ELLSWORTH — When Jenn Fortier was in sixth grade, she read a book about a scientist named Eugenie Clark. Nicknamed “The Shark Lady,” Clark was a giant in the field of shark study and a pioneer in the use of SCUBA diving for research purposes.
Fortier was hooked, and she immediately told her teacher about her new life goal.
“I told Mrs. Anderson that I wanted to be an ichthyologist,” Fortier said. “And she was like ‘I don’t know what that is, but sure.’”
An ichthyologist is a scientist who specializes in ichthyology (pronounced ick-thee-ology), the study of fish. The name might look difficult to pronounce, but that didn’t stop Fortier from reaching for her dream.
In 2009, the Ellsworth native graduated cum laude from the University in Maine in Orono with degrees in both marine biology and microbiology. After that, she studied fish both in labs and in the water, as close as the Union River and as far away as Iceland.
On Sunday, Fortier followed her dream a little farther — about 10,000 miles, to be exact. She is now on the tiny western Pacific island of Koror, the most populated of the hundreds of islands that make up the nation of Palau (pronounced pal-ow).
For the next three to six months, Fortier will work with a company called Indigo Seafood, which seeks to develop an aquaculture industry in Palau.
With crystal-clear ocean water, white, sandy beaches and pristine jungles that seem to bubble up out of the ocean, the islands of Palau look like the sort of paradise most people only see on computer screensavers. It took Fortier a lot of hard work to get there.
Fortier began to study aquaculture while working toward her master’s degree in marine biology. Unlike conventional fishing, where fishermen seek their quarry in rivers and oceans, aquaculture involves raising fish in tanks or cages both on land and in the water.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aquaculture supplies over 50 percent of all seafood produced for human consumption globally.
“Future increases in seafood production must come largely from aquaculture,” a statement on the NOAA website claims. Currently, only 5 to 7 percent of the U.S demand for seafood is met by domestic aquaculture.
Encouraging development in that sector, the agency argues, could help ensure the seafood Americans eat meets American safety standards and supports American jobs.
The problem is, Fortier said, aquaculture has a filthy reputation around here.
“There were some salmon farms in Maine back in the 1980s and early ’90s that were run very poorly,” she said. “The bottom under the cages was getting all yucky, and so a lot of people still have that in their minds.”
Throughout her career, Fortier has researched ways to make aquaculture cleaner and more efficient.
One technique is called IMTA, short for integrated multitrophic aquaculture. It involves raising multiple underwater species together, so excess nutrients produced by one species help feed another.
“Around here, if you have a salmon pen, you could put a raft of mussels next to it and a line of algae growing next to that,” Fortier said. “The mussels will filter out the fish waste and the extra feed, and the algae will filter out the excess nitrogen and the phosphates and other things.”
“It decreases the local environmental impact of the fish farm,” the ichthyologist said, “and the fishermen get those extra crops for very little input.”
Fortier said IMTA could be a big help to local lobstermen, who frequently fish multiple species throughout the year in order to sustain a livelihood.
“Some lobstermen will work on a scallop boat in the winter, or they have a friend who dives for urchins,” said Fortier, who in the past has worked with Frenchman Bay Partners, Acadia Harvest Inc. and the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“Some of these guys are doing seaweed, some are doing oysters,” she said. “These guys do whatever they have to; why not add an aquaculture component?”
Teaching a man to grow fish, however, could be easier said than done, especially when those men have caught fish the old-fashioned way their entire lives.
“It’s really hard to take a fisherman who’s like a hunter and turn him into an aquaculture farmer,” Fortier said. “To some, it’s more risky, but I think there’s a pool of people in Maine who could be nudged towards aquaculture a little bit.”
Fortier’s background made her a perfect candidate for Indigo Seafood. The island nation heavily regulated its traditional fishing industry to protect its native species from overharvesting.
Founded by scientists who have worked in Palau since the 1970s, Indigo plans to build sustainable, onshore and offshore aquaculture facilities and train local students and fishermen to operate them.
The goal is to “fully develop the entire aquaculture industry in Palau,” the Indigo website says. “We will grow only high-value fish and will export them to live seafood markets in Hong Kong, China and Tokyo.”
In a chance encounter, Fortier’s boyfriend’s mother met one of the company’s founders, who read Fortier’s resume and invited her to the island.
“He called me up and said ‘Do you want to go to Palau?’” Fortier said.
Fortier will be working a wide range of jobs for Indigo. She could be guiding tourists one day, helping local college students in a fish hatchery the next and SCUBA diving into the deep-sea aquaculture cages the day after that.
“They just need somebody to come in and get their hands dirty,” the 31-year-old said. “That’s really what aquaculture is. You show up on a given day and you don’t know if you’ll be helping someone fix the boat or scrubbing tanks or feeding fish or analyzing data.”
Going to Palau was a big decision for the Maine native, who’s spent her most of her life in the Pine Tree State. In the end, her grandparents inspired her to go.
Fortier’s grandmother, Cindy Owen, once traveled the world as a nurse working for a French diplomatic family. Her grandfather, Harry Owen, once lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he went camping and hunting and would live off bear meat while living in a cabin through the winter. Now in their 90s, the couple owns the Stone Barn Farm on Mount Desert Island.
“That’s one of the reasons I finally decided I had the guts to go on this trip,” Fortier said. “I got to have my own grand adventure.”
Fortier will update the public on her journey through her blog, abroadabroadinpalau.wordpress.com.