Media Review: An Overview of the Aquarium Science Program: Unique Opportunities to Receive Training and Accreditation for a Professional Career in the Aquarium Industry

by | Sep 15, 2009 | 0 comments

A surge in the number, size, and diversity of public aquarium, aquaculture, and ornamental fish industries has persisted since the early part of the last decade. This rapid expansion has accelerated the pace of technological and methodological advancements in the care of captive aquatic plants and animals; as such it has promoted a commensurate increase in the value of practical knowledge within each growing and emerging field of aquarium science. Today, even individuals with impressive academic backgrounds in the biological sciences frequently require intensive on-the-job training for entry-level aquarist positions. Demand for these specialized job skills is increasingly prompting some in the industry (particularly those charged with procuring competent personnel) to ask, what specific experience is requisite of the title “advanced aquarist,” and how is this experience most clearly demonstrated to a prospective employer?

Development of the Oregon Coast Community College Aquarium Science Program

Recognizing a growing demand for trained aquarium industry workers, the Oregon Coast Community College (OCCC) conducted a nationwide survey of public aquariums, aquaculture facilities, and ornamental fish businesses in 2000 to ascertain the need for formal instruction in aquatic animal husbandry. Over half of the respondents complained that newly hired staff customarily lacked appropriate skills; a considerable majority of respondents (80%) indicated that graduates of the proposed program would be qualified for a position in their facility. Having justified a need, a planning grant of $723,000 was awarded through the National Science Foundation in 2001. Working closely with industry leaders, the college subsequently developed the Aquarium Science Program (ASP). Arrangements were made to allow for the use of resources at the Oregon State University-affiliated Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport.


Students performing a laboratory exercise to decapsulate Artemia (brine shrimp) cysts. This practice is commonly used in public aquariums to ensure that the hatch of brine shrimp is free of debris.

Offering an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree, OCCC welcomed its first cohort of Aquarium Science students in the Fall of 2003. A substantial number of those who enrolled that year– and then the next– included postgraduate students seeking to build practical workplace experience. ASP administrators responded by obtaining state approval for a Certificate of Completion option for those entering the program with a bachelor’s degree in a life science area. While a handful of other institutions (e.g. Saddleback College, Hillsborough Community College, and Gadsden State Community College) have incorporated aquarium science courses into their curriculum, ASP remains the only such program that offers a two-year AAS degree and 1-year certificate.

Enrollment in the program has steadily increased with its reputation. The number of applicants for the coming school year has exceeded the number of available spots; shared space at HMSC has grown tight. To accommodate a growing student body, OCCC has secured funds (from a 2004 local voter-approved $23,500,000 bond levy) for the construction of a main campus building dedicated to ASP. In the near future, OCCC aquarium science students will enjoy a modern 5,000-6,000-square foot facility equipped with an animal holding area, a water quality/animal health laboratory, a food preparation room, a propagation/food (algae, rotifers, brine shrimp, etc.) culture area, as well as a workshop/storage space.


Aquarium Science students dismantle and assemble multiport valves in order to determine how the water flow is channeled through the mechanism.

The Aquarium Science Program Curriculum

ASP offers comprehensive professional training designed to prepare students for a career in the field of captive aquatic animal husbandry. Its intensive, fast-paced curriculum builds a foundation of applied knowledge and technical expertise that may take up to a decade to acquire through conventional means. Students are instructed on the biology and husbandry of aquarium livestock (e.g. principles of propagation, health management, etc.) as well as the design, fabrication, and maintenance of aquarium systems (principles of exhibit development, plumbing and electrical installation, etc.). The ASP curriculum takes a generalist approach, touching upon topics in all areas of aquatic animal care. In addition to formal academic classes in a traditional lecture format, students are afforded practical experience in a functional aquarium facility. To further round out its students, the program includes training in useful secondary skills such as boat handling, carpentry and SCUBA

With its focus on husbandry and technology, ASP does not substitute for a traditional marine biology program, nor does it prepare students for careers in veterinary medicine. ASP does not offer extensive instruction in animal training, and so does not adequately prepare students for professional work with marine mammals.


The curriculum utilizes local resources such as the Oregon Coast Aquarium as teaching tools. Here students work on identifying different species of fishes living in the Passages of the Deep exhibit.


Report Students work in pairs to anesthetize a fish in preparation for an external examination. Proper fish handling and knowing how to anesthetize fishes are important skills which students develop.


Developing the ability to successfully make a gelatin diet is an important skill set since many public aquariums utilize this type of food to deliver a broad base of nutrients to their animal collection.


Students enroll in two Practicum courses which places students in different workplace settings. Here a student manages several classroom aquariums in the public school system.


Experiences extend beyond the classroom and public aquariums to such places as fish hatcheries. Here students learn about fish culture at a production level and assist hatchery staff in such duties as determining growth rate.

Oftentimes described by both students and staff as a “hands-on” educational experience, ASP places an emphasis on operative learning by way of:

  1. the inclusion of strong lab components in most classes,
  2. a wide array of practicum experiences that take place at the nearby Oregon Coast Aquarium and other associated facilities,
  3. interactive field trip activities
  4. the fulfillment of an 11-week internship.

In its aim to produce flexible, job-ready aquarists, lab exercises are designed to familiarize students with basic occupational skills such as equipment operation and animal handling. Practicum students are assigned to an aquarist with whom he or she will work in their area of interest, getting a feel not only for the unique responsibilities and challenges but for the particular lifestyle it presents. Field excursions directly expose students to a variety of real work environments, and have included visits to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Salmon River Hatchery, the Oregon Zoo, the Zebrafish International Resource Center, a charter boat operator, and a tank fabrication company. Students are encouraged to develop more specialized skills in their area of interest during their internship, which may range from work in the retail aquarium trade to laboratory research assistance.

Students earn the AAS degree in Aquarium Science by completing the required 90 credit hours with a “C” or higher in all courses, in addition to completing 132 hours of practicum and 400 hours of field internship. Students earn the Aquarium Science Certificate of Completion by completing the required 51 credit hours with a “C” or higher in all courses, in addition to completing 132 hours of practicum and 400 hours of field internship. Graduates of the program are expected to be capable of:

  1. analyzing, maintaining, and repairing advanced aquarium life support systems,
  2. properly using standard water quality testing devices,
  3. using standard industry practice to evaluate and maintain the health of aquarium livestock,
  4. planning, constructing, and managing outstanding aquarium facilities as team members, and
  5. effectively communicating concepts and research findings to industry professionals, the scientific community, and the general public.

During a field trip to the Oregon Zoo, students got to see the extensive life support system which maintains good water quality in the Pacific Northwest River exhibit. Such partnerships with associated facilities are a key component of the Aquarium Science Program.


The field trip to the Oregon Zoo serves a dual function of providing insight into animal husbandry activities and exhibit design and development. Students get to visit the exhibit fabrication facility at the zoo.


Students enrolled in the Biology of Captive Invertebrates course take advantage of a “minus tide” to examine and collect live specimens. Learning the proper use of a seine net is a skill that develops with practice.


Under minimal supervision, Practicum students begin to dismantle a bamboo shark exhibit after transferring the animals to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.


Unexpected discoveries are always a highlight of working in a natural environment. Here a student has found a kelp crab during a field trip to the rocky intertidal zone along the Oregon Coast.


Students participate in salmon and steelhead spawning with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Here a student handles a ready-to-spawn Coho salmon.


Class sessions may include a nutritional break to sample different fishes that are cultured for food. Here the instructor cooks up a batch of catfish nuggets for the evening class.


Learning the proper techniques and considerations of fish shipping helps to build skills and assist students in gaining a competitive edge when applying for jobs after completing their degree or certificate option.

Employment opportunities for graduates include work in aquaculture enterprises, research facilities, fish hatcheries, aquarium science publication, government natural resource agencies, public zoos and aquariums, and retailing, wholesaling, or self-employment in the ornamental fish industry.

The following PDF details the program:


Those seeking enrollment in ASP must begin by contacting an OCCC academic advisor and taking the ASSET test. An OCCC and an ASP application form must then be obtained and completed. Additional required materials include a current resume, transcripts (those applying for enrollment in the Certificate of Completion program must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a life science), letters of recommendation, and applicant evaluation forms. Applicants are interviewed by the ASP interview panel. For those who apply early in the admission period, status notification is sent in mid-January; for all others, notification is sent shortly following the interview. Admitted ASP students begin their coursework in the fall term (late September to early October).


Additional information about the Oregon Community College Aquarium Science Program can be obtained by calling (541) 265-2283, contacting director Bruce Koike by email at [email protected], or visiting the program website at Post can be addressed to Aquarium Science Program, Oregon Coast Community College, 332 SW Coast Hwy Newport, OR 97365.



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