Lake Champlain Sea Grant Hires Basin’s First Aquaculture Education Specialist

By Shari Halik
December 16, 2020

Lake Champlain Sea Grant welcomes Dr. Theodore Willis as an Aquaculture Education Specialist, the first in the Lake Champlain basin. In response to the economic impacts of COVID-19 on local economies, Theo will lead Lake Champlain Sea Grant’s efforts to strengthen local businesses and markets for cultivation of fish and other aquatic animals and plants for food in the basin and Vermont.

His first step is to network with aquaculture operators in the basin and Vermont to identify their needs. Theo will then develop an education program to help businesses enhance production of fish and aquatic species and products to meet demands of commercial and locavore markets.

“Aquaculture has the potential to enrich local food supply and boost local economies, meeting critical needs of Vermonters and those living within the Lake Champlain basin,” said Theo, who is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine, where he teaches courses in aquaculture, limnology, and environmental science, and at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Science.

Theo conducts research on interactions among alewife restoration, management and ecology; the alewife fishery; and citizen science, and he works with Maine indigenous peoples on native fish restoration. He earned his PhD in limnology and oceanography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As a member of the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network (SEANET), a National Science Foundation-funded project based out of the University of Maine, Theo gained expertise in aquaculture and mariculture (cultivation of marine life for food). He delved into clam and seaweed farming, aquaponics, and Recirculating Aquaculture Systems. Working with the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine, he explored aquaculture business ventures associated with their reservation. In 2017, he took one of the SEANET projects commercial and started a kelp farm off the coast of Maine. 

To date, aquaculture is underdeveloped in the Lake Champlain region, with just 10 businesses known to operate in the basin and Vermont. Most of these supply trout fingerlings for stocking in private ponds to support recreational fisheries, and only three are known to provide food—trout and shrimp—directly to local restaurants. Aquaculture businesses have expressed interest in expanding production to reach food markets and to train others in aquaculture to meet demand from consumers and restaurants in the region.

"Worldwide, aquaculture continues to gain importance by producing fresh, sustainable protein that enhances local economies," said Dr. John Brawley of Sweet Sound, Vermont's first shrimp aquaculture farm, located in Charlotte. "In Vermont we have both the resources and consumer demand to add significant value to the agricultural sector. I am excited to be part of a growing group of farmers and entrepreneurs who are working hard to provide locally grown seafood to Vermonters and beyond."

Theo will partner with Brawley and use his own experience in Maine to provide new aquaculture businesses with knowledge and expertise in system design and emerging technologies to enhance production, water efficiencies, and profitability. Aquaculture has potential to enrich local economies in central Vermont where natural springs are abundant and elsewhere through development of indoor aquaculture systems using new technologies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of local food production to ensure access to food, reduce dependence on highly variable supply chains, and sustain and stimulate local economies. For aquaculturists, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of distributing products and revenue across multiple markets. Food insecurity has risen by as much as 33 percent within areas of the Lake Champlain basin, and a record number of households have sought food assistance through public programs.

“Theo’s position highlights the important role small-scale aquaculture has to play in the COVID-19 recovery period and the post-COVID-19 food system within the basin and state,” said Kris Stepenuck, Lake Champlain Sea Grant Extension Leader.