The European Aquaculture Society held its annual conference in the Italian coastal town of Rimini in September 2022. The motto of the conference was "Innovative solutions in a changing world", using the word "challenges" in a different context, but strongly indicating the need to analyse the socio-economic-environmental impacts and the importance of developing strategies for solutions. The increase in energy prices in the sector, the extreme rise in feed materials, and consequently in feed prices, created a dark atmosphere at the conference. This was compounded by the unpredictability of consumer markets, the unpredictability of the price sensitivity and tolerance of the buying public, and the cluelessness of the sector players in the face of a lack of skilled and trained labour. These problems affect all aquaculture subsectors , be it marine or freshwater, traditional or advanced (precision systems), production, or processing.
A special section of the conference focused on the state of education in the sector: a factual presentation of the present and a realistic view of the future. The consensus was that action is needed because the sector is threatened by a shortage of manpower, which cannot be offset by technical solutions and increased mechanisation, especially in the current economic situation. Although the aquaculture sector in Hungary is predominantly characterised by freshwater fish production, it can be said that it is facing the same major problems as the sector as a whole.
The young generation has a very different experience of education today than even those who were in the classroom 10-15 years ago. This is partly due to the increasing demand for digital technologies in an accelerated and globalised world, and partly due to the impact of Covid, the online education at home. Young people are inundated with a constant stream of information from online platforms that they cannot and do not want to absorb: they decide whether to be interested or move on based on impulses acquired in seconds. O nline education has reduced the social sphere and the opportunities for personal contact, the full impact of which we have yet to measure. It can therefore be said that reaching effectively the next generation, is a human and professional challenge.
The aquaculture sector needs to attract young people who are motivated, interested in the profession (who love it) and practice-oriented. On the other hand, young people who are not influenced by family or friends in their environment find themselves in serious competition with other, more attractive and well-communicated industries. It has become clear that a paradigm shift in aquaculture education and training marketing is needed as soon as possible. We need to attract the interest of young people to the sector with buzzwords that capture the imagination of a thinking teenager (they learn about it at school, they often see it on social media, they get news on their smartphones, etc.): environmental pressures, climate change, the importance of local food, etc.
In addition to the economic environment, the educational environment is constantly changing, to which some sectors (automotive, information technology, biotechnology) have reacted quickly. The traditional education system does not provide young people (primary and secondary school) with enough information on the importance, let alone the beauty, of agriculture, especially aquaculture. The young generation cannot be expected to turn to aquaculture of their own accord. Action must therefore be taken, involving all stakeholders, be they for-profit businesses, educational or research institutions, sectoral stakeholders, or regulatory bodies. There are already good examples of this, which should be adapted to the sector’s environment and specificities, and the processes should be regularly monitored and restructured, and improved, incorporating feedback.
To summarize, the situation in aquaculture education is mixed, with plenty to do and plenty of work to be done. However, these tasks can and should be developed in a structured way, in agreement with and with the involvement of the relevant stakeholders.
The first and most important step is to raise the profile of aquaculture as a profession and/or vocation among young people:
In order to increase the sector’s popularity and attract interest, it is necessary to renew and update the training courses offered in the sector. Main tasks (not exhaustive):
Our primary interest is to find the answers to these questions as soon as it is possible through a common reflection that could provide the basis of a new educational concept which we believe is one of the key factors for the survival of the aquaculture sector.
The work is supported by the iFishIENCi project (European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 818036).