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The Tech Club: Laurie Trotta

Laurie Trotta: Aquaculture is the raising of anything aquatic. So it could be fish, it could be kelp, it could be plankton, frogs, alligators, crayfish, shrimp, all those things, oysters, clams, mussels.

Ivy Hughes: What exactly does a fish hatchery manager do?

Laurie: They take care of a facility that raises fish. It requires supervising employees as well as doing the daily care and maintenance required to grow fish. In my case, I raise trout so it requires knowing that equipment as well as the biology of the fish. A lot of the reason why I got into raising fish was I was interested in raising fish for food. Many of our fisheries are over-fished and the populations have collapsed. Through aquaculture we can replenish those stocks, which there's a lot of controversy about. Or at least provide another source of food which will alleviate the pressure on the fisheries.

Ivy: What does your research tell us about fish?

Laurie: We raise arctic char, which is an exotic species that is very highly valued in the market. If we can develop a strain that will do well in our area, with the temperatures that we have, that would help people wanting to grow fish in our area have a fish that would make them more money.

Ivy: How do you use science and technology in your work?

Laurie: It's everything that I do. Every day it's biology. Every day it's chemistry. The water quality of the fish. If the environment of the fish is not suitable for the fish to live in then I have to do something about that. That's all about being able to test the water quality using chemical methods and then using various types of equipment, or whatever it is that I need to make that environment good for the fish. Biology -- I have to understand what a fish is, what a fish does, the physiology, how it reacts to different things, in order to take care of it, to raise it, to have happy, healthy fish.

Ivy: What kind of educational background do you need to have?

Laurie: Generally these days you'd have to have at least a Bachelor's degree. I have my Master's degree.

Ivy: In addition to running a fish hatchery, you also teach aquaculture. What are your classes like?

Laurie: We have a fisheries and aquaculture program where people are trained to be fisheries managers, aquaculture specialists, whatever. Students when they're taking aquaculture courses come down to the hatchery and have to take care of a tank Monday through Friday throughout the semester. So they have to do all the feeding, the cleaning, the caring for the fish. One semester they get eyed eggs and fingerlings and raise them up to brood stock selection. And then the other group comes in, they take the brood stock and spawns them and incubates the eggs. So they get the full life cycle.

In most hatcheries, the fish are not in their natural environment to do this. So we take the fish -- and in our situation we anesthetize them -- and we strip them of their eggs and their milt. We fertilize the eggs and incubate them. You would get a much higher rate of survival that way than you would in the wild. So in that way you intervene. A typical trout you would get a thousand eggs per pound of fish. It's a lot of eggs. We take about 400, 000 to 500, 000 eggs every year and we're small.

Each year class of fish and each species, a certain number will stay in the hatchery as brood stock. What doesn't stay in our hatchery will get sold either for meat or for stocking.

Ivy: What types of jobs are available for people who graduate from your program?

Laurie: A whole range of things. We've got hatchery managers and assistant fish hatchery managers working for state government, federal government, private facilities, aquariums. We've got people working in zoos, Epcot center. Working as aquatic ecologists, biologists, fisheries managers. All kinds of things. One person I know of is working with dolphins and whales. They end up all over the country and sometimes the world. We've had people in Alaska, Maine, North Carolina, Mississippi, Florida. It's all over. So really it's about what you're interested in and where you want to go.

Ivy: Did you always know you wanted to do this? Even when you were little?

Laurie: Yes and no. Growing up, my family had a restaurant. And a gentleman who was the animal caretaker at DC used to come up and eat. He used to talk to me about these things and he'd bring me DC patches and I would get to go down with him and see all the animals. When I was about 10 or 12 years old I played with a litter of foxes. I would make him posters and he'd put them up down there, so I'd get to go down and see my posters up. I thought I wanted to work for DC when I was young. When you're young you don't know how. I just liked to be outside. Then I got a little older and I went to college. It gets real confusing when it comes time to choose different colleges. I ended up studying hotel and restaurant management because it's what my family did and what I'd spent a lot of time doing. So I did that for a few years and really hated it.

So I went back to school and started studying. I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I kind of floated around for a year. Then the aquaculture program started up and I knew that's what I wanted to do.

Ivy: Do you have any advice for young girls who are interested in science?

Laurie: My advice would be to take as many science and math courses as you can. Listen to yourself. I didn't always get a lot of encouragement to do this. It's going to be hard work. There's not a lot of jobs in it, it's not well-paying. But I say if you love something, if you really feel you really love something, you need to do it. You need to go after it. Find the encouragement if it's not coming from your family and friends or teachers. Volunteer at a zoo and find your role model or mentor and get the encouragement that way.

Ivy: What personal characteristics should a fish hatchery manager have?

Laurie: The interest in math and science and the willingness to get wet and dirty and do hard work. You're very hands-on. You have to be able to repair the well pumps or set up the new monitoring system or repair plumbing. You have to get in there and take care of the fish. Especially in a situation where I am with so much turnover in employees. I'm constantly training people and showing them how to do it. Generally the hatchery manager works right along with the technicians. There was a big thunderstorm. The leaves on the trees were coming down and the water was rising and the leaves were blocking the grates. It was thundering and lightening outside, and I'm in the raceway pulling leaves off the grates and I all-of-a-sudden realized, "Wait a minute [laughs 07:41] it's lightening and I'm in water." But it had to be done to take care of the fish. Otherwise the whole crop would be down the drain so to speak. So we were out running around out in crazy weather.

Which is not unusual for people in fisheries or aquaculture. You can be out on a boat and have a storm pick up. I remember one time pulling in a gill net and just having my clothes covered in ice.

Ivy: What's your motivation?

Laurie: I love it. I love doing what I do. It was a great feeling when I got out of raceway and I'd saved all the fish. It's a great sense of accomplishment when we spawn fish and we have eggs incubating. There's a stage where you don't really see anything and in the next stage you see the eye of the egg. That's the eyed-egg stage. And when you see the eye of the fish in the egg you think, "Oh! The magic worked!" And then they hatch and you think "Oh! The magic really worked!" and then you raise them up from there and you have all these fish as a result of all the work that you did. It's kinda cool. It's pretty magical.

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