Fish farm battle brewing at state Capitol

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers are considering legislation aimed at addressing aquaculture proposals for the state’s Great Lakes waters, including a measure to ban net-pen operations and another to regulate them. 

The legislation follows a bill introduced in September by state Sen. Rick Jones – Senate Bill 526, which would outlaw aquaculture operations in the Great Lakes and all connecting waters, including flow-through river systems. 

Rep. Jon Bumstead introduced a similar bill in late January that would do essentially the same – prohibit aquaculture facilities in the Great Lakes – but would not apply to flow-through river facilities beyond the first dam on connecting waters. 

Bumstead’s district includes Oceana County along the Lake Michigan shoreline, where many rely on the charter-fishing industry. He said most folks don’t like the idea of farming fish that could potentially transmit disease to wild populations or create other ecological problems that could damage the sportfishing industry. 

“I talked to people there, the trout fishermen and the boaters, and everyone is opposed to opening up the Great Lakes to aquaculture,” Bumstead told Michigan Outdoor News. “The risk is too high.”

Bumstead said his bill, HB 5255, is supported by various chambers of commerce along the lakeshore, Trout Unlimited, Michigan Steelheaders, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, charter boat captains, environmental groups, and others. 

“There has been different fish farms throughout the world … (with) cases of disease spreading to the wild fish population, and for me it’s just not worth the risk for a few jobs,” Bumstead said. “The only people pushing aquaculture is the Farm Bureau.”

Bumstead’s bill was the subject of two recent hearings in the House Natural Resources Committee, where sportsmen and environmental groups testified in favor, and aquaculture industry representatives and the Michigan Farm Bureau testified against it. 

The legislative debate over aquaculture comes after officials with the Michigan DNR, Environmental Quality, and Agriculture and Rural Development solicited public input in November and December on two proposed net-pen facilities – one in Lake Michigan and one in Lake Huron. 

After informing residents through a series of independent scientific reports on the possible impacts of commercial aquaculture in the Great Lakes, state officials summarized the public perception regarding the proposals in a Jan. 28 report. 

“Nearly 1,700 written comments were received by the departments. More than 1,600 were in opposition, while 11 letters provided support,” according to the report. “Of those, 90 percent were an electronically submitted form letter through the Food and Water Watch organization in opposition. 

“An additional 117 individual comments were received articulating ardent and colorful opposition to commercial aquaculture net pens from individuals (Michigan, Illinois, Indiana), tribal nation governments, nongovernmental environmental groups, and one Great Lakes state department of natural resources.”

An EPIC-MRA poll released Feb. 2 also showed roughly 70 percent of Michiganders oppose Great Lakes aquaculture development. 

Regardless, several Republican representatives are pursuing a package of bills – House bills 5166, 5167, and 5168 – to create a regulatory framework for the aquaculture industry, including state Reps. Ed McBroom, Triston Cole, Dan Lauwers, and Brett Roberts. Those bills also received recent hearings in the House Agriculture Committee. 

Cole said he supports a closer look at regulating aquaculture in Michigan – from potential Great Lakes facilities to flow-through river systems to closed-loop, landlocked ponds – that’s based on science, rather than popular opinion. 

“I’ve had lots of conversations with sportsmen’s groups and I’ve tried to get the point across to them … we as sportsmen pride ourselves on sticking to science-based legislation and regulation,” Cole said. “In this case, the groups have gotten behind a non-science-based policy.

“Whatever the decision is, it should be based on science,” he said. 

Cole also believes the state would have less influence over other aquaculture decisions in the Great Lakes if it imposes a ban for Michigan waters. 

“We’re dealing with five other states in the Great Lakes, along with the province of Ontario,” he said. “If we adopt a ‘just say no’ approach, we take our say off the table.”

MUCC Deputy Director Amy Trotter said science supports a ban on aquaculture, but concerns about a handful of existing flow-through aquaculture facilities currently in operation has stalled Sen. Jones’ Senate legislation to prohibit all commercial Great Lakes aquaculture.  

A work group organized through the Michigan Sportsmen’s Caucus Advisory Council is expected to examine the aquaculture issue more closely in coming weeks. That council advises more than 80 state lawmakers with an interest in conservation and outdoor issues. 

“We heard pretty strongly … that putting existing businesses out of business using (the ban all aquaculture) approach might not be politically feasible,” Trotter said. 

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