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Balancing Delicate Fish Issues

May 3, 2016

Originally published by Michigan Farm News on April 12, 2016; republished with permission.

Aquaculture versus commercial fishing is becoming a hotly contested issue in the Michigan legislature. Currently, there are two competing proposed Republican sponsored bills, one of which is in favor of establishing aquaculture in the Great Lakes, and one that is staunchly opposed to bringing the industry to Michigan waters. Both sides offer reasons for their positions, citing scientific evidence as well the potential for economic and environmental impact.

The most vocal proponents of introducing fish farming to the Great Lakes are Ed McBroom (R-Escanaba) and Triston Cole (R-Mancelona) who introduced the bill package which advocates for allowing aquaculture pens.

Siding with McBroom and Cole are representatives with The Nature Conservancy’s Michigan chapter as well as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. These institutions point out that opponents to the bill are ignoring the potential to be involved with a multibillion dollar industry without properly educating themselves on the science. The passage of these bills could position Michigan in the supply chain that satisfies the nation’s huge appetite for seafood.

A popular concern among detractors is that the waters of the Great Lakes could fall prey to harmful algal blooms as a result of tampering with the delicate ecosystem, much in the same way that Lake Erie battled algae problems in the past few years.

Environmental scientists and other experts point out that the ecosystems of Lakes Michigan and Huron are different from that of Lake Erie, and that those lake’s nutrient balance can handle certain changes that the other Great Lakes cannot. In fact, there have been fish pens in the Ontario waters of Lake Huron since 1988 with no adverse environmental consequences, and Michigan can draw from that experience in the creation of its own aquaculture.

Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo) introduced H.B. 5255 which proposes banning aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Bumstead and other advocates of this bill believe that it is too risky to threaten the current $7 billion industry with what they characterize as “fish poo.”

He claims that job creation is important to him, but not at the expense of environmental cleanliness. He points out that the government would require a “discharge permit” as a stipulation of installing pens, which are typically associated with sources of nutrient pollution that spread disease.

Bumstead compares the operation of aquaculture to a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). The point of the comparison is unclear, though, since CAFOs are allowed by Michigan law, permitted by the MDEQ and currently operate throughout the state of Michigan with few environmental problems.

Everyone involved in this debate would agree that finding a solution is a delicate balance of weighing economic growth with respect and concern for the environment. The key will be in finding enough common ground to agree on whether or not pursuing aquaculture is a viable and beneficial decision for the state, and for the Great Lakes as a whole.

The ensuing battle in the legislature will determine the future of Michigan’s role as a producer of seafood, as well as advocating for job growth while preserving our role as stewards of the lake and its ecosystem.

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