Aquaculture: Golden opportunity or just plain fishy?

A package of bills recently was introduced in the state House that would amend Michigan’s policies on aquaculture practices in the Great Lakes. Aquaculture refers to the commercial practice of growing or cultivating aquatic species in an enclosed area of controlled waters. This has become a contentious issue, one that many of my constituents, as well as residents across the state, care about deeply.

House Bills 5166-68 currently are being reviewed in the House Committee on Agriculture, of which I am a member. These bills, taken together, would expand the types of aquaculture that may be conducted in the state. At the same time, HB 5255 would amend the Michigan Aquaculture Development Act to prohibit a net pen aquaculture facility within the Great Lakes Basin. I plan to support HB 5255 in its current form, as the use of net-pen aquaculture facilities pose too great of a risk to the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes offer countless recreational and economic assets for the people of Michigan while providing a crucial freshwater resource for the entire population. According to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the Great Lakes Basin supports a $4 billion sports fishing industry and boasts a commercial shipping haul of 200 million tons. In addition, the Great Lakes represents one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water — in the United States, it nets out to 95 percent of the freshwater supply.

I have had the privilege of hearing testimony from experts across multiple fields. The Delta County Economic Development authority argues that the proposed expansion of aquaculture would “ensure responsible and sustainable economic development and jobs.” On the other hand, the Michigan Environmental Council warns that “once a fish farm is put in, there is a high likelihood of irreversible harm” to the ecosystem.

After hearing many organizations, departments and academics weigh in on this issue, I took some time to consider the varying impact that each piece of legislation would have on one of the most valuable resources in the country. While closely regulated aquaculture may foster a certain level of economic growth, it is clear to me that the risks outweigh the benefits at this time; we must protect the long-term health of our Great Lakes at all costs.

In October 2015, The Science Advisory Panel published a report on the science of aquaculture titled, “Great Lakes Net-Pen Commercial Aquaculture.” This research demonstrates the potential ramifications of expanding aquaculture efforts, including an increase in outbreaks and spread of diseases throughout commercial and wild fish populations, pollution from excess feed and feces, and the spread of non-native species.

In recent years, the Great Lakes ecosystem has suffered irreversible damage due to numerous non-native species, including at least 25 species of non-native fish, zebra and quagga mussels, spiny and fish hook water fleas, and a number of invasive plants. This only adds to my reservations regarding increases in aquaculture infrastructure and materials.

In addition, net-pens could have an adverse effect on existing species that are struggling to survive; for example, native mussels are one of the most endangered species, and could be damaged by sedimentation, aquaculture operations, and vessel traffic around net-pens.

It is important that we work together to protect Michigan’s natural gems. Furthermore, we need to keep in mind that any change to the Great Lakes ecology or fishing industries could adversely affect not only residents of our great state, but those in the entire Midwest region. I plan to research this issue further, as I continue to advocate for the protection of the Great Lakes.