What is aquaculture?

Aquaculture is farming done in water. People have been farming this way for thousands of years. Around the world, farmers grow aquatic crops such as clams and oysters, shrimp, kelp, and dozens of species of fish. In Michigan, seafood farmers raise crops such as trout, salmon, tilapia, bass, yellow perch, minnows, lake whitefish, shrimp, and more.

Aquaculture has grown tremendously on a global scale in recent decades and now meets nearly half the world’s seafood demand. Projections indicate this demand will continue to grow. Michigan has the potential to support a vibrant aquaculture industry, given the state’s abundant freshwater, affordable real estate, room for new economic growth opportunities, and existing expertise in fisheries and food processing. However, aquaculture in Michigan and elsewhere in the U.S. has been challenged by concerns over water pollution, fish disease, unintended introduction of non-native species, and effects on wild species.

Why farm fish and other aquatic creatures?

Fish can be farmed as bait, raised as pets, stocked (released into lakes, rivers, and streams to boost wild populations, or grown in classrooms for educational purposes. In Michigan, most aquaculture operations raise fish for stocking. Other reasons for aquaculture include:

  • Food: Seafood can be a healthy source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Demand: In the next 20 years, global demand for seafood is expected to rise.
  • Sustainability: Farming seafood can take pressure off dwindling wild populations.
  • Efficiency: Fish and other underwater crops need less space, food, and energy than traditional livestock crops.

What do aquaculture facilities look like?

Globally, farmers raise aquatic crops in lakes, streams, or oceans. Others move their operations into ponds, tanks, or pools, some of which can be located indoors. No matter what the design, every aquaculture farm needs to have food coming in, waste going out, and a way to maintain healthy oxygen levels in the water. Aquaculture farms usually fit into one of these categories:

  • Raceways: Rectangular channels with a steady flow of water from springs, wells, or nearby streams.
  • Ponds: Pools that may be drained or divided so farmers can easily harvest their crops.
  • Recirculating: Tanks or pools, often indoors, with a water supply that’s filtered, reused, and also replaced.
  • Net pens: Outdoor cages placed in bodies of water where fish are raised. In Michigan, commercial net-pen aquaculture is currently not permitted in the Great Lakes.

Why farm fish in Michigan?

About 90 percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is imported from other countries. Even in Michigan, about 95 percent of seafood is imported. Farming fish here could have some benefits:

  • Farmed fish can complement products from commercial fisheries.
  • More money stays with local Michigan producers, markets, and communities.
  • Seafood products must meet strict regulations for safety, farm design, and labeling.
  • Shorter supply chains deliver fresher fish to markets and kitchens.
  • Farms stock species approved by Michigan regulators. Local zoning determines where farms can be located.
  • Consumers know exactly where their products are coming from — and might even be able to visit the farm in person.

What are some potential drawbacks to farming fish in Michigan?

Aquaculture is a sensitive issue for many in Michigan. Without careful regulation and oversight, aquaculture operations could pose the following issues:

  • Overcrowded tanks and ponds can put some farmed fish at higher risk of injury and disease.
  • Farms that don’t meet state regulations could put too many nutrients back into the environment, causing problems like algal blooms.
  • Diseases can move between wild and farmed fish, though most farms stock certified disease-free fish.
  • Farms can be very expensive to start up and may take a long time to become profitable.

Government-run hatcheries

Hatcheries play an important role in Great Lakes fisheries management. The goal of government-run hatchery programs is to release — or stock — fish into the environment with the intent of rehabilitating or augmenting fish populations. In 2016, approximately 30 federal, state, tribal, and provincial agency-run hatcheries contributed nearly 32 million fish stocked into Great Lakes waters.

Some native species, such as lake trout or lake sturgeon, may be reared and stocked for the purpose of restoring and rehabilitating native species populations. Other species, such as salmon or steelhead, may be stocked to enhance populations of fish highly sought by anglers.

As reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Aquaculture Census, there are nearly 340 aquaculture operations across eight Great Lakes states. In the U.S., 66 aquaculture operations reported sales specifically related to baitfish, a valuable product for many Great Lakes anglers.

The only cage culture operations in the Great Lakes — where fish are grown in cages in an open body of water — are found in Georgian Bay and the North Channel, in the Canadian waters of Lake Huron, where more than 9.5 million pounds of rainbow trout were produced in 2016.