Upsides, Downsides To Fish Farming In Lake Huron

Fish farming in Lake Huron is not as cut-and-dried as it sounds. Take a proposed aquaculture operation in Lake Huron, for example.

A Canadian company, Cold Water Fisheries, is looking to expand its fish farming business from the Canadian side of the lake to near the Michigan shore. This would bring millions of pounds of rainbow trout, also known as steelhead, to a proposed site near Escanaba Bay, Michigan.

Conditions in the bay are similar to those in Fraser Bay, an inlet of Ontario where the aquaculture company has a successful installation that has operated for more than 30 years. But despite that track record, regulators in the state of Michigan have concerns and are undertaking a review before letting such a facility move forward.

What are the issues holding it up? Many of them are discussed in a report from Michigan environmental agencies released in October 2015.

For one, the large-scale aquaculture operation would bring millions of rainbow trout growing up in one spot, all the while excreting waste that is rich in phosphorus. The problem with that is the nutrient’s link to harmful algal blooms that have beset some of the Great Lakes in recent years, notably Lake Erie.

Managers with the fish farming company say that they haven’t seen many impacts in their past operations thanks to phosphorus, noting that phosphorus can be absorbed by fish like perch and suckers as well as by smaller invertebrates.

And there is some chance that more phosphorus from fish farming could help Lake Huron. This lake, unlike Lake Erie that has way too much of the nutrient, doesn’t have enough phosphorus. In Lake Superior, there are some scientists who believe that this low-phosphorus problem could be linked with “rock snot” algae in some of that lake’s tributaries.

Regulators also grimace at the prospect of the spread of disease from the farmed fish, if one escaped into the lake, to those rainbow trout stocked by the state every year. To this, the company notes that the only difference between their aquaculture-raised fish and the state-stocked ones are that the farmed fish are sterile.

On the flipside of those concerns, there are some positives that could be gained from allowing fish farming in parts of Lake Huron. One of the most obvious is that the move would contribute a lot of money and jobs to the region. As indicated in another report, this one led by Michigan State University, the expected production value of the trout could be about $5.5 million annually.

But the effects will remain unseen for some time. Michigan state regulators recommend starting out with some small fish farms in Lake Huron to see how they do. Small operations, they argue, aren’t likely to have big impacts on the surrounding ecosystems while the impacts are assessed.

Approval for the small farms hasn’t been given yet and the fish farming companies, also including Aquaculture Research Corporation, will likely be waiting about a year for any change to that status.

Rainbow trout. (Credit: Engbretson Eric / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

 

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