MSU Extension Has No Business Supporting the Privatization of the Great Lakes

Although proponents of Great Lakes aquaculture say it can be done without compromising the lakes, accidents have led tribes and First Nations peoples to call for a shutdown of Atlantic salmon net-pen farming along the West Coast of North America. photo: NOAA

It would be hard to imagine Michigan State University Extension studying how to accommodate corporate factory farms on the campus grounds or private fish farm cages in the Red Cedar River that passes through. And yet MSU Extension is promoting its view in articles and at trade conferences that the public waters of the Great Lakes are a great place for private fish farming.

The extension service’s latest message on aquaculture describes how to reduce the likelihood that private fish farms would spread disease, trigger algae outbreaks, or weaken genetic diversity among native fish in the Great Lakes. The research is misplaced – literally. Instead of trying to help private companies minimize their damage while occupying public waters, MSU Extension should turn its focus to helping grow the aquaculture industry on private property not relying on the Great Lakes or their navigable tributaries.

Public Trust Law Prohibits Great Lakes Fish Farms

In legislative testimony and public outreach, FLOW has maintained that, by definition, concentrated fish farms occupying navigable waters of the Great Lakes are subject to public trust law and would directly violate Michigan’s public trust obligation to manage and protect these waters for the enjoyment of current and future generations.

As FLOW has outlined in its recent Great Lakes fish farming issue brief, the use of public waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes, or tributary navigable waters, for the occupancy and operation of concentrated fish production raises substantial legal, environmental, aquatic-resource, and water-use impact issues, including:

  1. Exclusion of public access and occupancy of bottomlands for private purposes, impairing the public rights of boating, fishing, swimming, drinking water, and other forms of paramount public uses protected by public trust law;
  2. Likely impacts from wastes, including pharmaceuticals, and nutrient loading, and;
  3. Escaped fish competing with wild fish for food, spreading disease, and threatening genetic diversity and the sport-fishing industry.

The public trust doctrine applies to all navigable waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes up to the ordinary high-water mark, whether by common law or statute, including Michigan’s Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act. Accordingly, any decision involving enclosed, cage or net-pen concentrated fish-farming operations must be reviewed by the framework, principles, and standards set forth under public trust law.

Anglers, Scientists, Lawmakers, & State Agencies Oppose Great Lakes Fish Farming

Numerous Great Lakes advocates, including environmental and anglers’ groups, tribes, scientists, legal experts, a trio of state agencies, and lawmakers in both major parties, say that net-pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes is not legally authorized and is too risky for the environment, native species, and the multibillion-dollar sport fishing economy.

In the Great Lakes, a small number of commercial fish farms have been allowed since the 1980s, but only in Canadian-held waters in Lake Huron’s North Channel and Georgian Bay. Michigan began to seriously consider Great Lakes fish farming in 2011 when three state agencies—the departments of Natural Resource (MDNR), Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD)—partnered with the aquaculture industry. Together they created a “road map” to help aquaculture operators navigate the regulatory process, consider the industry’s possible expansion into the Great Lakes, and grow the state’s current $5 million industry into a “major part of Michigan’s agriculture sector.”

The road map paved the way for two commercial proposals in 2014 to build net-pen rainbow trout operations—each harvesting as much as one million pounds of fish a year—off Michigan’s coast in northern Lake Michigan near Escanaba and northern Lake Huron by Rogers City.

Spurred by the proposals, the state agencies extensively studied the economic and environmental impacts, legal framework, and public perception of net-pen fish farming in the Great Lakes. In the face of troubling environmental and economic findings and stiff public opposition, the agencies’ March 2016 report strongly recommended against fish farming in the open waters of the Great Lakes “at this time,” citing “significant risks to fishery management and other types of recreation and tourism,” objections from Indian tribes, lack of a multimillion-dollar state funding stream to start up and maintain a program promising modest returns, and the absence of legal authority to issue permits.

Closed-Loop Fish Farming on Land Holds Promise

While several lawmakers, agencies, and organizations oppose opening the Great Lakes to commercial fish farming, many support closed-loop aquaculture systems on land that are completely separated from public-trust rivers, lakes, and streams For example, a Norwegian company in January announced plans to build one of the world’s largest, land-based salmon farms in Maine. The plan calls for up to $500 million in investment creating up to 140 jobs.

Advocates contend that these closed-loop fish farm operations can be a sustainable source of nutritious local food and economic development. The trio of Michigan resource agencies—MDEQ, MDNR, and MDARD— overseeing aquaculture have expressed support for assisting the industry in the development of closed-loop, recirculating aquaculture facilities.

Contained systems on land continually recirculate and filter water in the fish tanks and offer advantages over, and address several key concerns regarding, open-water fish farming, including:

  • No reliance on public waters;
  • Capture and treatment of waste, including excess feed and chemicals;
  • Disease prevention;
  • Little or no chance of fish escaping into the wild;
  • Tight control of the temperature, flow, and water quality to ensure optimum rearing conditions; and
  • Less water use than other aquaculture systems.

According to Michigan Sea Grant, the disadvantages of closed-loop systems are high complexity, start-up costs, energy use, and failure rates. Taking up the challenge, the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, in its 2016 statewide water strategy, expressed support only for closed-loop or recirculating aquaculture systems and called for the state and industry to collaborate to establish operational best practices and grow the industry.

Michigan Lawmakers Should Ban Great Lakes Fish Farming Before It Takes Root

Lawmakers in Michigan should learn from the experience in Washington state, where the legislature just voted to ban Atlantic salmon fish farming in Puget Sound after an Atlantic salmon net pen failed last August, releasing 250,000 Atlantic salmon into local waters. FLOW has called on the Michigan legislature to expressly prohibit factory fish farms in the Great Lakes and its tributaries before corporate proposals to privatize and farm Michigan-controlled waters take root.

The bottom line is that it is the government’s perpetual duty under public trust common law to protect the Great Lakes and its tributaries for the public’s current and future benefit, including for drinking, boating, fishing, swimming, sustenance, and navigation for the enjoyment of current and future generations. Ongoing efforts by the state of Michigan, aided by Michigan State University Extension, to justify and minimize – rather than prohibit – private farming of fish in public waters are completely misguided.

Kelly Thayer, FLOW Contributor

It’s time for Michigan lawmakers to follow the lead of Senator Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, who have introduced legislation to ban open-water fish farms in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters to protect “our clean water, our water-based economy, and our outdoor way of life.”

Click here to learn more about FLOW’s program to challenge aquaculture in the Great Lakes.

Click here for related news on Anglers of the Au Sable lawsuit challenging the Grayling Fish Hatchery.

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