TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – Entrepreneurs may seek approval to establish fish farming in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters, officials said Monday – an undertaking that hasn’t taken place before on the U.S. side of the lakes, although Canada has allowed commercial aquaculture in Lake Huron for decades.
The state Department of Environmental Quality has heard from two operators interested in raising rainbow trout in netted enclosures, spokesman Brad Wurfel told The Associated Press.
One of them, Coldwater Fisheries of Coldwater, Ontario, wants to invest $1.2 million in a farming and processing operation in the Little and Big Bays de Noc off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wurfel said. It would rear up to 3.5 million pounds of fish annually, he said. The other proposal is still being developed but focuses on Lake Huron near Alpena or Rogers City.
Because the state has not dealt previously with requests to use the Great Lakes for aquaculture, officials are establishing a panel of experts to weigh the pros and cons. The DEQ has asked Coldwater not to apply for necessary permits until the panel reports back in October, Wurfel said.
“We’re going to put the absolute best minds available around the table and give it due consideration,” he said. “But we haven’t forgotten that job one is protecting Michigan’s waters. We’ve been trying to be very clear that the bar here would be incredibly high.”
Robert Devine, owner of Coldwater Fisheries, said his company has operated in Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay since 1987 without harming water quality or other fish species. But he acknowledged that using the lake for aquaculture has drawn opposition from environmentalists and close scrutiny from regulators in the Canadian province of Ontario, who haven’t approved a new operation since the late 1990s.
Five commercial fish farms and two tribal operations are running in Georgian Bay, he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with fish farming. It is a very helpful thing to the environment,” Devine said, adding that the open-water process he uses is “the best way to grow a good-quality fish.”
The Sierra Club filed an administrative challenge last year after the DEQ allowed a commercial fish hatchery to step up operations on the Au Sable River. The environmental advocacy group would have the same objections to aquaculture in the Great Lakes, policy analyst Marvin Roberson said.
Such an operation would generate huge volumes of excrement, and keeping fish in such close quarters encourages the spread of diseases to which other fish would be exposed if cultivated ones escape, he said.
“There’s probably a place for aquaculture, but the open Great Lakes are not that place,” Roberson said.
Coldwater Fisheries uses nylon netting suspended from steel docks for its fish enclosures, Devine said. The nets are “extremely strong,” he said, although fish occasionally have escaped. Wildlife such as raccoons and otters sometimes gnaw them open. They’ve also been damaged by a hurricane and vandalism.
Aquaculture operations would require permits covering areas such as pollution discharge and use of bottomlands, said Jon Allan, director of the DEQ’s Office of the Great Lakes. Creating the panel of scientists and other experts will enable regulators to anticipate questions and problems before receiving permit applications, he said.
Michigan also would be expected to confer with other members of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a U.S.-Canadian organization that advises the region’s eight states and two provinces about protecting fish populations, spokesman Marc Gaden said.
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