SMC: The SMC program is preparing students for a new kind of career. Courtesy photo

Grace Smith

Special to the Daily Press

It shouldn’t come as news that greenhouse gases and other pollution, as well as overfishing, seriously threaten our oceans’ ability to sustain life. Meeting this urgent challenge—of building up ocean resiliency—comes with a benefit: job opportunities. The Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. projects that the blue economy will produce some 126,000 jobs in LA County alone by 2030, with estimated wages of $37.7 billion.

“That is a staggering number. We want to position our students for the first opportunities in one of the world’s fastest-growing business sectors,” said Santa Monica College (SMC) Superintendent/President Dr. Kathryn E. Jeffery.

SMC is partnering with AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles—a sprawling 35-acre non-profit center devoted to accelerating scientific collaboration and advancing the blue economy—to create post-secondary certificate and degree programs that span several fields of study. The first program being developed at SMC as part of the partnership is a pioneering six-course aquaculture certificate program expected to launch in 2023. In addition to state funding through the Strong Workforce Program, curriculum development and faculty support for this new program is being made possible by a Builders Initiative grant, and community project funding from U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla.

The new program will begin with Introduction to Aquaculture. Students will then move on to two newly designed laboratory courses that will provide hands-on training: Hatchery Techniques and System Design (on how to keep organisms alive and thriving in a marine lab or aquaculture facility) while Fish, Shellfish and Algae Production will educate on techniques to produce aquatic life in large volumes. Other courses are being developed, and the program’s electives will range from business and general marine biology to oceanography and possibly even scuba classes.

“When they finish the certificate program, students will know about everything from growing microalgae in a clean space to planting shellfish, kelp and algae in a marine environment,” SMC’s sustainability manager Ferris Kawar explains, referring to the practice of adding organisms to threatened ecosystems to restore their vitality and balance.

Sea of Opportunity

SMC will also collaborate with Holdfast Aquaculture, which produces resources for sustainable seafood growth, for résumé-building experience.

“Internship experiences are crucial and required for the certificate,” says Nathan Churches, Holdfast co-founder and chief science officer, also SMC’s aquaculture faculty lead. “Although other colleges and universities offer aquaculture programs, their training facilities tend to be limited to marine laboratories,” he notes. SMC’s program is unique in its direct connection to entrepreneurial research organizations, like AltaSea or Holdfast.

“Holdfast has a site at AltaSea,” Churches explains, “so we’ll be just tens of feet from students who are studying aquaculture concepts firsthand.” He looks forward to welcoming SMC student interns to the company, and to hiring graduates for full-time positions. And since AltaSea serves as an incubator for a number of blue-economy enterprises, students will have internship and job opportunities with other businesses as well.

Depths of Expertise

Churches brings to SMC a combination of scientific and teaching experience. Relatively few people have a background in all three, making him a natural fit for the project. He earned his PhD in molecular biology from USC and has taught or mentored at Mount St. Mary’s University, San Francisco State University, and AltaSea, too.

After working in commercial fishing until his mid-20s, he went back to school to study the industry’s ecological impact. “As I started getting more expertise in conservation-minded food production, low-trophic aquaculture — specifically bivalves and seaweeds — kept rising up as one of the best and most sustainable ways to harvest proteins from the ocean.”

In addition to his passion for aquaculture and education, Churches has another reason for promoting student success. Students earning the certificate will fill the jobs that are going to be needed in Southern California. “As an entrepreneur, I need those entry-level and middle-skill workers, because they’re hard to find,” he says.

Further, SMC is ideally positioned for this certificate because the college’s Southern California location has been identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as one of the two best places in the country for aquaculture.

A Brighter, Bluer Future

Aquaculture’s potential is as vast as the oceans that cover 70 percent of our planet. Program graduates will be able to work in enterprises that both feed the hungry and remove underwater pollution. “Shellfish filter water really efficiently,” removing particulates and nutrients that could otherwise reach harmful levels, Kawar explains, and bivalves also sequester carbon. Similarly, seaweed reduces excess nitrogen and sequesters carbon but also provides a habitat for marine life.

Churches adds that farmers don’t have to feed these organisms. “You just put them in the water, and they filter feed naturally,” he says.

“We have some pretty polluted water out there,” Kawar adds. “This program provides an opportunity to grow mussels, clams, oysters and urchins to clean up our waters. Plus, seaweed grows faster than terrestrial trees and sequesters carbon at the same pace. It won’t burn down in a forest fire, and you don’t have to water it.”

Beyond food production, SMC’s aquaculture certificate will also prepare students for careers in areas such as renewable energy and climate change response. With California aiming for carbon neutrality by 2045, Churches sees an urgent need for workers to help develop sustainable technologies. “So aquaculture’s just the starting point of SMC’s partnership with AltaSea,” he says.

For more information about SMC’s aquaculture email Ferris Kawar at

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