunities for management advancement for those interested in working for commercial operations or at state and federal agencies. On the flip side, getting a doctorate can be tricky for students — unless they are focused on becoming college professors or policymakers.
“We really encourage that [getting a master’s degree]. You’ve got that good baccalaureate foundation, and a master’s degree gives you just enough specialization to be marketable,” Eggleton said. “A Ph.D. is actually a little bit restrictive.”
Once students graduate, there are multiple streams of employment they can choose to fish up. A popular choice for many graduates, Lochmann said, is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which offers an array of job opportunities in its fish division.
“About 70 percent [of undergraduates] started out working in a career relevant to their degree. They were working at a hatchery at some point or for Arkansas Game and Fish or the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service or some other agency. There are some of them, 20 years later, who are supervisors. Others work for commercial fish farms — not so much in Arkansas but scattered all around the country,” Eggleton said.
Some of the job placement success could be attributed to the uniqueness of the program itself. It is the only aquaculture program in the state of Arkansas. While other colleges offer degrees and classes in related fields, UAPB is the sole college that has the specialized degree track on aquaculture. Arkansas State University, for example, has a degree in wildlife, fisheries and conservation, and other colleges have biology tracks with fisheries concentrations.
Coupled with the intimate size of the classes, students interact closely with faculty members and receive direction attention during their studies. In 2019, UAPB’s total enrollment was only 2,498 and has been declining since 2016. The program fields an undergraduate class in the single or low-double digits each year (three students graduated in 2020) — giving this “obscure degree” as Eggleton calls it, a close-knit feel.
It’s a recipe that has led UAPB to develop a reputation for producing high quality students.
“There’s a guy at work who likes to characterize us as the ‘best little fisheries program in the South.’ There’s a lot of truth to it. We’re not LSU. We’re not Mississippi State or Texas A&M,” Eggleton said. “We don’t have 50,000 students here or 35,000 students or whatever that number might be, but we have a lot of high-quality graduates.