Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A PhD program

Ark. campus aims for school of fisheries doctors
By: The Associated Press | 04 Sep 2009 |

Studying fish once seemed so simple: find out where they were biting and keep it under your hat. Now the study of fish has evolved into Ph.D.-level programs that can make fish bigger, tastier and a larger part of the nation's economy.

The University of Arkansas' board of trustees on Friday approved a doctoral program for the Aquaculture-Fisheries Center of Excellence at its Pine Bluff campus. It's the first Ph.D. program for the 3,000-student campus at the edge of the Arkansas Delta.

"I don't think I've ever seen a stronger and more positive review" of a program proposal, UA system vice president for university relations Dan Ferritor told the UA system board at a meeting Friday in Little Rock.

The doctoral program could give a boost to Pine Bluff, hurt in recent decades by relocation of railroad jobs to other sites and closure of several industries, as well as by the current recession.

Smaller communities in the depressed Delta region should also benefit, as aquaculture farming operations take advantage of the scientific and practical expertise that UAPB has built up over more than 20 years. The nation's largest fish-feed plant, ARKAT Nutrition, operates in Dumas, population 5,200, working closely with the UAPB program.

While a typical image of fishing involves dropping a line from a bamboo pole, formalized fish farming has been a part of the Arkansas economy for decades.

UAPB opened its Aquaculture-Fisheries Center in 1988 to work with fish farmers of all varieties: catfish farmers raising meat for dining tables, baitfish farmers raising minnows for anglers' hooks, and others raising ornamental goldfish or goldfish that will end up as food for larger ornamentals in aquariums.

All the feeder goldfish raised in the country come from Arkansas, said Carole Engle, the center's director.

In addition to conducting research and training people seeking careers in natural fisheries or fish-farming, the center is a major resource for Arkansas' $130 million fish-farming industry. It also trains people in natural fisheries disciplines who go on to work for agencies like the state Game and Fish Commission and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We've become famous for finding ways to diagnose" problems at fish farms, said Andy Goodwin, the center's associate director and lab chief. Such problems, he said, can involve sick or dying fish, or fish that simply don't grow at the usual rate.

"UAPB has been more proactive in working toward solutions to our recent problems than any other university, with new feed, economics, marketing and management studies," said Joe Lowery, president of the Catfish Farmers of America.

Those problems include fish diseases, nutritional problems, parasites and mechanical difficulties that might affect production, according to UAPB faculty.

Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi are the leading catfish-farming states, with 166 catfish farms in Arkansas, 268 in Alabama and 451 in Mississippi in 2007 — the latest year for which figures are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Arkansas alone sold about 10 million pounds of catfish that year, the USDA said.

Engle said other schools with fisheries degrees encouraged UAPB to consider a doctoral program, given commercial fishing's importance in the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas. If approved by the state Higher Education Coordinating Board — a step expected by next spring — the first candidates will be accepted in fall 2010. Graduates will likely end up researching in the private sector or teaching.

Since its founding, the Aquaculture-Fisheries Center has graduated 85 people with bachelor's degrees and 55 with master's degrees. Nearly half of the graduate degree recipients went on to pursue doctorates elsewhere. The bulk of those with B.A.s pursued an advanced degree or went to work for government agencies.

Nekea Walker, a recruiter for the fisheries-aquaculture program, said the availability of a terminal-degree track can be a big incentive to students considering the school's undergraduate or master's programs.

"Having a Ph.D. program on this campus not only helps our department, it helps the whole campus," said Walker, who worked in the fisheries programs when she was an undergraduate.

"It helps the whole state," Engle said.

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