Debate ongoing over fish farming in the Great Lakes

Aug 26, 2014

Harietta Hills Trout Farms co-owner Dan Vogler is in favor of fish farming in the Great Lakes.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan took a big step forward this summer in the business of fish farming. The state issued a permit to expand the Grayling Fish Hatchery more than tenfold.The hatchery raises trout for restaurants and grocery stores.

The expansion comes as interest in fish farming is growing nationwide and there is now talk of going offshore into the open waters of the Great Lakes.

The Grayling Fish Hatchery could soon be the largest aquaculture operation in Michigan by far.

Dan Vogler is one of the owners of Harrietta Hills Trout Farm based near Cadillac. He hopes the expansion is a sign of a growing fish-producing industry in Michigan.

"And everyone else in the state should hope so as well, the fact of the matter is that we import 91% of the seafood that we eat in the United States, said Vogler. He expressed concern about the importation and said it's a problem that will grow with the world's population but one Michigan can do something about. "We are a state that sits in the middle of 20% of the world's fresh water supply and we have an opportunity to use that resource in a wise fashion to produce food," he said. 

Feds back idea via Sea Grant paper

The federal government has been promoting this idea too through it's Sea Grant program. In January, Sea Grant published a draft paper about the aquaculture industry in Michigan. The industry barely exists at the moment; sales of farm-raised fish total only about $5 million annually. But the paper suggests a billion dollar industry is possible in Michigan. That would mean large fish pens out on the open waters of the Great Lakes. 

But Howard Tanner says that's a bad idea.


"A net-pen culture would be in the places most favorable to other recreational and leisure time activities." — Howard Tanner, opponent of fish farming in Great Lakes

Tanner directed Michigan's fishery program decades ago when salmon were first introduced creating a multi-billion dollar sport fishery. He says there's no place for large net pens in the Great Lakes.

"A net-pen culture would be in the places most favorable to other recreational and leisure time activities," he said. "They want deep water close to shore. It doesn't mix with the sport fishery that is there." 

The waste issue

One of the problems with aquaculture is that fish, like all animals, go to the bathroom.That produces phosphorus which is a problem in the Great Lakes. It feeds the cyanobacteria that release a toxin, the same one that contaminated Toledo's water supply this summer.

Tanner says fish farms in the ocean can deal with that waste.

"They have a flush for their system, it's called tide. And it flushes their waste products away into salt water, he said. "They're talking about no tides and just there's no possible way for them to treat their waste." 

The Sea Grant report doesn't really address the waste issue but points out that the industry is young and research is on-going. There are some commercial fish pens on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. The owners of those pens argue the phosphorus problem is exaggerated. The North Canadian shore is remote and the numerous islands and channels make it easy to keep them out of sight. Whether the public in Michigan will accept the idea is the question.

Tom Baird expects the Snyder administration to encourage it. Baird is part of the group, Anglers of the Au Sable, pushed for tougher regulations for the fish hatchery in Grayling. State officials say the hatchery will be tightly monitored and any problems will be swiftly addressed.

Baird says what's clear is Michigan will increase its use of natural resources to create jobs. 

"And that has included hard rock mining; oil and and gas production; forestry; and now rivers and streams and lakes for aquaculture purposes. So there's no doubt that there is a bias in favor of the utilization of natural resources for economic purposes," he said.

A state official says there is no proposal for an offshore fish farm in Michigan but if there were, he says it would receive a thoughtful review with an eye on any risk to local waters.