Paul Bohn, Esq.
At the start of the month, a scientific advisory panel was commissioned by State agencies to revisit the issue of commercial net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes. This panel of environmental experts will objectively evaluate proposals to allow commercial net-pen aquaculture and present the results to the DNR, DEQ, and MDARD by October.
The hope of this panel is to understand what to expect if such aquaculture was to begin, as well as how to prevent or mitigate the negative impacts these fish-farms would have if we were to allow them in Michigan waters.
Net-pen aquaculture refers to the offshore floating enclosures used to cultivate large numbers of fish. Currently, it is only practiced in the Ontario waters of Lake Huron. It remains unpopular off the Michigan coasts because of the potential environmental impacts it could bring.
Personally, I support the allowance of net-pen agriculture in our waters, IF they are managed properly. The United Nations estimates that nearly ¼ of the protein in human diets comes from seafood, and 21% of the world consumption of seafood comes from aquaculture. With the expected global population increases, this provides a unique and profitable opportunity for our State. This new Michigan industry could bring much-needed capital to the state, create new jobs, and have various spin-off benefits.
Sounds good right? Only if these fisheries are properly maintained. If not, the unintended consequences could destroy the Great Lakes ecosystem and the surrounding economies. Previous studies on the net-pens of Ontario, poor management of the facilities led to elevated phosphorus levels, reduced water transparency, algal blooms, and dissolved oxygen depletion. All of which significantly endanger the sea-life in the Lakes and hurt industries that rely on the Great Lakes and its inhabitants.
Another problem is the potential of the farmed species escaping into the open waters. A recent study simulated a jail-break of Rainbow Trout in Lake Huron and monitored their survival rates. These domesticated fish were able to assimilate into the wild easier than expected. The introduction of a new population of fish could have a negative cascading effect in the ecosystem and result in the extinction of native species.
Even with these risks present, I believe they can be easily avoided with smart planning and management of the facilities. Examples include: assessing the carrying capacity of potential sites, adequate monitoring of the site, allocation of waste loading, and using highly digestible diets which are less polluting and contain less phosphorus.
Our State was blessed with a precious and abundant source of freshwater. We should take advantage of this opportunity to grow local industries, feed the growing population, and above all, utilize current technology to ensure the safety of our Great Lakes.
Follow this link to see a earlier report on the environmental impacts of Great Lakes Aquaculture: http://ijc.org/php/publications/html/aquaculture/index.html#foreword