COBLESKILL — SUNY Cobleskill will get a five-year, $600,000 boost to its aquaculture programs through a collaboration with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The goal is both economic and ecological, with projects designed to improve the state hatcheries that stock fish in New York waters as well as promote environmental conservation. Students will gain experience that can help prepare them for work in either hatcheries or fish farms.
SUNY Cobleskill announced the collaboration Tuesday, and said it would entail five specific projects:
- Creating a searchable digital database from a century’s worth of paper records on the now-defunct Lake Erie commercial fishery.
- Establishing a training and continuing education curriculum for workers at DEC hatcheries.
- Developing protocols and infrastructure to propagate threatened and endangered freshwater mussels.
- Developing fish culture techniques for imperiled species for eventual production and stocking.
- Providing a comprehensive assessment of DEC’s hatchery system and conceptual design of energy-efficient, cost-effective new designs.
Neil Ashton will lead students in the state fish hatchery modernization project as visiting assistant professor of aquaculture engineers, a first-of-its-kind position SUNY Cobleskill created through the collaboration with DEC. He’ll start June 1.
About 50 students are now enrolled in the college’s Fisheries, Wildlife and Environment Science program, and interest has exceeded capacity, according to Susan Zimmermann, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
“It’s a very sought-after program,” she said. “It’s highly specialized. One of the distinguishing features is really the hands-on opportunities for students.”
The classroom is the largest academic freshwater hatchery in the Northeast. The majority of the fish raised there are sold to local restaurants, though some are purchased for stocking purposes by entities such as the New York Power Authority.
Associate professor Mark Cornwell, chairman of the department, said each of the projects will provide new knowledge useful to industry and science.
The digital Lake Erie archive will simplify access to data such as quantity and species breakdown of the catch in various years, or the timeline for the arrival for various invasive species.
Understanding why mussels are declining and learning how to halt that decline is important because they are an indicator species that shows the health and quality of a waterway. Also, mussels are filter feeders that remove sediment and improve water quality.
Finally, helping design better fish hatcheries is a natural fit for SUNY Cobleskill.
“About half of our students go to work at fish hatcheries,” Cornwell explained.
He’s excited about the arrival of Ashton, who has more than 20 years of experience in aquaculture, fisheries and engineering, including at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re hoping while he’s here, he’ll take a look at our fish hatchery,” Cornwell said. “I’m hoping he’ll upgrade our facilities.”