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Will Michigan buy into fish farming on the Great Lakes?

Michigan is toying with the idea of building open-water fish pens, like this one in Ontario.
Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association
Michigan is toying with the idea of building open-water fish pens, like this one in Ontario.


OK, this is where I fess up and tell you that the answer to that headline is "only time will tell."

A scientific advisory panel is studying the possibility now (see their names here), and we expect to see their findings this October. After that report, there will be more "time telling" as state officials decide whether to allow it.

But right now, there's a lot of buzz.

The Canadians raise fish commercially in open-water pens on the Great Lakes, and proponents say producing seafood like this has the potential to be a billion dollar business for Michigan. But critics say it's too risky, and it wouldn't mix well with the state's tourism industry.

Peter Payette from our partner station Interlochen Public Radio got the latest on the debate when he attended a conference on open-water aquaculture in St. Ignace.

Payette says proponents of net-pen aquaculture planned the event.

“But they’ve organized it as a dialogue, so there are a fair number of skeptics and critics here,” he said.

It’s on the Canadian side of Lake Huron — up in the North Channel and the Georgian Bay — that Canadians are farming trout for restaurants and grocery stores.

And Payette says several of these Canadian fish farmers spoke up at the conference.

“They’re very interested to defend their industry — to show that they’ve done this responsibly, without harming the lake — and to advocate that Michigan go the same direction,” he says.

Farmers have been raising fish on the Canadian side of the lakes for 20 years, but Payette says it’s hard to know whether or not the farming has caused any damage to the lake and its ecosystems.

“Well there’s no one to really check that,” he said. “The Ministry of Natural Resourcesin Ontario has been pretty quiet about this. I’ve not been able to get them to talk to me for my reporting, and they were not here today. So there’s really no one involved to respond, in any serious way, to the assertions of the fish producers.”

Critics of open-water pens in the Great Lakes did chime in, however.

They raised several potential issues.

Phosphorus in the Great Lakes

“The big one is phosphorus,” Payette said. “Fish, when they go to the bathroom, produce phosphorus, and food that doesn’t get eaten by the fish has some phosphorus in it.”

Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The heightened green of this water is caused by an algae bloom in Lake Erie, one that caused a ban on drink water in Toledo and several Michigan communities last year.

It’s true the Great Lakes need phosphorus, Payette says. But too much causes problems, like the algal and cyanobacteria blooms Lake Erie is dealing with now.

Proponents' response to the phosphorous argument?

“They say it’s negligible,” Payette said. “And they’ll even argue that the upper lakes need phosphorus. So they argue that this could even be a benefit to the lakes.”

Critics, on the other hand, don’t think the risk aquaculture presents for the Great Lakes is worth it.

The Michigan Environmental Council’s Sean Hammond spoke as a panelist at the conference yesterday. Payette said he argued for farming fish not in the Great Lakes, but on land.

"We see a future need for aquaculture and a future need for fish protein, it's just whether we want to see it risking the natural use of the lakes."

“We see a future need for aquaculture and a future need for fish protein, it’s just whether we want to see it risking the natural use of the lakes, or if we want to expand it in a way to help revitalize our urban centers,” Hammond said.

Payette said Hammond pointed out the potential for fish farming in cities like Detroit and Flint.

He explained that fish farming on land can be controlled and won’t affect the ecosystems established in the lakes. He also pointed out that Michigan cities like Detroit and Flint have extra sewer capacity and plenty of water to make farming fish on land viable.

So is Michigan likely to buy into the open-water pen industry?

Payette says Gord Cole — one of the first fish farmers on the Great Lakes — doesn’t think Michigan has the potential for a lot of net-pen aquaculture operations. He said fish farms need to be protected and when looking at a map, he doesn't see many spots on Michigan's side of the Great Lakes that would allow fish to thrive.

“So you’re not going to get 100 fish farms,” Cole said. “There might be one spot. There might be five spots. There might be 10, maybe. There might very well likely be none.”

However, Payette said that a second Ontario fish farmer “was much more optimistic.”

“He thinks that, with the right technology and the right design, they can handle more open water. So there were differences of opinion on that,” Payette said.

So back to my main point. Will Michigan buy into fish farming on the Great Lakes? We'll have to wait and see, and we'll keep you up to date on the process.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.