Don’t turn lakes into ‘toilet bowl’
The importance of farming is not to be underestimated. It contributes billions to Michigan’s economy. But should farmers dictate what happens in our Great Lakes and rivers? That’s another matter entirely and one of the most important issues we will face this year.
Legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Darwin Booher, REvart, at the end of 2015 would take control from the Department of Natural Resources with regard to cage pen aquaculture and put it squarely into the hands of the Department of Agriculture. The committee that will review this legislation and determine whether it makes it to the floor for a vote? Agriculture.
Cage pen aquaculture — farming fish in open water within a cage or net, not in a closed system such as a holding pond — is controversial. There is no way to prevent fish diseases from spreading to the rest of the lake if they are in a porous cage. Tons of phosphates, which Michigan has spent millions to remove from the Great Lakes, will be deposited in massive amounts in the form of antibiotic-laden concentrated fish droppings.
If past is prologue, we need look only to the Pacific Northwest, where wild salmon runs in rivers with flow-through aquaculture facilities have seen dramatic decreases in wild fish populations. Diseases associated with fish farms, such as viral hemorrhagic septicemia, have threatened wild populations, according to an emerging disease notice from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though some claim escapes are rare, a USDA report mentions more than a million escapes in Washington and British Columbia fish farms, qualifying that the numbers might be underestimated due to the reluctance of fish farmers to self-report.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, is someone the Farm Bureau always has counted on
— until now. Jones has introduced legislation opposing open-flow aquaculture in the Great Lakes.
“I think I have a 100% record of voting in agreement with them,” Jones told me. “But they are dead wrong on this one. Aquaculture in net pens in the open waters of the Great Lakes is one of the dumbest ideas ever. Current proposals would turn Lake Michigan into a toilet bowl.”
The relationship between Michigan’s DNR, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) has had conservationists concerned since their re-creation under Gov. Rick Snyder.
Under the Snyder administration, all three agencies fell under the umbrella of a new entity, the Quality of Life Group, headed by Keith Creagh, formerly of the — you guessed it — Department of Agriculture. The question of whether the MDARD would overshadow the interests and decisions related to the other departments loomed large.
Dan Wyant, director of the DEQ, recently stepped down due to Flint’s water fiasco. Wyant had been selected to head the DEQ under Snyder’s new administration. He, too, spent much of his career with the MDARD.
Wyant also gave final authorization for a recent decision to allow the Harietta Hills Grayling flow-through fish farm, built in 1914, to operate at 21st-Century volumes. My calculations show that as currently permitted, the facility would be spilling hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste into the Au Sable river, a tourism hot spot Field & Stream called the No. 1 fly-fishing spot in the country in 2011.
The fish farm, run by Ken Vogel, falls under agricultural jurisdiction, though any mistakes he makes will be deposited directly into the waters the DNR and DEQ are supposed to protect.
Vogel hasn’t been required to produce a performance bond. Should the facility fail, the public will bear the cost, with no consequences to the farmer if he destroys this stretch of wilderness.
The DEQ permit is being challenged in contested case proceedings by two separate plaintiffs — Anglers of the Au Sable and the Sierra Club. An administrative law judge appointed by the DEQ will determine if the DEQ made a mistake.
Even without Booher and Casperson’s legislation, Michigan aquaculture law already is mostly administered by the MDARD, and there’s evidence of collusion to prevent oversight: Fish hatcheries in the state are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and they aren’t required to release records of disease to any other agency, according to several sources, including Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Jen Holton. “We aren’t legally required to provide information to other departments, but it is considered best practice to do it,” Holton said.
“Don’t prejudge,” DNR spokesman Ed Golder said. “These three departments were moved under one umbrella so they could communicate, and Agriculture is not in charge. Wait to see what our recommendations are for aquaculture. They will represent the interests of our natural resources.”
Golder anticipates that a synopsis of departmental recommendations on aquaculture will be released shortly.
Jones, for his part, is taking no chances.
“You can tell them the sheriff is in town, and he is ready to fight,” Jones said. “The Michigan constitution requires legislators to safeguard the natural resources of Michigan. Our most precious resource is the pure water in the Great Lakes. We’re spending a lot of money to ensure that Flint and Genesee County have pure water by running a pipeline in from Lake Huron. Why would we damage any other Great Lake that we might have to use for water?
“This is the greatest source of fresh water in the world. Isn’t even a 1% chance that we’re going to ruin it too much?”
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COURTESY BRAD MIKOLAJCZYK Anglers and conservation groups are concerned that certain types of aquaculture will damage Michigan’s world-class fishery.
LYDIA LOHRER QUESTIONS CAGE PEN AQUACULTURE LEGISLATION