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Diman pairs with Bristol Aggie on tilapia project

By Marc Larocque
Taunton Gazette Staff Reporter

Bristol Aggie students show off tilapia
DIGHTON - For the first time, students at Bristol County Agricultural High School are growing fish that are destined to appear on a dinner plate.

Students at the Bristol Aggie Natural Resources Management Department are embarking on a new project to grow tilapia fish inside a greenhouse, alongside the plants and turtles that also populate the warm, humid building at the center of campus. Once the fish are market weight — about two or three pounds — they will then be used for demonstrations as part of a collaboration with the culinary department at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, according to school officials.

“They came to us asking what we could grow for them in terms of vegetables,” said Aaron Caswell, a natural resources management teacher at Bristol Aggie, speaking about Diman’s request for collaboration. “During our conversation, as far as natural resources, we talked to them not about growing vegetables, but if we can grow some fish for them. We started talking about it more and got excited.”

Caswell said it is the first commercially-minded aquaculture project at Bristol County Agricultural High School, as opposed to the many conservation-minded projects involving various species of turtles. Students of natural resources management are now two weeks into growing more than 225 tilapia fish in one of the huge, circular water tanks inside the greenhouse.

The end goal is to have students from Diman come to Bristol Aggie to learn about how the fish are produced, before students from Bristol Aggie visit Diman to see how the fish are prepared for consumption. It will be an important experience for all the students involved, Caswell said.

“We started with tilapia, which is really common in aquaculture industry,” Caswell said. “It’s a mainstay … this project is really geared towards production. I think it’s really important that the students are getting a little bit of a taste on the commercial side. It’s also dealing with issues around sustainability. We are not constantly taking fish out the ocean. We can utilize indoor facilities and be able to grow and raise species inside that we can use for consumption without always taking from the ocean.”

Caswell said he hopes to have the fish at market weight by May. The project will continue next year, and the department plans to order more fish to start another batch soon, he said.

Connor Hughes, a 17-year-old junior, said that its been fun to learn how to grow the fish, taking regular measurements of how big they are, and feeding them pellet food.

“We have a little chart that shows how much to feed them based on body weight,” Hughes said. “During the first five months of their life they grow rapidly, which is good.”

Hughes said a couple dozen of the fish died when they were introduced to the water tank. But since then, the project has been going well.

“It’s been a really positive experience,” Hughes said. “It shows something else in our field is really applicable to real world things, which in this case is commercial aquaculture.”

Emily Coyne, also a 17-year-old junior, said she and her fellow natural resources management students jumped right on board when they heard of the project.

“It’s definitely been fun,” Coyne said. “We haven’t had much opportunity to work with fish before, besides the (on-campus natural resources) museum, we don’t do much with them.”

In two weeks, the fish have grown from a little over an inch to almost two inches, Coyne said.

Brian Bastarache, head of the Natural Resources Management Department, said he’s glad the students are getting this real-world experience. Tilapia is not the best fish, nutrition-wise, but they are easy to grow and are a good way to teach the students about the trade. Commercial aquaculture is also a food source of the future, Bastarache said, as resource-intensive commercial fishing depletes the ocean of fish.

“To me, these are the best ways to teach,” Bastarache said. “It’s reality. These kids don’t ask why we have to learn this … tilapia is a little different from what we have done, but the same concepts and skills apply. Aquaculture is a food source of the future.”

Read a follow-up article about what became of the tilapia here.