Fish farms don't belong in the Great Lakes
This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press and is reprinted here with permission. Multiple proposals to put fish farms in our shared Great Lakes waters are under consideration by state officials. We find it deeply troubling that this idea is even on the table. Michigan officials have been approached with at least two proposals for fish farms, in Lake Michigan near Escanaba and off Rogers City in Lake Huron. State agencies have assembled a panel to look into these plans and explore the possibility of aquaculture in Michigan's Great Lakes.
Multiple proposals to put fish farms in our shared Great Lakes waters are under consideration by state officials.
We find it deeply troubling that this idea is even on the table.
Caged fish culture densely concentrates thousands of fish and fattens them up with food pellets and pharmaceuticals. Factory fish farms deposit thousands of pounds of algae-producing fish waste and chemicals in our public waterways, all for the creation of a handful of jobs.
Michigan officials have been approached with at least two proposals for fish farms, in Lake Michigan near Escanaba and off Rogers City in Lake Huron. State agencies have assembled a panel to look into these plans and explore the possibility of aquaculture in Michigan's Great Lakes.
Sport fishing in Michigan supports 38,000 jobs and is valued at more than $4 billion a year. Aquaculture proposals are a threat to that important industry, since farmed fish are known to escape their cages, spread disease and crowd out wild fish. Risking our sport fishery for commercial aquaculture is like throwing back a king salmon to keep a minnow. Caged fish culture in the waters of the Great Lakes just doesn't make good business sense–and it's even worse from an ecological standpoint.
Consider the untreated sewage produced by fish farms. As our region struggles to rein in nutrient pollution from farms, septic systems and elsewhere–the toxic algae-feeding pollution that left Toledo-area residents unable to drink their water last summer–why would we add these new sources of untreated sewage?
Cage cultured fish also pose a serious health risk to their wild cousins because they have a track record of spreading diseases. Crowded fish cages are breeding grounds for disease and parasites. In 2007, a virus broke out in Chile's salmon farms. Infected fish developed tumors and their kidneys and livers shut down. Within weeks, about 70 percent of the country's farmed salmon were dead. While Chile has no wild salmon population to speak of, what would such an outbreak mean for Michigan's salmon fishery or the hundreds of Great Lakes charter boat companies and river fishing guides it supports?
Managing disease risks at fish farms often involves applying antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals that could persist in the environment and impact other fish, wildlife and, potentially, people.
It is another reality of industrial aquaculture that fish inevitably will escape. In 2009, about 40,000 adult fish escaped a British Columbia salmon farm when workers accidentally ripped a hole in the bottom of a cage while removing dead fish. A Scottish salmon farm lost an estimated 300,000 fish during a 2011 storm. These events are commonplace.
As has happened elsewhere, these escaped fish will compete with wild fish for food, disrupt their natural reproduction and interfere with their genetic diversity. These disruptions would erode our wild fish population's ability to adapt and survive. The Great Lakes host some of the world's best fishing for steelhead, a variety of rainbow trout. The proposals before the state call for cage-raising rainbow trout, and the inevitable escapes put our wild steelhead population in danger.
There is a right way to do aquaculture. Contained systems on land–systems that recycle their water and are totally separated from our rivers and lakes–can be a sustainable source of nutritious local food and economic development. Michigan has plenty of warehouses and other vacant spaces that are ideal for these closed-loop systems, and we hope to see this industry thrive. We are eager to support policy ideas that make closed-loop aquaculture more economically viable.
But the Great Lakes are a different story. They belong to all of us, and no private interest should transfer the risks of their business venture to the citizens of this state and the future generations who will inherit our natural resources.
Fortunately, Sen. Rick Jones and bipartisan co-sponsors have introduced Senate Bill 526, which would ban aquaculture in the Great Lakes and connected waters. Such a ban is the only way to guarantee our freshwater seas are safe from cage-raised fish. We urge the legislature and the Snyder Administration to support it.