By CARIN TUNNEY
Capital News Service
LANSING — A million-dollar grant to study aquaculture aims to boost the number of fish farms in the Great Lakes region.
The industry in the Great Lakes region lags behind much of the U.S, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The region’s contribution to the industry is considered insignificant compared to coastal areas.
Aquaculture refers to raising fish both to eat and to stock streams and lakes.
The National Sea Grant office awarded the money to the new Great Lakes Aquaculture Collaborative, a group that brings together scientists and educators from all eight states in the Great Lakes Basin.
Listening to fish farmers is the first-year focus, said Amy Schrank, a fisheries and aquaculture extension educator from Minnesota Sea Grant who leads the project. The goal is to identify common challenges that might lead to solutions and further research.
Dispelling myths that aquaculture threatens the fishing industry and environment are among the biggest challenges, Schrank said. Critics associate aquaculture with placing nets into lakes and streams where fish are grown and can pollute water with concentrated waste.
Schrank said the industry must educate the public that aquaculture can be sustainable and environmentally friendly.
“We are often talking about on-land recirculating systems where no stream systems and wild fisheries are impacted,” she said. “Getting information to the public about sustainable aquaculture is missing, and producers would like to have it out there.”
Lauren Jescovitch, an outreach specialist and educator with Michigan Sea Grant, said the phrase “wild caught” on packaging is another barrier to industry.
That’s because it gives the misimpression that farm-raised fish are an unhealthy option, said Jescovitch, who is based in the Western Upper Peninsula.
But wild-caught fish aren’t necessarily better, she said.
“With wild fish, you don’t know how or where that fish was raised or caught or what it ate,” she said. “You just hope that the fish decided to live in pristine waters only eating other prey from those same waters, but in reality, you just don’t know.”
The U.S. imports most of its wild-caught and farm-raised fish because of packaging costs. About 90% of fish and seafood in the U.S. is imported, according to NOAA. That creates about a $15 billion trade deficit, the second-largest U.S. trade deficit behind oil imports.
The new collaborative will study how much consumers are willing to pay for local fish and emphasize buying local fish.
Another challenge is that consumers say they don’t know how to cook fish and don’t like the taste, Jescovitch said.
Several Sea Grant offices have added preparation, cleaning and recipe links on their websites. Other offices have information on where to buy locally raised fish.
Increasing such information is a project goal.
Schrank said phase two of the project will identify how policy issues on aquaculture vary across the Great Lakes state.
Emma Wiermaa, a University of Wisconsin professor and aquaculture outreach specialist for Wisconsin Sea Grant, said the industry doesn’t operate under U.S. Department of Agriculture supervision, so consumers aren’t familiar with how fish are regulated and safely brought to market.
Aquaculture regulations are enforced by agencies that vary from state to state, and industry start-up costs are expensive. There is a “steep learning curve,” Wiermaa said.
She works with Sea Grant offices to teach potential fish farmers the business and biology sides of aquaculture.
“The most important advice we can give to beginning farmers or those pursuing the industry is to really ‘do your homework’ before investing,” she said. “Unfortunately, there have been many failures in this industry. Much of this can relate back to poor business planning, facility management or lack of expertise.”
Wiermaa encourages potential farmers to visit facilities and build relationships with aquaculture organizations before investing. Wisconsin Sea Grant also supports programs in high schools as part of its hands-on training efforts.
“It is crucial for students to learn about the industry as a potential career choice, not only for sustainable industry expansion but also for students to have a career and placement pathway,” she said.
Despite obstacles in the Great Lakes region, aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food production sectors in the world. Fish production is expected to increase by more than 30% by 2030, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Carin Tunney writes for Great Lakes Echo.