Tilapia from the Jonesport-Beals High School aquaculture and aquaponics classes. Credit: Courtesy of Robin LaRochelle

JONESPORT, Maine — When Robin LaRochelle started as the aquaculture and aquaponics teacher at Jonesport-Beals High School in September, she was excited to network with other teachers in Maine that do what she does.

She soon found out there weren’t any.

Though other teachers and schools have done strong work to teach aquaculture units or do aquaponics as part of science classes, LaRochelle is believed to be the only full-time high school teacher in the Pine Tree State solely dedicated to the subjects, teaching how to raise tilapia and grow plants in aquaponic systems.

It’s a dream job for her and she hopes it opens doors for students and familiarizes them with the growing industries.

“When I was in high school, I didn’t really know about all the jobs out there that you could have,” she said. “That’s really my goal for this program: to open the eyes of these students.”

Robin LaRochelle, the aquaculture and aquaponics teacher at Jonesport-Beals High School, stands by an aquaponics system. Water from a tilapia tank flows into the plant bed, growing sunflowers, lettuce, and other plants. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Jonesport-Beals first offered the courses last school year. Now, LaRochelle teaches two classes — one aquaponics and one aquaculture — that each meet for just under two hours every school day.

In the aquaponics class, students learn how to grow plants without soil. LaRochelle has one setup where plant roots sit in a set of rail-shaped tubes. Water passes underneath the plants via a pump and grow lights simulate the sun — creating a chance to grow lettuce, basil, kale and other greens year-round Down East.

Students can grow a head of lettuce in about 50 days and often sell their produce to school staff.

In a greenhouse outside, LaRochelle has two, 200-plus gallon tilapia tanks that hold about 70 tilapia combined. One tank feeds into another aquaponics system, sending the nutrient-rich aquaculture water to a plant bed where students are attempting to grow lettuce, potatoes, avocados and sunflowers.  

The other tank is solely for growing fish and is where the aquaculture students get firsthand experience in recirculating aquaculture systems. Several companies are looking to open farms that use this type of technology up and down the Maine coast, including Kingfish Maine, a Dutch company that plans to build a $110 million land-based yellowtail farm in Jonesport. The company helped get the school’s fish tanks up and running and potentially could do more work with students in the future, according to school officials.

LaRochelle doesn’t expect all students to end up working in aquaponics or aquaculture, but wants them to know how to grow their own food. She also doesn’t want to be the only full-time aquaculture and aquaponics high school teacher in Maine.

“I hope that changes,” she said. “I hope a lot more programs start popping up because I think it’s good for the kids to have, even if they don’t pursue it.”

With being the first though, there are kinks to work out. Growing fish and plants in a greenhouse in Maine winters isn’t easy, but it’s the only space the school can dedicate to it at the moment. On overcast days, it gets chilly in the building, which can lead to issues with the plants and the tilapia.

There are extra responsibilities that come with being an aquaculture and aquaponics teacher. LaRochelle has to keep an eye on the fish tanks and plants all year round to ensure things are running smoothly. She has a remote monitoring system, but still regularly goes in — even during school breaks — to check on the fish.

Robin LaRochelle, who’s believed to be the only aquaculture and aquaponics high school teacher in Maine, looks over some massive basil leaves grown by her students. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Possibly the biggest hurdle is getting more kids to sign up.

In an area known for fishing — Jonesport was Maine’s largest port by pounds caught in 2020 — the classes haven’t quite caught on yet. The school has about 60 students and LaRochelle has eight students total — three in one class and five in another. She suspects that some students didn’t really know what the program was all about when they signed up for classes last year and hopes to better market it for next year.

“It’s really new to some of these kids,” Principal Michael Kelley said. “They don’t see the value right now.”

But he has the utmost faith in LaRochelle to carry the program, saying he hit the “Megabucks” when she came along.

“She goes above and beyond to make this work,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of students but I foresee in the near future that we’re going to have kids come in that want this program.”