Fish farms are already in the Great Lakes, helping and feeding Michigan

Considerable effort has been spent over the past year to portray proposals for fish farming in Michigan as a detrimental and risky enterprise for the Great Lakes, including a recent commentary in Bridge. However, real experience in other states and Canadian provinces demonstrate that thoughtful and diligent regulation can manage the risks and provide economic, ecological and social benefits for communities.

The aquaculture industry has rigorous, constant and effective regulatory oversight in Michigan. Moreover, retailers, such as Whole Foods and others, will only sell seafood meeting strict certifications, ensuring customers that the food they buy is sustainably raised. One of the freshest and healthiest seafood products Michiganders can find in local grocery stores is rainbow trout, farmed in the Ontario waters of Lake Huron.

Ontario has been farming rainbow trout in Lake Huron net pens for over 30 years. Canadian scientists have been continuously improving their understanding of the impact on the natural food web. Hard evidence exists that impacts are localized under the nets, and that those impacts include positive benefits to the local ecosystem, native fish, and recreational fishery. A well-developed regulatory protocol has allowed existing farms to steadily expand, or, in one case, to close when problems were detected.

The net-pen discussion is not new to Michigan and goes back to 1999. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the International Joint Commission held a roundtable to address water-quality and habitat-impact concerns related to large-scale aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Government agencies, academics and fish farmers have all agreed there are a limited number of suitable sites for net pen operations in Michigan, which provides effective limits to growth. The claim for 100-250 net pen sites around Michigan was fabricated to fuel the opposition.

Does Michigan have a potential for a $1 billion dollar aquaculture industry? Possibly: 60% of the world’s aquaculture production (an industry valued at more than $135 billion and growing) comes from freshwater systems. Large-scale aquaculture has been growing for the past 40 years and global suppliers have been increasingly innovative in developing sustainable seafood production. However, to be very clear, only a minor portion of this goal is capable through net farming in the Great Lakes. In Michigan, aquaculture growth will come from a variety of systems – open water, ponds, flow-through and indoor systems.

Commercial fish growers are not the only ones who benefit from Michigan aquaculture. All Michigan DNR hatcheries raising fish for wild release are located on rivers and streams that flow into the Great Lakes. Dr. Howard Tanner (who wrote the aforementioned Bridge commentary) should be lauded for his decision, over 50 years ago, to stock an exotic species to fight an invasive one. This created a thriving recreational salmon fishery – raised in those state-run hatcheries – and a generation of anglers can be truly grateful for his leadership. However, that fishery is currently disappearing from Lake Huron, and there is a concern that a similar decline is underway in Lake Michigan.

Now is an important time to boldly assess our resource management strategies. What if net-pen farming could have a positive role in strengthening our waters for the next 50 years?

Supporters are only asking for a chance to examine this opportunity, under careful adaptive management principles, and under clear view of Michigan regulators and residents. In the meantime I suggest for everyone to pick up some fresh rainbow trout the next time you visit your local grocery. It’s delicious, healthy, affordable, and sustainably raised.

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Fri, 03/11/2016 - 4:14pm
We don't have enough research on the real effects on the environment. So until we have more real facts by studying the Canadian farms we should wait.
James Harris
Sat, 03/12/2016 - 2:24pm
Canadians have been doing this for 30 years, how much longer do we need to study the impact it may have?
Sat, 03/12/2016 - 11:33pm
Interesting commentary!
Sun, 03/13/2016 - 7:28am
Canadians doing it for thirty years is not an argument in favor of fishing farming, if true, it is simply a fact not an endorsement. I witnessed first hand enormous fishing farm pens near Vancouver Island Canada and the locals lamented the pollution and loss of native fish while reluctantly admitting the positive creation of jobs and economic impact for some.
Fred Stonehouse
Sun, 03/13/2016 - 1:01pm
Because Canada allows fish farming on the lakes is certainly no great recommendation that it is a good thing. Remember it is Canada that is ready to allow the storage of nuclear waste on the shore of Lake Huron and it is Canadian companies that own the very old but "not to worry, still in great shape etc." pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac and Detroit River. All are by any measure, environmental disasters ready to happen. My point is simply that Canada is hardly an honest broker in Great Lakes water management or especially concerned with the critical environmental issues.
Thu, 04/14/2016 - 9:44pm
yo,Fred, I appreciate the clarity of your comment on Canadien commerce and great lakes obligations..Its 'my front yard ,but will require constant vigillance,and perhaps action on Wisconsin awareness frontiers ,and progressive response like this one,, Nature is good to us, keep the anti-nature malevolence under the bright light..
Sun, 03/13/2016 - 5:46pm
Perhaps a closed system fish farm but not on a waterway. I have seen the effects of oxygen depletion from too much organic waste in the water.
Mon, 03/14/2016 - 12:34pm
Once again the sporties have proven their quest for elite status. They will never willingly share this resource, for only they know the best way. Sarcasm off. The real issue at hand is when will 1836 CORA decide they want the money for their tribes. When they see the economic advantage for their tribal members there will be net pens on the American side too. You poor fly casters will have your own nitrate problems, in your pants. Once CORA sees the light you can't legally stop them. You can get on board now and try to direct the process in the best way possible or lose any chance for input to 1836CORA.
Charlie Weaver
Sat, 04/02/2016 - 11:06pm
It's obvious, John, that you have developed severe brain damage from eating too many farmed Rainbow trout. Have you checked them for PCB content, yet, and other pollutants present in the Great Lakes? Fish Pens in the Great Lakes has nothing to do with fly fishing.
Mon, 03/14/2016 - 9:00pm
Obviously, John does not possess very much eye hand coordination and can't cast. And is very jealous of those who can. And, a delicious farm raised rainbow? Never eaten a wild trout, eh?
Wed, 03/16/2016 - 7:13am
I do not think net pen fish farming is a good idea. With regards to Tanner, all these freshwater invasive species can operate in the entire freshwater ecosystem warm or cold water, multiple food sources etc... Salmon can only operate in coldwater, and the restricted diet of the chinook pretty much seals the deal. By the numbers the ecosystem loses! Asian Carp are a freshwater invasive fish coming to a river/lake near you, the AC have multiple food sources, and can operate in the entire freshwater ecosystem! Salmon will be literally left in the cold! We have a freshwater ecosystem,not a saltwater ecosystem, don't laud Tanner just yet !
Anne Nelson
Mon, 03/21/2016 - 6:55am
Not buying into the idea. Your original article gave me hope that there was still a voice of reason that might save our beautiful state from this administration and the agendas of those it serves. I see now that I was wrong.
Tue, 06/21/2016 - 12:51pm
I agree with the author. Let's not pretend that these Lakes are some kind of perfectly stable functional ecosystem. They are a stew of human intervention. That said, the net pens would have no effect or would help the extremely low aquatic output of the lakes. This is 100% a need for power and control by the DNR.