“This is win, win – there is no down side to this ”
There’s a small boat owned by Queen Charlotte College moored at Picton harbour.
“That’s our barge”, says College Principal Tom Parsons, brimming with pride.
“That’s our playground.”
It’s also a classroom for the College’s Aquaculture Academy students and while it may not be big, it represents the large transformation that local marine farmers have sparked in the school over the past 10 years.
“When I arrived at the school, we had 261 students and struggled to attract quality staff”, Tom said.
“After the aquaculture programme had been introduced, the roll went up to over 400.
“The school has a state-of the art wet laboratory and hatchery, smart white boards, several computer labs filled with Apple computers – all directly attributable to the support of the aquaculture industry.
“And because of the facilities, we can hire excellent staff.
“Eight years ago it was very hard to get staff; today we’re attracting top quality, young teachers.”
The programme began in 2002 as the brain child of long-time marine farmer Terry Schwass, as a means of improving public sentiment towards the industry and up-skilling future staff.
“There were two things that triggered it. The industry was going through a hideous resource consent process. Every time you stuck your head above the gunnels you got shot down as dirty marine farmers,” Terry said.
“We were pretty much up against it as far as public perception of what aquaculture was in those days, and I thought if we can’t educate these old guys who are against us, then we can educate the kids as to what it is all about.
“The other aspect was our industry generally, was on a roll, and we needed good skilled labour coming through.”
Terry took the idea to the QCC Board of Trustees who recognised the programme would give the school a point of difference and a practical means of keeping students in school longer. The programme officially began in 2002 when the MFA signed a joint venture with the college to support the academy with annual funding and expertise. To help kick-start the programme the Schwass family and Sanford donated the revenue from one mussel line each (and continue to do so today), and the Marlborough District Council granted an interest free loan to build the barge (a loan which was repaid in full within three years). A host of companies from across the industry have also supplied transport, expertise, buoys, ropes and support. New Zealand King Salmon later donated the reticulation system that serves as the back bone of the school’s wet lab and, along with the Marine Farming Association, continue to provide annual scholarships for promising students.
“The aquaculture industry would be one of the most heavily scrutinised industries. We’re farming in public water and we’ve got to be seen to be doing it right”, Terry said.
“There are 300-plus kids who’ve gone through it; local kids. This programme touches the whole family.
“It’s amazing when I’m out socially, people come up and say really positive stuff.
“The kids get to learn a lot of skills. We don’t say to the kids you have to be heading into a career in aquaculture – all we want you to do is come and experience it and at least you can come and talk about it with authority.”
But the course isn’t just about talking – it’s a hands-on course that gives kids a giant head start for a career on the water and a practical alternative to sitting through boring lessons. Students work with mussels, salmon, paua, kina and seaweeds, and earn credits towards their National Certificate, as well as gaining diving, day skipper, first aid, health and safety and sea survival tickets.
“This is win, win – there is no down side to this”, said Tom.
“Kids stay on longer. They realise learning is earning, and are presented with a very real career path into the biggest local industry, and this has encouraged them to stay.
“The kids go home and talk about the programme with their family and the perceptions of spoiling the environment go out the window.
“The programme has given the school a point of difference, a centre to be proud of – every parent who comes through here says, ‘Wow! I wish we had that when we were at school’.
“A lot of the students who do well at aquaculture are typically not top scholars initially – then suddenly, they realise it’s education for a purpose.
“We make it as hands on as possible on the barge, with them tying knots and dissecting fish.
“Instead of studying pi, they’re studying the diameter of a rope and working out how many mussels can grow on that surface area. They study statistics through monitoring the differences between blue mussel and green mussel volumes on ropes, then doing the sums to calculate what that’s potentially worth in the market.“Students love it. We haven’t had a single bad review yet.”
Such is the influence of the aquaculture course that it’s now being incorporated into the wider science programme.
“In the wet lab they grow 2000 salmon for the year – the programme teaches the kids valuable lessons in husbandry and the fish are used throughout the school in various science projects”, Tom said.
“The school used to dissect a sheep’s eye, today they use salmon.”
As well as preparing a host of students who’ve gone on to fill roles in the industry, the course has helped produce medicine students, science undergraduates, super yacht crew and even Olympic gold medallist Joseph Sullivan. And while there’s no doubting the success of the aquaculture programme, Terry says most of the credit belongs with the school.
“Tom is very generous in his commendations of aquaculture in saying it turned the school around”, Terry said.
“But the thing that turned it around was Tom Parsons.
“When I first came to Picton about 12 years ago, you’d be seeing kids wagging school and wandering up and down streets smoking cigarettes with their shorts around their knees.
“But these days the whole College is a different College. There is a real pride, a real mana about it.
“If the academy is part of that, great, but we won’t take all the credit. The QCC teaching and administration team, have got to be among the best around.”
It’s nice to know the future of this industry is in good hands.