Should fish farming be allowed in the Great Lakes?

Michigan is considering a move that would allow fish farming in the waters of its beautiful Great Lakes. But the recommendation has as many downsides as potential upsides.

Al Goldis/AP/File
The sun sets over the Mackinac Bridge, the dividing line between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, at Michigan's Mackinac Straits, May 31, 2002. If Michigan allows commercial fish farming in the Great Lakes, the industry should begin on a small and experimental scale to enable careful monitoring of the effect on the environment and wild fish populations in waters within Michigan's boundaries, scientists said in a report to state officials.

Michigan is considering a move that would allow fish farming in the waters of its beautiful Great Lakes. But the recommendation has just as many downsides as potential upsides, experts warn.

The cautionary recommendation was one of several reports submitted by a panel of scientists and other experts intended to advise regulators who are considering whether “net-pen aquaculture,” as commercial fish farming is sometimes known, would work in the Great Lakes that surround Michigan.

If Michigan does go forward with the concept, the fish-farming should begin on a smaller and more exploratory scale to test its effects on both the environment and the wild fish populations, according to one report advising a cautionary approach.

"There are a lot of concerns that would have to be addressed for any type of net-pen facility to move forward," Tammy Newcombe, senior water policy adviser for Michigan’s state Department of Natural Resources, told the Associated Press.

She added that the net-pen concept will be open for public comment and debate during November.

Supporters of net-pen aquafarming say that when properly managed, they can be operational without causing significant damage to the environment. In 2014, Michigan Sea Grant reported that they could be a key segment of an aquaculture industry that could eventually be worth $1 billion to the state.

Another reports, produced by Michigan State University's Center for Economic Analysis and submitted to state officials considering the aquafarming proposal, said that the potential value of caged trout produced by aquafarms in the Great Lakes top $6.6 million and result in the immediate creation of 17 jobs, with potential for an additional 27 jobs through spinoff economic activity.

But the Michigan Environmental Council said Friday that the rewards of aquafarming don’t outweigh their risks.

"If one thing goes wrong, it could sacrifice the quality of the Great Lakes for years to come," Sean Hammond, deputy policy director of the council, told AP.

Aquaculture is an area of considerable interest to government officials and researchers, as it is poised to become an ever-larger source of the world’s consumed fish. The Monitor’s Michael Holtz reports that “farmed seafood exceeded global beef production for the first time in 2011 and now provides about half of all fish consumed by humans.” Since crossing that threshold of demand, the world is looking for even more sources for its supply.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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