Fish Farmers Eye The Great Lakes

Jul 3, 2014

Credit Northern Ontario Aquaculture Associaton

Michigan took a big step forward in the business of fish farming this week. The state issued a permit allowing the Grayling Fish Hatchery to expand more than ten fold. It will be the largest fish hatchery in the state by far when it ramps up production. The hatchery raises trout for restaurants and grocery stores.

The expansion comes as interest in fish farming is growing nationwide. There is even talk of developing the aquaculture industry offshore in the open waters of the Great Lakes, something that has only been done in Canadian waters.

Dan Vogler is one of the owners of Harrietta Hills Trout Farm, based near Cadillac. He hopes the expansion of his Grayling hatchery is a sign of a growing fish industry in Michigan. 

“And everyone else in the state should hope so as well,” he says.

Vogler says it’s a problem that most seafood in the U.S. is imported. He says the problem will grow with the world’s population and it is one Michigan can do something about.

“We are the state that sits in the middle of 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply,” says Vogler. “We have an opportunity to use that resource in a wise fashion to produce food.”

The federal government has been promoting this idea too, through its Sea Grant program.

In January, Sea Grant published a draft paper about the aquaculture industry in Michigan. The industry barely exists at the moment; sales of farm-raised fish total only about $5 million annually, according to the report.

The paper suggests a billion dollar industry is possible. That would mean large fish pens or cages placed in the open waters of the Great Lakes.  

But Gary Whelan isn’t sure how that would work. Whelan manages the state’s fisheries research program. He used to oversee its fish hatchery system. He says the report contains few specifics about what a future industry might look like.

Whelan says fish farming in the Great Lakes presents problems not found in the Oceans. For instance, open water fish pens produce lots of fish poop and that overloads the water with nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. In the ocean, the tide washes that away.

“We don’t have the same tidal range, we don’t have the same currents as these other areas where net pens are relatively effectively employed,” Whelan says.

There are some commercial fish pens on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. But the north Canadian shore is remote and the numerous islands and channels make it easy to keep them out of sight.

The question is whether people in in Michigan will accept the idea.

Tom Baird expects the Snyder administration to encourage fish farming.

Baird is part of the group Anglers of the Au Sable, which pushed for tighter regulations on the fish hatchery in Grayling. He says Governor Snyder has made it clear that Michigan will increase its use of natural resources to create jobs.

“And that has included hard rock mining, oil and gas production, forestry and, now, rivers and streams and lakes for aquaculture purposes,” says Baird.

In fact, the Sea Grant report on aquaculture includes a nod to Governor Snyder. The conclusion calls the expansion of the industry an opportunity for “relentless positive action.”