DNR aims for aquaculture policy and rules changes

By Joe
Albert

Staff Writer

St. Paul — Changes are on the horizon concerning the use of
wetlands for aquaculture in the state, as the DNR plans to push for
additional policies and regulations in coming months.

The scope of any changes is undecided as of yet, but agency
officials last month unveiled a list of options, brought the issue
before Roundtable participants earlier this month in St. Cloud, and
plan to seek legislation at the state Capitol this session.

“We plan to bring something forward to start moving us in a
little different direction,” said Ed Boggess, deputy director of
the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The issue of aquaculture and wetlands isn’t a new one, and the
DNR has been tossing it around for more than 10 years. But in
recent years, it’s gained more attention from some lawmakers,
sportsmen, and others who say fish and wetlands are a lethal
combination.

Members of a group that has been exploring the issue say that
opinions tend to fall along waterfowl or aquaculture lines, but
fish farmers say they aren’t to blame for a duck decline in the
state and instead point to things like intensive tiling and
development along the shores of shallow lakes.

“What’s happening to this other water?” said Greg Oswald,
president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association. “We’re in such
a small, minute amount of this, we can’t be the cause.”

Even if the total number of wetland acres that are licensed for
aquaculture isn’t high, the real issue is the location of wetlands
– many in western Minnesota – being used for aquaculture, according
to Brad Nylin of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.

“They are in the most important parts of the country for
waterfowl production,” he said. “In the end, we want what’s best
for waterfowl, and we’re certainly going to fight for that, but
we’re not in the business of putting people out of business.”

As the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division has explored the issue,
officials have tried to keep four “guiding principles” in mind,
Boggess said.

The division wants to maintain stocking programs for walleyes
and other game fish; protect existing natural aquatic habitats and
wildlife dependent on them; continue adequate baitfish production;
and provide for sustainable commercial aquaculture activities.

When aquaculture and wetlands-related statutes were passed in
the early 1990s, it was with the expectation that aquaculture could
be done without harming wetland values. More study since then has
cast doubt on that.

“Based on the current science, it might be more difficult to
avoid those significant detrimental impacts when we are trying to
rear fish in wetlands,” Boggess said.

Still, it’s believed there are other contributors to poor
wetland quality, such as tiling and a wet cycle that’s gripped the
state since the 1990s. Those factors complicate potential rules and
regulations.

“It’s still going to be tough to come up with these unambiguous,
clear-cut criteria for when rearing fish in these wetlands is going
to be a problem,” Boggess said. “We do know that if we have a
clear-water wetland without fish in it, those are very rare now and
it’s pretty clear-cut in those cases it’s probably not a good idea
to start introducing fish in those systems.”

The DNR is considering a number of options, which include:

  • Providing incentives to those in aquaculture for using
    privately owned artificial basins instead of natural wetlands.
  • Higher DNR payments for walleye fingerlings raised in
    artificial basins, intensive hatchery systems, or basins restored
    specifically for that purpose.
  • Require a determination that the aquaculture activity will not
    have a significant detrimental impact on the public resource.
  • Consider more use of conditional licensing that restricts the
    species that can be raised or restricts use of management practices
    that cause increased degradation of the wetland, such as the
    application of fertilizer, stocking minnows, use of chemicals, and
    aeration.
  • If natural systems are used for aquaculture, develop a
    “banking” system similar to the Wetlands Conservation Act.
    Establish a fund using a portion of license fees to restore
    wetlands to replace degraded acreage.

The DNR will decide in coming weeks what it might take before
the Legislature and what it will try to put in place through the
rule-making process.

Nylin said a common-sense approach will be necessary to get
anything done.

“We’re going to have to cater to both sides,” he said. “For
anybody to make (progress) it can’t be ‘my way or the highway.’

Oswald said he doesn’t believe any of the DNR’s proposals are
aimed at eliminating aquaculture, and termed most of the proposals
“logical.”

In the meantime, the aquaculture and waterfowl sides should work
together, he said.

“The carp and the bullheads, those hurt all of us,” Oswald said.
“We should be working with the duck guys to eliminate them.”

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