The Great Lakes are no place for fish farming, but there might be one nearby

Ocean fish farm

Open-water net-pen fish farms like this discharge large amounts of untreated fish waste into the water. (Wikipedia photo)

The waters of the Great Lakes are held in trust by the state as a shared public commons for the benefit of citizens for navigation, boating, fishing, health and sustenance. The courts of all eight Great Lakes states have recognized this principle, which means the states must manage these waters as a trustee for the benefit of all citizens to prevent interference with these public purposes – a duty of stewardship.

Jim Olson

Jim Olson is founder and president of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes water law and policy nonprofit organization.

Net-pen fish-farming in the Great Lakes poses a major interference with existing protected riparian and public uses of these hallowed waters – landowners, fishermen, boaters, tourists, and citizens. Private fish farming would displace and interfere with the public trust in these waters.

Imagine large commercial cages or net-pens with fish farming operations occupying the shoreline of Lake Huron, Grand Traverse or Saginaw bays. Literally, enclosed pens attached to docks with a series of cross-sections would occupy five to 10 acres, produce hundreds of thousands of adult fish, and generate untreated fecal wastes in amounts that approach more than the human waste discharged by a treatment plant operated by a moderate size city.

Concentrated fish farming waste releases phosphorous and nitrogen that would worsen already serious algae blooms in the Great Lakes, like the 2011 “dead zone” in Lake Erie or 2014 shut down of Toledo’s drinking water supply. In effect, net-pen fish farms would bring CAFOs – concentrated animal feed operations -- to the Great Lakes, with unfettered waste and vagrant farm fish that would weaken existing wild fish populations and threaten a billion dollar fishing industry.

Not surprisingly, after two years of studies and meetings, three Michigan agencies – the DNR, the DEQ, and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development -- recommended against pursuing commercial fish farming in the Great Lakes. The agencies concluded that such facilities pose significant environmental risks, are not legally authorized and would generate little revenue for the state, creating only 17 new jobs.

The AG weighs in

Last year, Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, asked Attorney General Bill Schuette to issue a formal opinion on the legality of aquaculture. On Jan. 4, Schuette issued his opinion: It is not. Concurring with an earlier agency report reaching the same conclusions, Schuette noted that fish farming in the Great Lakes does not fall within the definition of aquaculture facility under the state aquaculture law, because the definition only allows fish farms in privately controlled waters.

Schuette’s opinion went further, recognizing that based on Michigan Supreme Court rulings, the Great Lakes are held in trust for all citizens for fishing, boating, navigation, swimming or similar public uses. Fish farming does not improve the public trust for these uses, and would necessarily interfere with or impair them; that is, fish farming would subordinate trust-protected access and uses in favor of private control and occupation of public trust waters.

Schuette’s answer to Schmidt got it right. It is time to shut the door once and for all on net-pen aquaculture in the public trust waters of the Great Lakes. It would violate the public trust in these waters; not even our state legislature has the power to do so.  Shutting the door now will save the aquaculture industry, the state, citizens and other interested persons or entities a lot of headaches, time and financial resources.

We would all be better off if the state would limit its support to private upland fish farms that conserved and recycled water and discharged wastewater without polluting the waters of our state. Better yet, why doesn’t the fish farming industry and state collaborate with the urban farm movement and city of Detroit and establish a sustainable, first-class fish farming industry using the thousands of vacant areas and buildings, leveraging an underutilized city water system that needs good paying customers. It will help schools, provide for better infrastructure, generate jobs and rebuild the city’s tax base and revenues.

If the world needs fish for food, then why not start there, rather than violate the stewardship responsibility imposed by the public trust in the the waters of the Great Lakes -- now and for future generations.

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Sun, 02/05/2017 - 8:41am

While the President's wild hyperbole is amusing in the hands of the average citizen it falls flat. We now have the " Defos" affect, wealthy familys that can move public policy with their money alone with no research or experience to back them up. Why not run a test of fish farming, see if it's viable and what the problem s are.

Gregg Smith
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 9:10am

Jim Olson's scientific based apolitical opus on fish farming in the Great Lakes basin is based on his long time experience as a defender of Michigan's greatest resource---freshwater. He has been an informed and articulate advocate for this cause in courts and states across the basin.
The Great Lakes are held in trust for all citizens. Allowing a few to pursue a business model that has the potential to pollute is a violation of that trust. It's time to develop other venues for fish farming in the state.

John Robertson
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 9:27am

Thanks for highlighting this issue Jim. I am with you all the way but troubled that our valued neighbors across the Great Lakes Basin may not be in the same position. Encourage me please. There are no fences.

Gary Street
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 9:37am

Attorney General Bill Schutte and Jim Olson are on the right path. The world - and the U.S. - needs seafood, but not at the expense of ruining rivers like the Au Sable, nor the open waters of the Great lakes.

John Saari
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 9:45am

It goes too far to spend tax 's on something as trivial as fish pollution.

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 11:31am

Better yet, why doesn’t the fish farming industry and state collaborate with the urban farm movement and city of Detroit and establish a sustainable, first-class fish farming industry using the thousands of vacant areas and buildings, leveraging an underutilized city water system that needs good paying customers
Why doesn't the state get involved? Because your suggestions makes as much economic sense as growing tomatoes on the moon and customers don't want to pay $100 per pound for fish.

Marie Stock
Mon, 02/06/2017 - 7:50pm

Since it appears there will be no regulation against big business and their damage to our natural resources , I am totally against this.

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 3:04pm

Aquaculture can be done in a enviromentally safe way, and can be done in Detroit, and it can be a viable profit making business.

Sun, 02/12/2017 - 8:28am

Sure any business no matter how far out, can be viable with enough subsidies and convincing enough customers to pay multiple times prices for it for often misguided reasons. The entire organic industry is proof of this. Fish farming in the city where all inputs are purchased brings all the disadvantages of organic farming and eliminates all the advantages of traditional farming. Good luck

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 12:44am

A net pen aquaculture industry in the Great Lakes would only be viable if done at a large scale, which would undoubtably have a pollution effect. There is a reason why the U.S.A. has little to no offshore aquaculture industry - they do not know how to permit/regulate it due to the pollution that will likely occur and the conflict of travel and other interest groups on the water.

The initial capital costs of doing a flow through or recirculating aquaculture system at a similar scale is likely to be more expensive, but like Jim said, could be much more beneficial to the communities surrounding it and the State of Michigan. It would be awesome to see the State of Michigan to think critically of its water resources, and instead of making it easier for industry to pollute it, support industries that can use it responsibly for broad benefits, rather than the concentrated few.

stewart mcferran
Thu, 02/09/2017 - 8:09pm

Yes, the waters are held as a public trust and that is why Michigan citizens should have an option to engage in the practice of aquaculture. As it is now the State of MI runs aquaculture in the state, time to privatize.
All the commercial fishermen I know are in favor of aquaculture. Given that the historic biomass of fish in the open waters of the GL was so much greater maybe 10X, it makes no sense to limit the careful development of open pen aquaculture. And the State of MI has learned a lot about how to operate aquaculture in places like Platte River. That hatchery used to be a big polluter but they cleaned it up. It is time they shared what they learned. I am not normally a big privatization guy, but in this case it makes sense.
By the way, Michigan Farm Bureau's member-developed policy supports aquaculture in Michigan, because of the responsible regulation, opportunity to provide fresh, local food and opportunities for Michigan farmers: .