All Risk, No Reward

Our Great Lakes are no place
for factory fish farms


To the thousands of people who strolled Michigan’s iconic piers or watched a Great Lakes sunset this summer, the idea of purposely imperiling the majestic waters stretched before them would have seemed preposterous.

Why intentionally risk our signature source of wonder?

But under plans state officials are considering now, a hike, swim or paddle along our coasts could soon be marred by factory fish farms — floating cages packed with tens of thousands of trout and showered with food pellets.

When Michigan Environmental Council staff learned of the relatively warm reception in the State Capitol to fish-farming proposals, even the most grizzled veterans — the ones who’ve seen it all — were incredulous.

In the give-and-take world of public policy, MEC is known for finding nuanced solutions and reaching creative compromises. But in this case, there’s no room to hash it out. There’s just one thing to say, in the strongest voice we can muster:

Absolutely not.

For a handful of jobs, these private interests will put Michigan’s $2 billion-a-year sport fishery — and the 15,000 jobs it supports — in clear and present danger. Consider:

  • Crowded cages are breeding grounds for disease and parasites. In 2007, a virus wiped out 70 percent of Chile’s farmed salmon. Chile has no wild salmon to speak of. But in Michigan, such an outbreak could devastate our salmon fishery and the hundreds of Great Lakes charter boat companies and river fishing guides it supports.
  • Farmed fish commonly escape and spread pathogens to wild fish. About 40,000 fish escaped a British Columbia salmon farm in 2009 when workers accidentally ripped a hole in netting while removing dead fish. A Scottish fish farm lost 300,000 salmon during a strong storm in 2011. Escapes happen all the time. When farmed and wild fish interbreed, they produce weak offspring with lower long-term survival rates.
  • These operations often use antibiotics, fueling concerns of drug-resistant bacteria spreading to humans. Chilean fish farms used 1.2 million pounds of antibiotics last year.

And then there’s the poop.

A typical 200,000-salmon operation generates about as much waste as a city of 65,000 people. While tides flush out ocean farms, untreated waste in the Great Lakes would likely linger on our shorelines and increase nutrient loads in our water.

The same kind of excess-nutrient pollution fueled an algae bloom a year ago that spiked Toledo’s water supply with a neurotoxin, triggering a drinking water ban for 500,000 Michiganders and Ohioans.

Fish farms in the Great Lakes would feed algae outbreaks, like this one in Lake Erie. NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory via Flickr.
Undermining public health and a $23 billion tourism industry for the benefit of a few folks who stand to gain couldn’t make less sense — especially when
there’s a right way to do fish farming.

Michigan already has closed-loop aquaculture. Ideally suited to the vacant warehouses plentiful in rebounding cities, these promising ventures re-circulate water and capture the waste. Completely separated from rivers and lakes, these operations can provide an important supply of local fish, while we keep the Great Lakes and inland waterways off limits.

Even a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Aquaculture Association said recently, “There is good aquaculture, and there is bad aquaculture…Net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes is bad aquaculture.”

The Michigan Environmental Council and our allies are putting on a full-court press to keep fish farming out of our inland seas. In the coming months, we’ll use all the tools at our disposal — newspaper op-eds, social media blasts, calls to action and meetings with agency officials, lawmakers and the community leaders who have their ear.

It’s an important piece of our broader effort to harness Great Lakes passion for policy action, and usher in a new era of water stewardship in Michigan. With pride in our inland seas running high — think of all the Great Lakes bumper stickers, t-shirts and tattoos you see around town these days—now is the time to create lasting change in the way Michigan’s people and policymakers think about water.

You can click here to read more about MEC’s plan to bring about that mindset. It outlines some of the most pressing threats to our water resources, including oil pipelines, nutrient pollution and invasive species.

Michigan’s sport fishery has a $2 billion annual economic impact and supports 15,000 jobs, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Photo: Don Harrison via Flickr.

We need your help to beat back the threats and seize the opportunities outlined in that plan. But right now, the most immediate threat to our cherished waters — the one that keeps us up at night — is the prospect of fish farms in the Great Lakes.

There are three things you can do today that will make a big difference:

  1. Call your legislators and ask them to support measures to keep fish farms out of the Great Lakes. Introduced by Senator Rick Jones, Senate Bill 526 would ban aquaculture in the Great Lakes and their connected waters. This bipartisan bill provides the protection our waters need, and deserves support. Find your representative here and your senator here.
  2. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your support for a ban on Great Lakes fish farming.
  3. Make a tax-deductible contribution to the Michigan Environmental Council. Your support will give us the resources we need as we work with journalists to spread the word about the dangers of open-water fish farming; meet with lawmakers to make the case for action to protect our Great Lakes from this threat; and rally a wide range of partners all over the state to say in a clear, unified voice that the Great Lakes are off-limits for factory fish farms.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about this issue, and for whatever support you can provide as we work to protect Michigan’s one-of-a-kind freshwater resources.

Together, we’ll make sure plans for Great Lakes fish farms never take root.