The Grand Tour

Dennis Eade, president of the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen's Association, attended a recent tour given to Michigan state legislators by proponents of aquaculture in the Great Lakes, the subject of pending legislation. Michigan United Conservation Clubs opposes the placement of cage culture, or net-pen, aquaculture systems in Michigan-controlled waters of the Great Lakes due to the risks they pose to wild fisheries through effluent, disease and escapement. 

by Dennis Eade | Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, Michigan Aquaculture Association, Aquaculture Research Corporation and Originz, a food systems promoter, were the sponsors of a recent tour of net-pen fish farms, brood stock hatchery and processing facility in Ontario, Canada.

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors. Subscribe by joining Michigan United Conservation Clubs here!

The tour was designed to promote net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes and targeted Michigan legislators and staff who have already introduced legislation to amend Michigan’s Aquaculture Development Act or will be part of the committee(s) who will be considering the legislation in both house and senate committees. The tour also included invited Quality of Life Agency personnel, (DNR, DEQ, and MDARD), sponsors and me, a self-invited guest that made it through the vetting process because I pushed my ties with the tourism industry and wanted to get a firsthand look at what these operations look like and how they are run.

The itinerary included three days of visiting net-pen rainbow trout fish farms, on the way to and off the Manitoulin Island in the North Channel of Georgian Bay, a demonstration farm, hatchery, in New Dundee ON. and a processing plant in St Thomas, ON. Between stops on the tour, we were provided with information that extolled the good points of farm raised fish production and criticized the information employed by opponents of net-pen aquaculture.

To the credit of the tour sponsors, the facilities visited were vibrant operations, well run production facilities. The second fish farm we visited, Blue Goose Aquaculture (Lake Woolsey) farm and demonstration site for the new StormSafe offshore net pen design was impressive. The operation is owned by Mike Meeker, a former NHL hockey player who played for the Pittsburgh Penguins and is a biology graduate of the University of Wisconsin.

He was an excellent promoter of net-pen aquaculture and the only fish farmer on the tour who could articulate his operation’s fish health plan. That’s because his operation is permitted through the ministry of the environment in Canada and subject to its inspections and protocols. The other two Canadian sites we visited were owned or partially owned by First Nation operators (native people) who are able to operate without sanctions imposed by the ministry of the environment.

The highlights of the fish farm tour included the new technology demonstrated with Meeker’s StormSafe offshore net pens that can be submerged to avoid the spring ice flows that destroy anything in their path or in severe storm conditions. Blue Goose Aquaculture was also a long-term sustainable solution operation.

Fish processing waste was converted to organic landscaping compost by mixing the waste with saw dust from local saw mills and then marketed to golf courses (it has a natural pheromone present in the mixture that repels geese) and mining restoration efforts for growing vegetation where previously the mining industry had issues reclaiming the land.

The low lights of the fish farm tour were the disregard for the accumulation of fish waste and uneaten food beneath the pens which can degrade the quality of the surrounding water. Steve Naylor, Aquaculture Specialist, with the Economic Development Division of Ontario, claimed that it has taken thirteen years and still there is not an official policy on fish manure accumulation on the bottom of the pens.

He said, “There can be from 3 to 5 inches of manure by the end of the season and it will be gone after three years”.

These farms are in operation all year long; when do they get recovery time from the benthic accumulation? Naylor claims phosphorous and ammonia are not problems but that oxygen depletion is a problem for fish farms if they are not sited properly to begin with, as was the case with the La Crosse Channel site that suffered oxygen depletion.

No information was given as to inspections or evaluation of the benthic accumulation. Another problem was water temperature at times during the summer. It is not unusual for the water to reach 24 degrees Celsius in the summer and fish become stressed. They have to stop feeding, sometimes as long as six weeks, because it takes extra oxygen to digest food and the level of oxygen in the water at that temperature is insufficient for digestion.

I asked Naylor about fish diseases that could be transferred to wild fish and he assured me that ISA, invasive salmon anemia, could not live in the fresh water of the Great Lakes. That was as much information as I received on pathogens that could impact wild fish.

Meeker was not concerned about the impact on wild fish in the area.

He buys fingerlings that cost 1.5 cents apiece. They are “diploids”; untreated at incubation and capable of reproducing if they escape into the wild. “Triploids”, on the other hand, are incapable of reproducing if they escape because they’re treated during a 45 hour window after hatching to a temperature spike and air pressure causing them to be incapable of reproducing.

They cost 3.5 cents as fingerlings and some say they are harder to raise but others prefer them because they get more consistent size at harvest time.

I asked Meeker for a name of a local fisherman I could talk with and he provided a name of a local fisher who I contacted. His name is Bob Martin from outside of Columbus, Ohio and lives on Manitoulin Island five months out of the year.

Bob said the fishing was “better since the fish farm started operation because it wasn’t much before do to the lack of nutritional value in the system. Perch fishing has improved and it is not uncommon to catch a big rainbow trout.”

Meeker claimed that the fishing was better since his farm was put into operation. He scuba dives weekly inspecting the nets for tears or other damage but has no concern about escapements or fish interbreeding with wild strains of trout.

It made me realize he is unaware of the sport fishery we have in Michigan where the wild steelhead have genetically adapted to specific streams along our coast lines and could be irreparably impacted by interbreeding with escaped rainbow trout.

The next fish farm we visited was Wabano Fishery on Mink Island run by Cole Munro Food Group in collaboration with the First Nation tribes. This facility was more like a feed lot than the last facility.

There was not a specific fish health plan in place and the veterinarian was supposed to visit soon and again at the end of summer. There was a distinctive smell around the cages that they attributed to the higher fat content in the feed pellets but it didn’t smell like fish oil as much as fish mortality. The final fish farm was in Wikwemikong, ON – a First Nation operation owned and run by Ben Kanasawe. This too was a feed lot. Ben explained that he buys his fingerlings from Lyndon Fish Hatchery, feeds all year long and harvests and sells his fish to Cole-Munro, a trout processing operation in St Thomas, ON.

On the final day of the tour we visited Lyndon Fish Hatchery, New Dundee ON and listened to an impressive presentation by Clark Rieck, President, about his farm and the broader aquaculture opportunity he sees for the industry. His attitude toward fish safety and health was impressive and the innovations he has made in hatchery operation is noteworthy. The brood stock protocol, identifying every variable that could cause a hiccup in the process or lead to possible recall and how it would be addressed gave us confidence that this was a state of the art facility.

Our trip culminated with a tour of the Cole-Munroe trout processing plant in St Thomas, ON. Again we were impressed with the attention to detail throughout the operation which is more labor intensive than I imagined but for good reason. They process every fish received on a given day in a single shift that can vary from eight to twelve hours depending on the quantity of fish received.

This tour provided me with a better understanding of what net-pen aquaculture is in Canada. As much as proponents of net-pen aquaculture would like us to believe that there are not problems with farm raised fish in open systems, there are problems.

The process relies on currents to remove the benthic accumulation and we haven’t been given any proof it is occurring or how much manure is accumulating on the bottom land. The process could be producing pathogens and disease that we are unaware of and the answer given is “it would have shown up by now since we’ve been doing this for the last 30 years”. Escapement is a non-factor in the opinion of the operators. Yet it is a major factor if you are stakeholder in a 4.2 billion dollar wild sport fishery that is Michigan Sport Fishing.

My opinion has not changed: no net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes.

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