Don’t allow fish farms in Michigan waters

One of my frustrations in my retirement has been a difficulty in speaking out on issues that are of some concern to me. Being 92 has its limitations – but my friends assure me, it’s not limited my expertise.

But I’m speaking out today to express my strong opposition to aquaculture in the waters and connecting rivers of the Great Lakes – including the Au Sable River.

When I think of Michigan’s latest infatuation with aquaculture – be it in Grayling on the Au Sable River, or in the Great Lakes – I am reminded of a saying: Some people learn from their mistakes. Smart people learn from the mistakes of others.

There are many mistakes to learn from when it comes to using our public waters as the sewers for private companies raising and selling fish. All around the globe, fish farming in public waters has led to water pollution, spread of fish disease, and widespread opposition by those who have to live with the visual pollution and other consequences of fish farming.

We here in Michigan have labored for sixty years to make our lakes clean. We are leaders of all matters related to the Great Lakes. Half the population of Michigan gets its water from the Great Lakes, part of 30 million people in the basin who rely on the lakes for drinking water. Maintaining the cleanliness of this water should be the top priority for state and federal officials.

The phosphate emissions from the fish in one net pen operation is the equivalent of the phosphate emissions from a sewer plant for 10,000 people. This fish sewage will create filamentous algae, which will wash up on nearby beaches, rot and stink. If this is going to be a $1 billion industry, as advocates say, there will be about 100 net pen operations, filling virtually every bay of any size in Michigan’s portion of the Great Lakes. Imagine one in Grand Traverse Bay, or in front of the Grand Hotel, or in the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix.

Already, the lakes are under pressure, with algae blooms from high phosphorous levels (the kind virtually guaranteed to grow with fish farming) creating toxins forcing closure of water intakes in cities including Cleveland and Toledo in recent years. Will Rogers once counseled wise men should drink upstream from the herd – but many of Michigan’s major cities would be downstream from this herd of fish.

Any mistakes in the Great Lakes are uncorrectable. People advocating for aquaculture talk about adaptive management – when they make a mistake, they will correct it. But in a huge area, you can’t make a correction.

And the impact of a mistake on a river like the Au Sable could easily damage the river, and its economic potential, for generations. The addition of more than 1,500 pounds of algae-creating phosphorous a year from the proposed Grayling fish farm will be devastating to the river’s ecosystem.

People have learned this the hard way in Norway and in Chile, where massive net penning operations have collapsed financially. As can easily be expected when you put that many animals into a confined area, the fish farms have introduced diseases into the natural population. Today, the natural Atlantic Salmon fishery in the North Atlantic is shrinking. It’s an ecological disaster.

These same patterns are seen in flow-through fish farms, such as the one being developed on the Au Sable. They all do the same thing – they make no pretense of treating the fecal and urine matter of a large number of animals. They discharge that matter into the public water – our drinking water, for many communities on the Great Lakes.

I know these issues well. I grew up in Bellaire, and guided anglers on the Chain O’ Lakes. I fished the “Holy Waters” with George Griffiths, and stayed at his beloved “Barbless Hook” on the banks of Au Sable.

I studied fish and their habitats – including an experiment where I looked into the impact of adding nutrients to six lakes. My conclusion: This was a big mistake. And I was part of a team that introduced salmon into the Great Lakes.

So it’s with a love of Michigan’s great waters, experience as a scientist and teacher and the understanding of the pressures facing regulators gained through a long career with the Department of Natural Resources that I speak today.

Michigan shouldn’t be inviting any industry into our state that says, “don’t make us treat our waste. Let us dump it into your fresh water.”

You wouldn’t put a pigpen in a rose garden. It’s just common sense.

Don’t put fish farms on our rivers or in our Great Lakes. It’s just common sense.

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Gerry S.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 9:40am
AMEN, Mr. Tanner. I could't express it any better.
Mike Slater
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:09am
Thank you Dr. Tanner. I echo your thoughts and conclusions. Inonly wish that the MDEQ , Dept. of Agriculture, Legislature, State Senators, and the Govenors Office were equally concerned about our public waters and public health. We are headed directly into another public drinking water catastrophe in epic proportions if we continue
Ron Styka
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:11am
Director Tanner's comments are scholarly and should be followed. I am glad that he put them forward.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:11am
Well said. Thank you Dr. Tanner!!!
Jim Vollmers
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:14am
Thank you, Mr. Tanner for your interest, insight, and intelligently written commentary. Bending to the whims of business is not always good business.
Jim Vollmers
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:17am
Pardon me, it should have been Dr. Tanner.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:20am
Thank you for taking the time and having the concern that you have for our future in Michigan.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:20am
Thank you for a very informative and interesting article on this topic.
Gregg Smith
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:50am
Dr. Howard Tanner's informed opus should be required reading for everyone living in the Great Lakes Basin. In the late 1960's when the Jordan River Watershed Commission was being formed as part of the movement that would enlist that prized resource in the then new state natural rivers act, the prime upstream polluter was the federal fish hatchery. It flushed its fish rearing ponds into the Jordan via Five Tile Creek. Algae growth and advanced eutrophication of the river were some of the byproducts of this practice. Intervention by the commission (Dr. David Pray, East Jordan dentist; Thora and Teddy Kotowich, local canoe livery and fishing tackle shop owners; Andy Anderson, long time river guide, and others) caused the practice to be stopped. In reading Dr. Tanner's column I was reminded of this history. And the fact that when smart people don't recall the lessons of history, they're apt to repeat the same mistakes. Thank you Dr. Tanner!
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:55am
Thank you Dr. Tanner! Unfortunately the current administration, even though Governor Snyder sought Governor Milliken's endorsement, will not let your wise counsel or science or facts impact its policy on any issue including the environment. Whether reducing sand dune protection or polluting the Au Sable if there is a dollar to be made Governor Sndyer lacks the spine to do the right thing.
Curtiss Alvarez
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:56am
I am not surprised that we the citizens of Michigan are sitting around hoping the EPA and political parties will do their job....yet another Flint, Michigan is happening while we watch. I'm tired of hearing businesses (which are not bound by any code of ethics) say it will bring more jobs or bring money to the community so it is okay to do, and we allow it. The End does not justify the means! Let's stop this now before it is too late! THANK YOU DR. TANNER!
Douglas G. Platt
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 11:11am
Thank you for an informative article. Now the onus lies upon us as citizens of this great state to let our elected officials know where we stand on this issue. Please call or write them to let them know. Above all please be respectful.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 11:36am
We would not let a community of 10,000 dump raw sewage into the Great Lakes and I don't see any difference here. However I would not object if the fish farmers would be willing to build ponds adjacent to but separate from the Great Lakes, utilize the lake water, and then purify it through primary, secondary and tertiary sewage treatment as a municipality would be required to do before returning it to the lakes. This would place the true cost of doing business on those who benefit while protecting our Great Lakes. However when the true cost is included up front, I expect most of the profit would be gone making such business ventures far less attractive. To do otherwise would just leave the burden of cleaning up the mess to our children and grandchildren. Most of the environmental messes we are dealing with today are because the environmental consequences were not considered or included in the cost of doing business.
Diane E
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:20pm
Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience Dr. Tanner! Let the word be heard!!
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:40pm
The DNR has been fish farming since they built their first hatchery. The Michigan DNR has net pens in the Great Lakes. The DNR has approved releasing non native fish in the Great Lakes. Sport groups have had educational pens in the Great Lakes. One of the greatest threats to wild fish species is over harvesting, that's why all good sport fisherman practice catch and release. Check out what Jaques Cousteau says about fish farming. Go check out a state of the art fish farm before you make a decision on this. Why do sport fisherman think there is only one use for this great resource. See you all on the trout stream, I'll be the one with the cane pole and red wrigglers. Some live to fish, some fish to live.
Bayard Cournyer
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:49pm
i'm also one of the oldtimers from Mio, downstream from Grayling. Fish hatchery and city sewage were directly dumped into the AuSable and down to Mio. Now we only have the Hoskins and PBB catle mess to contend with. Thanks DNR and Epa.
Bruce Noble
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 1:34pm
Excellent comments and wisdom from one of the greats of Michigan properly managed fisheries. Thank you Dr. Tanner!
Barry Schorfhaar
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 2:03pm
Thank you, Dr. Tanner, for the fine article and your continuing work for the future of those precious lakes. I no longer live in the region but it remains in my blood. By the way, I wonder if you crossed paths with my departed father, Dick Schorfhaar. He was Great Lakes Fisheries Sup. out of Harvey until about 96 and in Charlevoix until he retired. Barry
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 3:19pm
Howard -- Dr. Tanner-- you are so right about everything you say on fish-farms (animal waste farms). Importantly, beyond the unlawful pollution and impairment, net/pen farms in the Great Lakes are NOT authorized and CANNOT be authorized under the long-established public trust doctrine that protects every inch, gallon, liter, fish, aqua-critter, shoreline, bottomland, and surface water of the Great Lakes. Michigan holds these waters subject to this public trust, which means as trustee, Michigan and its agencies and leaders has a high, perpetual duty to protect these waters and their protected uses, like fishing, boating, swimming, recreation, from impairment or interference. It also means that the actual area or acreage of the surface or bottomlands CANNOT be leased or by agreement allowed to be occupied for primarily private purposes. Indeed, not even the legislature can attempt to authorize net/pet farms in the Great Lakes for this reason. It simply lacks the power to enact a law that would allow occupancy, leasing, or conveyance to a private person for a primarily private commercial use. Water like the Great Lakes are common in which all citizens have an interest, as beneficiaries of the public trust. Land is for farming, it can be bought, sold, and used if reasonable and not harmful to others or the environment. Water cannot be bought, sold, and used in its natural state like the Great Lakes. Period. It's time to put an end to this idea, following Howard Tanner's wise counsel.
Ed DeRoshs
Mon, 03/07/2016 - 2:32pm
This sounds like a good argument. How, then, was Michigan able to grant Enbridge an easment to run Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac?
Mark Byndas
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 3:41pm
Thank you so much Dr. Tanner for your wisdom and insight. I hope we all will share this information. Well done indeed Sir.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 5:01pm
This is important to the whole world. Please share what we can do to make a difference.
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 5:55pm
Only a fool would not appreciate Dr Tanner's contribution to Michigan fisheries, I've certainly enjoyed it. But didn't the millions of salmon stocked into the Great lakes contribute a significant amount of waste and change into the system? With the demand for fish for food and the concern over wild stocks, how and where is this going to be met?
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 8:09pm
Every dam should have a fish ladder. Most dams should have a fish hatchery, So people can catch fish to eat. We do not need fish farms. We need to stop pollution on all rivers and lakes. We have the technology. When ever I want a fish dinner I will go catch just enough for my family, is fresh and better tasting. 80% of what I eat is from a garden or hunting and fishing.What can be better?
Jack Nails
Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:21pm
Have we not learned from our past mistakes? Over thirty years ago the city of Grayling was finally convinced to remove its wastewater discharges to the Ausable River to prevent dissolved oxygen depletion due to phosphors loading. Now we are considering a fish farming operation that will discharge significant phosphorius and other nutrients to the same high quality, world famous trout stream! Dr. Tanner, you were right to support removing Grayling discharges to protect the river over thirty years ago and you are right now on opposing fish farming that uses our state waters to cheaply dispose of untreated wastewater for private gain at public expense.
Bob McElroy
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 7:54am
Fortunately we have Dr. Tanner as a strong and recognized voice against Great Lakes fish farming as well as aquaculture in Michigan rivers. Likewise we are fortunate to have Jim Olsen as a strong legal voice for the public trust doctrine and the commons. In 1971 I stayed on the Ballynahinch River, then the most famous of the salmon and sea trout rivers on the west of Ireland. In the ensuing years the estuary the Ballynahinch River empties into became the site of net salmon farming. What followed was complete loss of salmon and sea trout migration into the Balllynahinch River. When I last saw the river in 1998 there were no salmon or sea trout runs in the river. Apparently in 2007 the nets and salmon farming was seriously curtailed if not stopped and there has been a gradual return of both salmon and sea trout in the Ballynahinch River. Similar losses of salmon runs related to fish aquaculture have occurred on other rivers on the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Destruction of a beautiful fishery that one has actually fished carries more emotional weight. We do not need that experience here in Michigan. Finally, the current aquaculture operation on the Au Sable River had some monitoring requirements that were to be overseen by the Dept. of Agriculture rather than the DNR. The monitoring was actually to be done by the trout farming operator who apparently was on a shoestring budget. Since the 1970 Michigan Environmental Protection Act has been seriously limited by the State Supreme Court we can not rely on the State of Michigan to be a timely and effective regulating entity.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 8:23am
Thank you Dr Tanner for you time and commitment to this serious issue.
Mike Buda
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:19am
This is a must-read for everyone in Michigan and the Great Lakes region. Thank you, Dr. Tanner, for so clearly stating what should be an obvious choice.
Fri, 03/04/2016 - 11:51am
Thank you Dr Tanner. Is there a way to get a petition started to sign?
Dennis Mulka
Sat, 03/05/2016 - 7:47am
Dr. Tanner's comments are spot on! An old Native American proverb states " We did not inherit the earth, but only borrow it from our children."
Sat, 03/05/2016 - 9:04am
Thank you Dr. Tanner. How can we help stop this?
Sat, 03/05/2016 - 6:52pm
Thank you, Dr. Tanner. I once knew PhD in Aquaculture in Texas who spent one half his 50 year career designing fish and shrimp farms around the globe, and the other half of his career trying to clean up the terrible mess those aquaculture firms created. No fish farms on the Au Sable or in the Great Lakes!
Robert S
Sun, 03/06/2016 - 3:58pm
Several conservation groups in MI are fighting this fish farm on the Au Sable River -- most notably the Anglers of the Au Sable. To read what they say about this and what they have done to combat it, please check out -- The Anglers of the Au Sable is an organization that has taken this threat seriously. If you wish to contribute to an organization who is not afraid to tackle the state and Federal bureaucracies, see
Mon, 03/07/2016 - 5:36am
I normally don't agree with Mr. Tanner, his support of the current goal of 20 pounds of alewives (an invasive species) per pound of salmon for lake Michigan, is given the invasive species problems we have makes no sense, more invasive species, on purpose? Ridiculous! Alewives eat the same thing as Asian carp! However I agree with his stand on netpen aquaculture!
Sun, 03/13/2016 - 11:38am
WOW! What insight Dr. Tanner provides on the issue of aquaculture from years of education, professional practice and wisdom. The Governor and DEQ need to heed his advice!
Thomas Cunningham
Mon, 03/21/2016 - 9:56am
Thank you Dr. Tanner.
George Moroz
Thu, 07/07/2016 - 10:07am
TICOM (Tourism Industry Coalition of Michigan), a statewide tourism organization of which I am a board member, has and will continue to vigorously advocate against any and all efforts to introduce or expand net/pen aquaculture operations into the Great Lakes or its tributaries for all of the reasons cited by Dr. Tanner in his well-reasoned and thoughtful article. Net/pen aquaculture has no place in Pure Michigan.
Mon, 07/11/2016 - 10:49am
Thank You Gov.??? Snyder - For your personal financial GREED!!!!!!!