LANSING, Mich. — Commercial fish farming in the Great Lakes is a proposition with the potential to either bring in millions of dollars and an entirely new industry to the state or one that carries the potential to wreak environmental havoc on the state's crown jewels, depending who you ask.
The State of Michigan is in the process of determining whether to allow commercial fish farming in the Great Lakes, and several lawmakers are already mounting challenges.
Officials with Department of Natural Resources said they have been contacted by two operators, Cold Water Fisheries and Aquaculture Research Group, that are interested in raising rainbow trout in floating enclosed fish farms in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The fish would remain inside the large cages or nets until big enough to be harvested for the commercial food market. But no permit applications have been submitted.
In the Canadian waters of Lake Huron, where fish farms are legal, millions of rainbow trout are farmed for food each year. Proponents want to see Michigan join the industry.
State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who introduced legislation to ban commercial fish farming in the Great Lakes, argues the potential environmental risks posed by allowing the practice far outweigh the estimated rewards.
“We’ve got to do everything possible to safeguard the pure waters of the Great Lakes. Why would we want to gamble?" Jones said. "With giant floating fish farms, there's 200,000 fish, and these nets would float out there 'til the fish were harvested. They’re creating as much waste—as much fish poo—as a city of 65,000 people.”
Fish waste contains phosphorus, and concentrated amounts can cause widespread algae blooms similar to the toxic bloom created in Lake Erie in 2014. Jones said there is also the concern about the potential spreading of disease if fish were to get loose.
Jones contends he understands the value in having a fish farming industry but believes there are other places to do so inland, which would allow for more control over treating fish waste as opposed to having it in open water.
“There’s ways of doing this appropriately, but to experiment with the Great Lakes is insanity," he said. "Don’t mess with the Great Lakes. You’re damaging a treasure.”
Jones added that a new commercial fish farm on the Great Lakes in Ontario hasn't been approved since the 1990s.
In December, Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, introduced legislation that would encourage the expansion of aquaculture in Michigan that he argued would help meet growing demand.
“The U.S. currently imports 90 percent of the seafood that is consumed,” said Booher. “Given the interest consumers have in buying locally grown, fresh and healthy foods, there is a real opportunity for Michigan to responsibly use its land and water resources to produce more seafood.”
The Booher bill would reform the permit and application processes for aquaculture and would allow for net-pen aquaculture operations in Michigan.
In an attempt to avoid muddied arguments, the state commissioned the help of a scientific advisory panel to provide background information on economic, environmental and regulatory issues associated with the proposals to help regulators rule on future permit applications.
In a report issued in October the panel recommended that if the state should allow the practice, it should do son on a small and experimental scale in the Great Lakes, "the idea being to move into aquaculture, if you do, testing it and making sure it’s not causing some of the problems everybody is worried about," said Jim Diana, a professor at the University of Michigan and director of Michigan Sea Grant. He sat on the scientific advisory panel.
Diana said the report was not intended to take a position for or against fish farming but to provide commentary and background on best practices and potential concerns from an independent perspective.
“If we started some small scale, like one farm, and tested it carefully, there would not be irreversible damage done to the Great Lakes, and it could be removed," he said.
Despite the operation of fish farms in the Canadian waters of Lake Huron for decades, there remains just one published report on the potential dangers the commercial operation can pose to the environment.
A report by Michigan Sea Grant found net pen fish farming could provide a key segment of an eventual $1 billion aquaculture industry in the state.
But Diana said it's important to differentiate between net pen farming and the aquaculture industry as a whole. He cautioned that the floating farm method provides just one way to achieve such an economic goal.
“We have water, which a lot of places don’t; we have a history of agriculture, we have a history of commercial fishing," he said. "We have a lot of things necessary. I think, with reason, we could develop an industry that really could be significant.”
A spokesperson for the Michigan DNR said the state is currently working to synthesize findings from the report to present a final policy recommendation to lawmakers within the next few months. Any approval will ultimately require legislative action.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.