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State should heed science panel's findings, keep fish farms out of Great Lakes

Oct 30, 2015
State reports issued this week on proposals to farm fish in Michigan's public waters make it clear that commercial aquaculture has no place in the Great Lakes, environmental and conservation groups say.

The reports were the product of workgroups assembled by the departments of Natural Resources, Environmental Quality and Agriculture and Rural Development to look into the scientific, environmental, economic and regulatory considerations regarding potential Great Lakes aquaculture.

"We appreciate the time, effort and expertise that went into preparing these reports, which lead to only one reasonable conclusion: While land-based, closed-loop aquaculture holds great promise as a sustainable food source, cage-culture fish farms are far too risky to allow in the world's greatest freshwater resource," said Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council.

The proposals under consideration are for floating cages packed with thousands of fish to be installed at sites near Escanaba and Rogers City. No fish farms currently operate in Michigan's Great Lakes waters. While there are some operations in Canadian Great Lakes waters, Ontario appears to be getting out of the fish farming business, likely because regulators have recognized the serious environmental harm it does. At least one Ontario aquaculture operation was shut down for the huge volume of pollution it produced.

"Fish farming proposals are coming Michigan's way because Ontario regulators have woken up to the damage these operations inflict on the Great Lakes," said Captain Denny Grinold, state and federal affairs officer for the Michigan Charter Boat Association. "These companies are looking for an easy target where they can make a mess at the public's expense. Michigan needs to learn from others' mistakes, not repeat them."

The science panel's report confirmed many of the concerns environmental and conservation groups have expressed. It notes, for example, that the proposed farms would:
  • Dump untreated waste directly into the lakes, adding tons of phosphorus and nitrogen each year and potentially triggering toxic algae outbreaks like the one that shut down Toledo's drinking water source in 2014.
  • Provide a breeding ground for diseases that could spread from caged fish to wild populations, putting the Great Lakes fishery and ecosystem at risk.
  • Potentially lead to the watering-down of genetic diversity and traits that help wild fish adapt and survive.  While farmed fish are bred to be sterile, those breeding programs are imperfect, and fish escaped from Canadian farms "likely reproductively interact with extant populations" of wild fish, the science report acknowledges.
  • Put more environmentally friendly aquaculture systems at a disadvantage, since these responsible, self-contained projects must capture and treat the waste they produce, rather than dumping it into a public water body for free.
The proposed fish farms would produce at most 44 jobs, according to the reports. Michigan's recreational fishery -- just one of many Great Lakes-dependent industries that commercial aquaculture would jeopardize -- alone supports some 38,000 jobs and contributes $4 billion to the economy each year.

Environmental, conservation and angling groups support a legislative ban on Great Lakes aquaculture introduced by Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and bipartisan co-sponsors.

"Treating our most important asset like a sewer sends a worrisome message about our state's priorities," said Tom Baird, president of Anglers of the Au Sable. "It seems pretty plain to me that sacrificing our rivers and Great Lakes for a few dozen jobs makes no economic sense. I see a lot of potential in safe, responsible aquaculture projects on land, but our state leaders must act quickly to make sure commercial fish farms never foul our public waters."

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Contact
Andy McGlashen: (517) 420-1908
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