Fishery is a small field of study, but it attracts students even from abroad

Pavel Kozák has been the dean of the Faculty of Fisheries and Protection of Waters exactly a year. The youngest and smallest faculty of the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice offers some of the larger small fields of study, with eighty students enrolling each year. Yet, a much smaller number of them eventually receive a diploma. The study is demanding, and students cannot do without foreign languages, and most PhD students are actually from abroad.

"Let’s have no illusions, for the students who have not specifically decided to study this field, we are not their faculty of first choice," says Pavel Kozák, Dean of the Faculty of Fisheries and Protection of Waters. However, even a field which at first sight seems to be marginal can be very attractive due to its narrow profile. "All of our graduates are employed, and most of them find employment directly in the field." The faculty also has a huge technological advantage and extensive facilities in Vodňany, which are unique in Central Europe if not beyond  not only for fish farming but also for their laboratories.

Fishery and Protection of Waters are very specific fields of study. I’ll ask in a fishermen’s way – where do you catch students?
Perhaps it may seem that only at secondary schools focused on fishery; by the way, there is a secondary school of fishery next to our building in Vodňany and another in Třeboň. But it is not the case. At the bachelor’s level, we offer not only the field of Fishery but also the field of Protection of Waters, so we also target prospective students at schools focused on, for instance, ecology. We certainly do not limit ourselves to graduates from vocational schools because the standard of study is fairly demanding, and vocational school graduates are less successful in finishing their studies than grammar school graduates.

You are now also offering a relatively generous scholarship of up to 10 thousand crowns for incoming students who have had a high study average at secondary schools. Is it because you would otherwise have a problem filling the courses?
Much has been discussed at the faculty about whether we need to attract students for money. We do not, certainly not. But this scholarship is meant for gifted students. Let’s have no illusions, for the students who have not specifically decided to study this field, we are not their faculty of first choice. The purpose of the scholarship for incoming students is to attract the best and still undecided students who have the chance to get to any faculty in the country. What we invest in them will pay off in the future because they have a chance to stay at the faculty and continue even to PhD level. This concerns individual students. In addition, another part of the scholarship is dependent on getting a certain number of credits in the first semester. So, it's not enough to enrol only, students have to show they've done some work.

There are approximately eighty students in the first year, so you are one of the larger ones among the smaller fields of study. Can you guarantee your graduates employment?
All of our graduates are employed, as we do not have students registered with the Labour Office. Most of them find employment directly in the industry. On the one hand, we accept eighty students, on the other, more than half of them do not complete the demanding study. Every year ten to twenty students continue to the master’s level, which is not much. The situation is different at the PhD level. We are trying to internationalize the faculty at a large scale, and at present the doctoral study is in the opposite mode, where the majority are foreign students and we start to have a shortage of Czech ones. Yearly, out of ten PhD students, there are only one or two who are Czech.

Why is that?
Our students have good job opportunities once they receive the bachelor's or master's degree – especially the best ones who we would be interested in as doctoral students. This is accompanied by low unemployment. Students simply do not feel the need to continue. They know well that they do not need the PhD title for getting a job or running a business as the master's degree is absolutely sufficient.

Do you think that small fields of study generally thrive or rather fight for survival?
I think those fields of study that are truly unique are prosperous. That's also our case. Our faculty is unique both with its focus on fishery and water protection and with its facilities. We have a unique pond base, facilities for intensive fish farming in recirculating systems, as well as state-of-the-art biological, chemical, and toxicological laboratory equipment. We are unique in our closed breeding and reproduction of almost thirty species of freshwater fish and crustaceans. We have close ties with the fishing public in the Czech Republic, Europe, and the world. And above all, we have top scientists. If some small fields of study do not thrive, then you have to ask why it is so. Is there a lack of interest or just insufficient support? I will mention our Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, where indeed there are some unique fields of study which deserve support, but unfortunately, the ministry neglects them in the distribution of money. Then it is up to the university whether it will support these fields. I believe social- or environmental-oriented fields of study are worth supporting. The mere pursuit of the number of students has led our educational system where it is now. Universities are fighting for the number of students for which they will receive funding, and their quality is secondary.

Do you agree that some fields of study are unnecessary, an opinion often even pronounced from the mouths of top state officials?
To say about a field of study that it is unnecessary, one has to know what one is talking about. When I started with crayfish, a number of people also found it unnecessary. Today, at our faculty, over ten people deal with this issue which has been elaborated within a broader perspective of ecology and the protection of the aquatic environment, and the field has been developed at other universities, too. In two years in Vodňany, we will be hosting a global conference on crayfish. So, even a field which may seem ridiculous or unnecessary to somebody may be meaningful, but you need to see a specific goal behind it. On the other hand, there can be an interestingly named field of study that looks important but is empty in content.

In addition to the field of Fishery, you also offer the field of Protection of Waters. Is it because there are not so many jobs in the sector of fishery as in the one of water management?
Partly yes, we did not want to artificially increase the number of students of fishery. In addition, water protection has great potential in the future, as society tackles the problem of drought and water pollution. One of the reasons was that we wanted to educate conservationists who would have a practical approach from the fishery perspective. This is why we are also preparing a PhD programme of Protection of Waters, next to the current programme of Fishery.

Is water protection linked to the fact that fishery alone is a major polluter?
I'd be cautious about this. Although fishery brings a certain organic load into the water, this is not as big a polluter as other areas of agriculture or municipal waste, which cause more water pollution. Today, fish management is controlled by various regulations to such an extent that large pollution cannot even occur. And since there is no increase in fish farming production, closed recirculating systems are nowadays widely used with mild water replenishment only. In the last programming period of the Operational Programme Fisheries, half of the money went to fish farming in ponds and half to support fish farming in closed recirculation systems. So, our faculty is also moving in this direction.

You mentioned that Fishery and Protection of Waters is a field of the future. Meanwhile, as a faculty, you hold a privileged position throughout Central Europe. Do you fear competition in the coming years?
I do, absolutely realistically. Not that we would cease to exist because of this, but it would definitely drain part of our students. Nowadays, in Prague they are opening an identical field of Aquaculture and Environmental Care. But I do not want to see them as competitors, they are our colleagues who we are connected with and we want to help each other. Each of us can offer something extra thanks to mutual cooperation. On the other hand, we have a huge technological advantage and extensive facilities in Vodňany, which are unique in Central Europe if not beyond - not only for fish farming but also for their laboratories. And we must not forget about our know-how because thanks to our top specialists we are able to attract foreign students even from developed countries. In the future, we want to attract not only PhD students but also students of bachelor’s and master’s programmes, which are already taught in English today.

You have about 150 members of staff and 200 students, that's an interesting ratio. Is it because you are primarily a research faculty?
This is due to two factors. The first is minor, but it still has an influence. Unlike other faculties of the University of South Bohemia, we are mainly located in Vodňany, so we need to deal with overheads ourselves. The main reason really is that we are primarily a research faculty. This can be demonstrated not only by the ratio between members of staff and students, but also between students at individual levels. Approximately, there are one hundred students at the bachelor’s level, with a maximum of fifty at the master’s level, and another sixty doctoral students. So, we have more PhD students than master’s students! We are focusing on the education of future scientists, not just people going into the industry. Already at the bachelor’s level, we encourage students to work in our laboratories.

Does it happen that candidates for study or the public think that you teach students to catch fish?
A lot of students, when they begin their studies, say that they have been doing sport fishing since an early age. If this is their main focus, the faculty may be a disappointment for them because sport fishing is really just a marginal matter. However, we support gifted fishing sportsmen with equipment or scholarships.

Who then is a suitable candidate for study?
It should be someone with an interest in nature and fishing as well as a willingness to study subjects that may not be in their area of interest, such as chemistry, mathematics, and English. English is absolutely vital for us, and without knowledge of it, students virtually cannot communicate within the faculty, and in addition they need to read scientific publications. In this area of agricultural sciences, we are perhaps the most demanding in the Czech Republic, and it surely reduces the number of applicants. A graduate who wants to be at the top level in his field simply cannot get by without English.

The consumption of fish is still rather negligible in the Czech Republic. Is the fish a commodity of the future that can feed the world?
It is said so, freshwater aquaculture is indeed a sector that has the fastest growth. In the Czech Republic, the potential is large and untapped. Despite campaigning and support for fishery in recent years, the consumption of Czech consumers remains the same, approximately five kilograms of fish per year and only one and a half kilograms of freshwater fish. When we subtract Christmas, we are left with roughly half.

You are trying to reverse this unfavourable trend, among other things, with the marketing brand Omega3carp, a healthier carp enriched with omega 3 fatty acids. Is that working?
I was at the start of the so-called Omega3carp from the very beginning as the project leader. Originally, we did not aim to create this carp at all. The aim of the project, in cooperation with the Institute of Clinical and Experimental Medicine (IKEM) in Prague, was to test the health benefits of carp meat in a diet administered to patients after heart surgery in the spa in Poděbrady. Omega3carp originated for research purposes because we had to have standardized carp with a clearly defined composition for clinical trials. That gave rise to a special technology of production of the Omega3carp that we had patented. It's about giving the carp supplementary food containing a blend of flax and oilseed rape. After the very positive effect of this carp on patient convalescence was indeed confirmed, we decided to give it a trademark to promote Czech carp which is also beneficial to health. In this way, we are trying to contribute to increasing the consumption of freshwater fish ourselves. Every year we produce and sell without fail over ten tons of this carp. The Faculty would sell even more, but we want to encourage its production by other fishery entities.

The main subject of your research interest is crayfish. Last time we met was in 2013 when you released European crayfish in a location in the Písek area into the wild. How have they been doing since then?
Last time we monitored the site in Semice last year, the pond had not been emptied yet, so I hope that the crayfish are thriving. But I have to confess that at least for the third season I have had no time to get into the field, and my colleagues do the monitoring. In any case, crayfish have a great deal of respect among the inhabitants of Semice, the local people are very proud of them. In the Písek Mountains we have several locations where our crayfish successfully thrive.

Is there a danger that similar crayfish locales will soon be mere islands in the "sea" of non-native species? Recently I read that even in the Lipno reservoir the non-native spiny-cheek crayfish has begun to flourish and replace our European crayfish.
It is humans that are responsible for releasing the non-native species in Europe – be it the signal, the spiny-cheek, or the red swamp crayfish. Then they usually take a natural migration path moving along the waterways. However, the crayfish cannot move long distances by themselves. I would say that in half of the cases, it is once again people who move them to other sites that are to blame. I have witnessed a number of cases where people have tried to save crayfish, but they could not distinguish between the native species from the non-native ones. The spiny-cheek crayfish is also used as bait for catching predatory fish in sport fishing. I guess that's how it got to Lipno. We have long been actively trying to protect the native crayfish and create havens for them, so-called "arks", places they cannot get on their own - that is the case of the locales in the Písek Mountains.

In a few years, we may perhaps consider the spiny-cheek crayfish as part of Czech nature ...
If we do accept that we have dragged it here ourselves, that it has replaced our native crayfish, and that our waters will be poor in life, eutrophied, then yes. The crayfish affects the whole ecosystem of the locale.

Does it happen that an inexperienced aquarist releases the non-indigenous crayfish in the water without realizing that it threatens our crayfish population, for instance, with crayfish plague?
You are right to mention the aquarists. Unfortunately, to Czech waters they have introduced the marbled crayfish, which adds one more to all of the dangers, such as the plague or faster reproduction - it reproduces parthenogenetically. This means that only one specimen is needed for reproduction, the female. It is so undemanding that its breeding and rearing is successful even in a jar. And what to do with it then? I do not know a breeder who would be happy to dispose of his produce. So, they solve it by releasing it into the wild. It's a real threat. Even if it is not infected by crayfish plague, in a few years it will multiply to such an extent that it will start to replace our native crayfish. You can still find the marbled crayfish in every aquarium shop, but fortunately the European legislation is becoming stricter.

Even though the crayfish are part of our natural environment, we know little about them. What fascinates you about them?
The crayfish fascinates everyone. You can talk about it for hours, and people listen. It seems mysterious by the mere fact that it is a nocturnal animal, it lives in hiding in the water, it is invertebrate and at the same time rather big, and moreover, we find it a little dangerous with its claws. We also find its escape response, a simple yet effective reflex, fascinating. Depending on which direction the stimulus, the predator, comes from, the crayfish chooses its escape response, either upwards or backwards.

And the fact that crayfish walk backwards is probably the only thing a layman can tell you about them.
In a way this is nonsense, I would rather say they can also walk backwards. They feel less endangered in water than on land, so they enter water backwards to protect themselves with their claws. The escape response in water is also backwards when the crayfish starts its "rocket engine" and escapes with a rapid movement of the abdomen and the tail fan. This muscle, by the way, is also interesting for people for culinary reasons. Only the meat from the abdomen, and also from the claws, can be used after cooking. I will return to the question of whether it matters which kind of crayfish we have in our waters. We should praise our European crayfish even for culinary reasons. I have had the opportunity to taste many different types of crayfish in the world, but the European crayfish is definitely among the best.

At the faculty, you have several patents, such as the acid-enriched omega3carp, you produce sturgeon-friendly caviar without the need to kill the fish. What about breeding a crayfish, “the protector”, which would control the cleanliness of water?
We actually have this. For three years, the brewery in Protivín has been licensed to use our patent and has been cooperating with us – they use our crayfish as an early warning system against the pollution of water used for beer production. Here we use the signal crayfish, which can adapt well to the new environment and thus do not give many false stress reactions. In addition, unlike the European crayfish, it is not a critically endangered animal. This way the crayfish can be used to test water quality in water purification plants and other sources of drinking water. They often make use of trout as bioindicators, but crayfish can record much lower concentrations of pollution.

How do you use crayfish for monitoring water?
I often say that crayfish is a living chemical lab. In addition, with a very short analysis time. As a matter of fact, within a few seconds, the crayfish can record any odour in the water, be it food or various forms of pollution. We use a crayfish heart monitoring system that evaluates crayfish responses to changing environment on the basis of the change in their cardiac activity and behaviour. At present, we have a European patent that improves this non-invasive way of monitoring by making the entire system non-contact. The sensor is replaced by an infrared camera which is located above the aquarium or tank, and the crayfish has a reflective tape stuck in the heart area.