• Kevin Elliott

The debate over fish farms on the Great Lakes


Dan Vogler is the owner of the family-operated Harrietta Hills Fish Farm in Harrietta, Michigan and the Grayling Fish Hatchery located near the headwaters of the Au Sable River in Grayling. Vogler is part of the group hoping to expand aquaculture facilities – as fish farms are known – into the state's portion of the Great Lakes.

With massive, untapped resources in the northern portions of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, there has already been a push to establish giant "net-pen" aquaculture farms in the Great Lakes. Vogler, who also serves as president of the Michigan Aquaculture Association, said net-pen farms, or net cage enclosures, can be used to raise trout or other species in the Great Lakes.

He and other proponents believe the practice could supply thousands of new jobs and millions to the economy over the next decade. Further, it's farming they say can be done without a massive carbon footprint associated with energy consumption that other inland locations may need.

Opponents of net-pen aquaculture facilities in the Great Lakes say the large amount of food and fish waste that would come from the farms would wreak havoc on water quality in sensitive areas, and could be a breeding ground for fish diseases. Those opposed also say antibiotics and other chemicals used to treat fish would be dumped into the Great Lakes, creating additional water quality issues.

While the push for Great Lakes aquaculture facilities has seemed to cool following a statewide study and subsequent attorney general opinion, those on both sides say it's bound to return. Meanwhile, the debate between using the state's natural resources and creating facilities considered more ecofriendly continues on the Au Sable River in Grayling, where Vogler's latest operation is being considered by the court system.

Already in the business since 1997, Vogler saw an opportunity around 2012, when a friend contacted him about the Grayling Fish Hatchery that was being operated by Crawford County as a tourist attraction. Long-since shuttered as an active rearing facility, the friend was contracted by the county to stock the hatchery's raceway with rainbow trout from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. However, costs to keep the facility going threatened to shutter the hatchery completely.

"We looked at the potential of the facility, and said if we can get the permits to operate at capacity all year round, like a normal farm, we could be there in the summer and continue the recreation and tourism function. The only way it works economically is for us to be there all year.

"The county was receptive, and we were pretty popular at that point and time."

But Vogler went from being considered a savior to being demonized as a businessman willing to pollute one of the nation's most pristine and sought after rivers – often times referred to by aficionados as the 'Holy Waters' – soon after seeking a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to operate and release fish waste, mainly uneaten food and fecal matter.

"We began getting the paperwork together to get a permit," he said. "Water from the Au Sable flows in, and the water flows out, and a certain amount of waste goes out with it. But it's a regulated amount. We can't do more than that. The DEQ spent a year analyzing and doing background work to determine what the appropriate levels would be."

Almost immediately, Vogler began getting pushback on the facility by the Anglers of the Au Sable association, which represents hundreds of fishermen around the state that consider that portion of the river as sacrosanct. Joined by other conservation and environmental groups, the Sierra Club and the Angler's filed suit against the DEQ and its issuance of the permit that allows fish waste to flow into the river from the farm.

Joe Hemming, president of the Anglers of the Au Sable organization, said Vogler pulled a bait and switch move on the community by seemingly coming in to help the tourism aspect, and placing a waste-producing fish farm on a highly sensitive river considered throughout the country as a blue ribbon trout stream.

"When (the county) walked away from it, it was losing money. Then Vogler entered and said he could operate the hatchery and put some fish in the raceway," Hemming said. "Then, after that, he said, 'If I'm going to do it, I have to do it year round, and make some money.' That led to the full-time operation, and to the county giving him a lease for 20 years for a buck. He got a sweetheart deal – but instead of a few fish, there are a whole lot more, and all year round.

"I think it was a case of him getting his foot in the door, and then once he was in, he said, 'I really need this if you want me to stay.' The county wasn't desirous of having it go vacant, but I'm not sure how much effort they put into looking to alternative uses for it and how many were aware of the situation."

The Michigan Sierra Club and the Anglers of the Au Sable lost their lawsuit against the DEQ. Hemming, a Birmingham-based attorney, said the Anglers filed an appeal in the case. Additionally, the Anglers of the Au Sable have filed suit against Vogler and Harrietta Hills Trout Farm, claiming it is violating the Michigan Environmental Protection Act for impairing the Au Sable River through its operation.

"We aren't anti-farming, but if he's going to operate there, he's got to operate with the proper technology to protect the environment," Hemming said. "If he can't afford it, he shouldn't operate there. If you can't pay for the proper protections, then you need to go somewhere else."

Hemming pointed to a recent outbreak of parasites at the fish farm, known as ich. Treatment of the parasite involves a chemical known as formalin, which contains formaldehyde. Hemming said he and others are concerned because formalin was then released into the Au Sable through the treatment process, exposing anyone downstream to formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen in high doses. While Vogler said the treatment was done with approval of the proper state agencies and under the guidance of a certified veterinarian specializing in such treatments, Hemming said people using the waterway should have been alerted.

The incident, combined with the loading of nutrients from fish waste, Hemming said, could have negative impacts on the river. He said such operations should take extra precautions to ensure wastes are filtered out before being sent downstream, and that there are better ways to undertake aquaculture in the state, albeit, not as affordable for all businesses.

"I think Vogler's choice of location has given a black eye to aquaculture," he said. "There's a division in the aquaculture community of what he's done... He's trying to do it on a shoestring, on a blue-ribbon trout stream."

At Bill's Restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan rainbow trout tops the list of entrees. Well-known among diners and anglers throughout the state, trout farmed for food has grown dramatically since the 1950s, with the United States leading the world in ecologically responsible trout farming.

A close relative of salmon, farmed rainbow trout is considered one of the safest fish to eat and is noted for high levels of vitamin B and flavor.

"It's an extremely clean fish. From a pallet standpoint, it's extremely fresh," said Patrick Roettele, corporate executive chef for Roberts Restaurant Group, which features variations of Michigan farmed trout dishes at several of the group's restaurants, including Bill's, Beverly Hills Grill and Cafe ML. "There are other (fish producers), like in Idaho. It's fresh, but it's shipped in cryovac. It's not as pure in my eyes. If you can get something that came out of the water within 48 hours, I'll take that all day long."

The fish, Roettele said, are BAP certified, standing for Best Aquaculture Practices. The certification is considered a trusted and comprehensive program that takes into account environmental, social and economic performances of the supply chain.

"That's the eco-friendly, sustainability side of things," Roettele said. "And we try to pull items that are very local."

Specifically, the rainbow trout Roettele purchases for the restaurant group comes from the Indian Brook Trout Farm, located in Jackson, Michigan. The farm is one of three Michigan-based trout farms in the state that raise fish for commercial sale. The other two commercial-sized trout farms are operated by Vogler.

Owen Ballow, owner of Indian Brook Trout Farm, is taking a different approach to aquaculture. With an educational background in fisheries biology, Ballow spent 30 years in the medical sales field before entering the aquaculture industry. Starting with a small fishing farm targeting tourists, Ballow began scouting locations for a new venture.

"When I was going to retire, my son was graduating from Michigan State and was in the agribusiness field. He bent my ear and said he wanted to specialize in aquaculture, and asked if I was interested in developing it," Ballow said.

In looking for ideal locations, Ballow realized that Absopure draws its water from artesian wells in Jackson, Michigan. As a natural artesian well, the high quality water flows at 50 degrees throughout the year, and is drawn to the surface without using pumps. The water source means the foundation of the facility can be maintained without a large carbon footprint, and with no chance of failure from power outages. Then, before starting to develop the facility, Ballow began working with the DEQ and Michigan Department of Agriculture, which licenses and permits aquaculture facilities in the state.

"We designed the system to capture any effluent going into the river system and made it bigger than what we needed. Then we built the farm in front of it and expanded the farm," Ballow said. "Most people do it opposite. They are constantly trying to build additional containment so they don't exceed limits, but they are constantly exceeding."

Ballow said water drawn into the facility comes from below the area's drinking water aquifer. After it's filtered, it's returned to the Sandstone Creek, and essentially the drinking water source. Therefore, the facility helps to recharge the drinking water aquifer. He said the facility doesn't use any antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. Additionally, the Sandstone Creek isn't a trout stream, which has another benefit.

"You never want to put a farm in the same ecosystem that (the fish you're raising) live in. If you put one up north that's a trout stream, so if they escape or get a disease, they will spread that," Ballow said. "If they escape here, they die. So, if they escape they will swim back and we can capture them. That's the idea. We haven't had any escapes."

In addition to the unique recirculating system that Indian Brook uses, Ballow also instituted a fish processing center on premises, as well as his own distribution network. The combination allows him to grow high volumes of fish, process the fish with no waiting, and sell directly to restaurants and grocers in and between the metro Detroit and Chicago areas, with deliveries in less than two days.

"We harvest within 24 hours of delivery to customers, so people that really appreciate that are chefs and those who want a higher quality product and longer shelf life," he said.

Locally, Indian Brook supplies Meijer Stores, Plum Market, Nino Salvaggio, Meeting House, Beverly Hills Grill, Bill's, Royal Park Hotel, Joe Muer's Bloomfield Hills, Cafe ML, The Reserve and others.

Indian Brook has been embraced by conservation and environmental groups throughout the state, as well as some state lawmakers, as an example of what they say the future of aquaculture should look like in Michigan.

Ballow said the challenge for many getting into the business to develop the way he has is the large costs upfront. Still, he said he hopes to expand operations, and encourages other aquaculture farms, which he hopes he can do business with as a processor and distribution system.

"We have five full-time biologists, all who graduated from Michigan State. The goal is to expand and have each run a different farm, allowing them to hire more graduates," he said. "Hopefully, this will continue to expand."

Still, he said one formula may not work for all aquaculture businesses. Each location may have unique circumstances. After spending a few hundred thousand dollars to scout locations, he said most he looked at wouldn't work for his initial plans. Hatcheries producing over a certain amount of fish also must have an approved National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and permit. Initial development and testing for that cost between $150,000 and $200,000, Ballow said.

"It's about a four-year process from the start to having the first product, so we are about four years ahead of anyone," he said. "But truthfully, we will buy all the fish they can grow. We can process and have the sales and distribution network, and we will offer our technology and biologists to get them off the ground.

"We are trying to encourage everyone to do it this way, and we are willing to help them."

The facilities operated by Vogler and Ballow represent two different approaches to aquaculture in the state. On one hand, Vogler and others, including the Michigan Farm Bureau, believe the state's natural resources – particularly the Great Lakes – make Michigan the ideal place to expand aquaculture. On the other hand, those concerned with environmental issues and ecology believe the state is ripe for expansion, but with a different set of practices and regulations that better protect our freshwater resources.

In Michigan, the aquaculture industry and state agencies are working together to grow the state's current industry into a major agriculture sector. In 2011, the aquaculture industry and the Michigan Quality of Life Departments (the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), the DEQ and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) created a road map to help aquaculture operators understand the regulatory process.

Michigan's State Veterinarian James Averill, who also serves as MDARD's Director of Animal Husbandry, said the state licenses aquaculture facilities and others raising stock for food or stocking for public waters. Currently, he said there are 55 such aquaculture facilities in Michigan, with two pending permitting.

For his part, Averill said the department considers the species being proposed to be raised to see they are approved under state law, how they are raising the fish, whether they are practicing proper biosecurity and other factors.

"When they get to a certain size, they need a NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit, and that's when they look at the environmental impact," he said.

"We have three different types of aquaculture," Averill said. "Those that flow through; then you have ponds, whether it's a big gravel quarry or a backyard pond, that are more times than not spring fed in some manner; and the third is the recirculating facility, those that are bringing in well water. That's where you have tilapia type systems. Those are the three major types in the state.

"When looking at recirculating systems, it's all contained there and the water stays in the system, so the impact to the environment is pretty minimal. With ponds or flowthrough, there is more potential there for the waste from the fish to get into the waterway, but some of that is beneficial for the ecosystem. But too much of a good thing can be bad, so it's a balance. That's where the DEQ comes in when trying to help that balance."

In addition to nutrient loading associated with fish waste, Averill said the spread of fish disease is possible, not only within the stock being raised, but within ecosystems downstream.

"As the state veterinarian, if it's severe enough, we can order those fish destroyed, and in doing so you are looking out for that ecosystem," he said. "There are approved treatments. As long as that producer is working with a vet and doing it an the approved rate, they are OK. The FDA is looking at the environmental toxicity. It's a limited number of products approved for use in aquaculture."

While each facility produce similar fish of arguably equal quality, how and where those fish are raised serve as the center of controversy in Michigan and the state's future role in aquaculture, the fastest growing area of food production in the world's quest to feed some 9.5 billion people by 2050.

Worldwide, aquaculture provides for more than half of the fish we consume, with about 85 to 90 percent of fish consumed in the United States being imported, according to the Michigan Aquaculture Association. While past aquaculture production in Michigan focused on fish for use as bait, pond stocking and fee fishing, the association believes the future growth of the state's aquaculture industry is in production of fish for human consumption.

"About 86 percent of aquaculture comes from Southeast Asia, and 60 percent comes from China, alone," Vogler said. "About one percent of global aquaculture comes from the United States. That could be dramatically expanded with Michigan."

The largest producer of rainbow trout in the world is Chile, where they are raised within large net cages, or net-pens, in the sea. In the United States, about three-quarters of rainbow trout production comes from Idaho. In all, the United States produces about seven percent of the world's trout, with about 15 percent of that exported.

Vogler said he hopes to see an expansion of aquaculture. However, efforts by some aquaculture proponents in the state, including the Michigan Farm Bureau, were thwarted last year, in part by an opinion published by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette that found aquaculture isn't legal in the state's Great Lakes under current law.

At the center of the issue is the desire to use "net-pen" farms, which would keep potentially hundreds of thousands of fish in underwater nets or solid-structure cages that function as pens within to raise fish. The pens are anchored to the bottom of the body water and may float near the shore or be located further off shore and reachable by boat.

Proponents of the facilities say Michigan's waters of the Great Lakes would provide an ideal location for such operations, and would do so with a small carbon footprint. They further claim expanding aquaculture could produce up to $100 million and 1,500 new jobs over the next decade, focusing on trout, shrimp and tilapia.

Opponents of expanding aquaculture to include net-pen farms say job and revenue productions are vastly overstated. Further, they say there are too many risks involved to open the Great Lakes to such operations. Those risks include waste produced by fish that could impact water quality and the ecosystem of the lakes, as well as the possibility of escapes of fish that could wreak havoc on existing habitat.

A push for expanding aquaculture in Michigan came in December of 2014, when two concept proposals for possible commercial net-pen operations came to the attention of the Michigan departments of Agriculture and Rural Development, Natural Resources and Environmental Quality. The plans included fisheries in northern Lake Michigan, near Escanaba in the Little and Big Bays de Noc in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and another for northern Lake Huron, in the lower peninsula in Lake Huron, near Alpena and Rogers City.