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HAMMOND: We must keep factory fish farms out of our shared waters

• Jan 15, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Competing bills in the state Legislature reflect two very different views of what the Great Lakes are worth to Michigan residents.

One proposal seeks to protect our greatest natural resource, while the other would open our inland seas to a huge new source of pollution and shut Michiganders out of important decisions about our shared freshwater treasure.

The bills concern proposals from Canadian companies to put factory fish farms — floating cages packed with thousands of fish — in the Great Lakes.

While there are some aquaculture operations in Ontario’s Great Lakes waters, the province hasn’t issued a new permit in two decades and seems to have soured on fish farming, an indication of how environmentally damaging open-water aquaculture can be. For instance, an operation in Lake Huron’s North Channel was shut down because the huge amount of fish waste it generated triggered algae blooms and created an oxygen-starved “dead zone.” Surveys nearly a decade later found the local environment still hadn’t recovered.

In reports it issued in October 2015, a state panel on the science of aquaculture confirmed many of the concerns shared by the conservation, business and environmental communities. For example, the reports found that the proposed fish farms would:

— Dump untreated waste directly into the lakes, adding tons of phosphorus and nitrogen each year and potentially causing more toxic algae outbreaks like the one that shut down Toledo's drinking water source in 2014.

— Provide a breeding ground for diseases that could spread from caged fish to wild populations, putting the world-renowned Great Lakes fishery and its diverse ecosystem at risk.

— Potentially lead to the watering-down of genetic diversity and traits that help wild fish adapt and survive. While farmed fish are bred to be sterile, those breeding programs are imperfect, and fish escaped from Canadian farms "likely reproductively interact with extant populations" of wild fish, the science report acknowledges.

Importantly, the state’s reports showed that 44 new jobs are the best Michigan’s economy could hope for from the proposed fish farms. To put that in perspective, the sport fishery in Michigan alone — not to mention other essential industries dependent on healthy Great Lakes — supports 38,000 jobs and pumps $4 billion a year into the state’s economy.

Recognizing that cage aquaculture is all risk and no reward for Michigan, state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has introduced legislation that would protect our defining resource by banning fish farming in the Great Lakes and connecting waters. This is a wise approach, and lawmakers should support it.

Unfortunately, state Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, has introduced bills that would roll out the red carpet to companies that want to foul our public waters for their own private gain. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

Here are some of the worrisome things those bills would do:

— Allow companies to farm non-native barramundi — voracious eaters that are also called Asian sea bass — in Michigan waters.

— Create a clear conflict of interest by giving responsibility for both regulating and promoting fish farming to an Office of Aquaculture Development, which the new legislation would establish.

— Require the Department of Environmental Quality to lease Great Lakes bottomlands for commercial fish-farming operations, with no regard for the longstanding Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, and with no opportunity for Michigan communities to have a say in whether those operations can set up shop — and dump tons of untreated fish feces — in the local waters where residents fish, swim and paddle.

These bills would do more than spoil our environment and broadcast the dead-wrong message that Michiganders are willing to trade our Great Lakes legacy for a few dozen jobs. They also would stifle efforts to grow an aquaculture industry in Michigan the right way: with land-based systems that are totally disconnected from public waterways and that treat fish waste, rather than dumping it raw into our cherished lakes.

Responsible aquaculture could be big business in Michigan, and a good source of local, environmentally friendly food. Our cities have abundant warehouse space, plenty of municipal water capacity and scores of entrepreneurs interested in growing food sustainably. But if lawmakers instead choose to subsidize Canadian firms by letting them use our Great Lakes as a free sewer, Michigan businesses trying to grow fish responsibly will be at a perhaps insurmountable disadvantage.

Here we sit, surrounded by the greatest freshwater resource on the planet. And yet, national headlines — aging oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac, toxic algae in Lake Erie, not to mention the Flint drinking water crisis — too often send the message that Michiganders take our Great Lakes for granted. Opening our public waters to cage aquaculture would further degrade our Pure Michigan brand and erode our reputation as the Great Lake State.

It’s time for Michigan’s leaders to stand up for our freshwater legacy and put Great Lakes protection at the heart of state policy. Lawmakers should move quickly to keep factory fish farms out of our shared waters.

Sean Hammond is the deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

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