The world needs to eat.
That one simple statement may be at the heart of one of the most compelling arguments for growth of an aquaculture industry in Michigan, one that while currently in its infancy, could, under ideal circumstances, reach $1 billion in economic value by 2025.
While that’s a long way to go from the less than $5 million generated by Michigan aquaculture operations as recently as 2013, those actively pursuing such a goal, including members of the Michigan Aquaculture Association, have reason to be hopeful, even as opponents turn up the rhetoric in fighting any plans to open up the Great Lakes for aquaculture operations.
It was the Michigan Aquaculture Association (MAA) that commissioned a strategic plan that outlines the $1 billion target for the industry. The organization is headed by Dan Vogler, whose family-run Harrietta Hills Trout Farm is a significant player in the production of farm-raised fish in the state.
And while Vogler and his family received a permit to expand their fish farming operation in Grayling, a site that is being operated under lease from Crawford County, that decision is being contested by the Sierra Club and the Anglers of the AuSable, largely because the groups believe the discharge of water from an expanded operation would compromise water quality.
Vogler disagrees, saying the permit he received last year was one of the most stringent ever issued for the purpose of trout farming.
“We have to make up our minds what water is for,” says Vogler, who currently raises about 200,000 pounds of fish a year, with hopes to grow that number to 600,000 pounds annually.
In some respects, the issue of water quality may be an optical one.
“We sell pond supplies to people throughout the U.S. from our catalogue,” says Vogler. “When I talk to people, I have to pay attention to their accents. If they’re from the northern parts of the country, they want to be able to see the bottom of the pond through crystal clear water. But for southerners, it’s the complete opposite. If they don’t get algae bloom, they are horrified. In fact, they will go out in a boat and spread 10-10-10 fertilizer to get the nutrients they want in the water.”
Vogler’s family began leasing the Grayling operation in 2013 after the Grayling Recreational Authority decided to look elsewhere for an operator of what was then a money-loser. In its previous incarnation, fish were transported to the site, then taken back to an off-site location for the winter. “They showed me the books and the tourism operation was grossing less than $40,000 a year,” says Vogler, who began to grow fish there, extending a marketing plan he first began in 2009.
Facing competition from trout farmers in Idaho, who control 75 percent of the U.S. market for domestic production, Vogler branded his product and pushed the idea of a locally sourced fish product, marketing Harrietta Hills to upscale food stores and restaurants at a price that’s higher than what might be otherwise possible with a commoditized product.
Fish Pens in the Great Lakes
It’s here in our story that the issue of so-called net-pen aquaculture comes into play, it being the method—said to be first popularized in Norway and brought to the Canadian side of the Great Lakes as early as 1982—that would, if permitted, be used on the U.S. side of the border, specifically in Michigan.
To say the issue is controversial would be an understatement.
Indeed, two pieces of proposed legislation—Michigan Senate Bill 526 and 681—are in direct opposition (526 would ban net-pen fish farming; 681 advocates the practice).
Even ahead of the legislative process, three state “Quality of Life” agencies, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, have began tackling the issue, lead by Tammy Newcomb, a senior director with the DNR.
“This is something that’s received a resounding ‘no’ in the past,” says Newcomb, who said two project proposals, which have yet to receive permitting, prompted the state to take a closer look at the issue from the standpoint of an ecosystem management framework.
Newcomb says that included the commissioning of a report, authored by a panel of eight expert scientists and researchers, including James Diana, a professor of fisheries and aquaculture in the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
That report, which was released ahead of a public consultation hearing in Gaylord held Nov. 19, advocates for a three-prong approach going forward.
One would be the use of “adaptive management,” defined as the ability to make changes whenever it became clear that the actions taken would require it.
The authors also advocate for a “Before-After Control-Impact” study design for any monitoring of the effects of aquaculture operations in the Great Lakes.
And finally, the authors advocate in their report for the use of “Better Management Practices” as a strategy for improving environmental performance.
Diana, who directs the Michigan Sea Grant College Program, which receives funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says one of the key determining factors as to whether the impacts of net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes would be positive or negative may be the sheer scale of any such operation.
“We need a lot of study to determine whether there would be unwarranted damage from very large operations,” says Diana. “On a small scale, the effects would likely be small but done on a large scale, the effects could be huge.”
Those observations, including a description of the “we don’t know what we don’t know” dilemma described in the panel’s report, are largely the basis for the “take it slow” approach, as is the complementary “Before-After Control-Impact” study design also advocated by the panel.
Under that approach, a proposed site for a net-pen operation would be monitored before and after a period of fish farming, the point being to determine how long it would take before water quality returned to its original state.
The issue of how net-pen aquaculture would impact the Great Lakes ecosystem may already have its answer if those familiar with operations in Canadian waters can be relied upon.
Gord Cole, the owner of Aqua-Cage Fisheries Ltd., which he founded in 1982, contends that the real question of whether to allow more fish farming in the Great Lakes should be one of zoning, based on whether the operations are acceptable from a societal perspective.
In discussing the impact of fish waste on the Great Lakes—or at least his part of the waterways, which is Parry Sound, located on the eastern side of Georgian Bay, which neighbors Lake Huron—Cole likens the impact to one of sheer volume and location.
“You don’t want to grow too many fish in one small hole in the water,” says Cole, who sells his 2.8 million pounds of fish grown annually to a processor in St. Thomas, Ontario, near London.
In the case of fish farming, the comparison to conventional agriculture and its typical waste—manure—comes up. “It would be like saying in a feedlot, manure is a bad thing, but if you take that same amount and spread it over a pasture, it’s a good thing,” says Cole, who says Aqua-Cage spends some $20,000 a year on water testing as part of his permitting process with the Ontario government’s Ministry of the Environment.
While Cole says his operation has remained in compliance with regulations, the potential impact, which might or might not occur, underscores the importance of deciding where a net-pen operation would be located.
From Cole’s perspective, having a “sheltered but connected” area would be desirable, although he says he’s not sure Michigan has many sites that share those characteristics.
Dan Vogler disagrees, if for no other reason than a comprehensive survey of Michigan Great Lakes coastline has yet to be made.
One of Jim Diana’s colleagues at the Michigan Sea Grant is Ron Kinnunen, a professor at Michigan State University’s Extension based in Marquette, Mich.
While he points to an argument that concerns over fish being farmed could escape into the open waters of the Great Lakes, Kinnunen makes a couple of points that could be said to lessen if not eliminate those concerns.
One is that the eggs already being imported into the state are genetically incapable of reproduction, the result of forcing an extra chromosome into what would otherwise be a fish that could breed with species in the wild.
The other point relates to levels of phosphorous, which some opponents on net-pen aquaculture say would lead to unacceptable levels of pollution.
Kinnunen says levels of phosphorous, once seen as a problem in the Great Lakes, have decreased over the years.
Jim Diana agrees that concerns over nutrients (in the form of phosphorous, as one example) can be managed, as indicated in the report his group submitted to the state’s Quality of Life group that called for “Better Management Practices” that would include a close look at the impact of net-pen aquaculture on effluent/nutrient in the Great Lakes.
Diana adds that the argument related to genetics is one that doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
“The number of fish that would escape and be viable is small and with triploid fish, 99 percent are infertile to begin with,” he adds.
As far as the arguments against aquaculture in open waters, Diana says he’s seen “a lot of inaccurate information” being disseminated by some, which he finds troublesome.
“There should be a burden of proof based on facts and not taking wild numbers that don’t make sense,” says Diana, who calls “crazy” any assertions that there would be hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish feces introduced into the Great Lakes as a result of aquaculture.
“I understand (opponents) not wanting (the practice of fish farming), but I hope they base it on facts,” says Diana.
As it stands, the DNR’s Newcomb and her group are wading through a public consultation process on the issue of aquaculture in the Great Lakes, having already completed five reviews, including the science-based report exploring fish health and water quality. The others include the applicable regulations, rules, jurisdictions and agreements; and three separate evaluations of the potential economic impact of commercial net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes.
Newcomb, who has made it clear that the state is “fully supportive” of the concept of aquaculture overall, says the review of future aquaculture operations continues, including the November 19 public meeting that was held in Gaylord.
One of the documents that is in play when it comes to a review of the issue is a report by Frank Lupi, professor of environmental and resource economics at Michigan State University.
While Lupi relied on economic assumptions provided by the aquaculture industry itself, acknowledging that actual data was not readily available, he says “it is unclear” how a target price of $2.75 (compared with a 2013 national average price of $1.63) for farm grown trout could be achieved.
“Given the trends in consumer preferences for local foods, there is the possibility of capturing a price premium for being locally grown, but there could be risks to this branding and pricing strategy if Great Lakes harms developed due to the operations,” Lupi wrote in his report.
He also points to production risks associated with net-pen aquaculture that, taken together, highlight some uncertainties.
“The literature supports the claim that the Great Lakes are an economically-valuable natural asset affecting the quality of life of people in Michigan, the Great Lakes region, and beyond,” Lupi wrote in his summary, while acknowledging that uncertainties remain.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Vogler of the Harrietta Hills operation circles back to economic assumptions that would support an expansion of aquaculture, pointing to an economic impact study by MSU’s Center for Economic Analysis that was released in October 2015, showing two 1-million pound cage trout fisheries could contribute some $4.3 million in annual gross domestic product to the state.
But Vogler has also done some “back of the envelope” math that gives proponents of aquaculture hope for a bright future and, at least in theory, forms the basis of the $1 billion in economic impact, spread out through the entire supply chain, including processing.
“One surface acre of water would produce about 1 million pounds of fish,” says Vogler, who uses a price of $2 a pound (he actually gets more than that for his branded product). Getting to the $1 billion mark would mean 500 million pounds of fish a year or 250,000 tons, which is the measure used by the United Nations’ Fish and Agriculture Organization.
As a comparison, the United States produced nearly 442,000 tons in 2013 and the entire world produced just over 97 million tons that same year.
“We would still be producing less than 1 percent of the world’s supply,” says Vogler.
Aside from the economics and even the environmental impacts that are not without their own level of controversy, Vogler asserts that there is also something of a societal bias at play when it comes to opponents of aquaculture in or around the Great Lakes.
At this point, Vogler is referring to the fly fishing community, which he argues could be considered elitist.
“There’s a limited number of people interested in ‘catch and release fly fish only’ in the state,” says Vogler, who then goes a step further in criticizing groups that object in principle to uses other than the ones they embrace. “Au Sable has built a country club on public waters by restricting fishing gear and practice.”
Our Great Lakes
In the meantime, and aside from what is decided around the Grayling expansion of Dan Vogler’s Harrietta Hills operation, the state is expected to continue with its review process.
The DNR’s Newcomb says that will include taking public comments, developing what is being called a “synthesis” document and having the Quality of Life state directors define a position on behalf of the state administration.
Putting aside the very real and obvious acrimony that seems to exist, Newcomb would be one of the first to acknowledge that there is an emotional connection with water and those who call Michigan home.
“People who live here and grew up here have strong ownership and strong beliefs around what may or may not be done with the Great Lakes,” she says. “We see this when any talk of new uses comes up, including wind power.”
Newcomb, who once worked in Colorado, saw a similar effect when it came to how the Rocky Mountains were viewed.
“The Great Lakes are our mountains.”
From a world perspective, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization shows the U.S. to be something of a “bit player” when it comes to aquaculture. As recently as 2011, American producers accounted for less than 1 percent (0.8) of the total, compared with 88 percent produced by Asia.
In 2011, China was both the largest producer (61.6 percent) and, in 2009, the largest consumer of seafood (42.4 million tons compared with 7.4 million tons consumed by Americans).
Also in 2011, in addition to the least amount, the U.S. had the slowest growth rate among aquaculture producers, with the U.S. seafood deficit reaching $11.2 billion.
All are trends that people like Dan Vogler say are reason for an optimistic approach.
“The world will need to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by 2050 and aquaculture is a very efficient way of helping to do that.”