Aquaculture: A local, sustainable protein source

Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, and yet it still imports 90 percent of its seafood. MSU researchers and Extension educators are looking at responsible ways of expanding the aquaculture industry.


Despite its close proximity to the Great Lakes, which contain more than 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water, Michigan imports 90 percent of its seafood.

In total, the United States has a nearly $12 billion seafood trade deficit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The only industry with a larger trade deficit is oil.

And much of that seafood comes from countries that lack rigorous regulatory systems and food safety standards.

To lessen U.S. dependence on foreign sources, the aquaculture industry is responding with an effort to expand around the country. But it has a long way to go to meet the swelling demand.

Currently, only 5 to 7 percent of U.S.-consumed seafood is raised through American aquaculture.

Elliot Nelson, a Michigan State University (MSU) Extension and Michigan Sea Grant educator in the eastern Upper Peninsula, views this as the perfect time to increase awareness of the impact that aquaculture could have on the state and the country.

“The world population is growing, and that is requiring us to produce more food,” Nelson said. “Significant attention should be placed on identifying sustainable sources of healthy food, and aquaculture can be one of the answers. It’s one of the more efficient agricultural processes for protein-based foods.”

For example, NOAA data indicate that it takes 1.2 pounds of feed to yield 1 pound of salmon. This is significantly lower than the ratios for most animal proteins.

“Traditional wild fisheries are performing close to maximum capacity and have been for decades,” said Ronald Kinnunen, an MSU Extension and Michigan Sea Grant senior educator in the western Upper Peninsula. “If we want a more sustainable source of seafood, we will need to expand aquaculture. More than half of the seafood in the world is produced in aquaculture systems, but the U.S. is lagging behind in this regard.”

With seafood demand at an all-time high, why hasn’t the popularity of aquaculture skyrocketed, especially in Michigan? The answer lies in a convoluted, sometimes controversial, regulatory situation.

What is aquaculture?

Aquaculture refers to breeding, developing and harvesting both animals and plants in controlled systems that use fresh water or saltwater, depending on the aquatic species grown.

Clams, mussels, oysters, salmon and shrimp constitute the bulk of U.S. aquaculture, but the industry is looking to expand into other species. Trout is a popular fish in Michigan operations.

Although there are multiple production methods, net-pen aquaculture — in which an underwater pen placed in an inland lake or coastal waters serves as home to a fish population raised for food purposes — has caused controversy in Michigan.

This practice is common internationally and in some areas of the U.S. The chief criticism is that net pens allow for an unfettered exchange of nutrients inside and outside of the pen.

The amount of waste generated by the netted fish population, opponents argue, is unsafe for local ecosystems. Angling groups have been particularly vocal in their resistance to net penning.

They say it disrupts the environment for native populations in historically fertile fishing waterways.

Net-pen aquaculture is currently prohibited in Michigan, but producers are utilizing the technique on the Canadian side of Lake Huron.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada has performed a five-year study on net-pen operations in Lake Huron, and the study found the risk to the environment to be low,” Kinnunen said. “We would like to conduct research in Michigan to test these findings, but it’s a complicated policy world right now with this topic. It’s also important to remember that there are other types of aquaculture that we can utilize currently.”

Other aquaculture options include recirculating, flow-through and aquaponics processes. Interested parties from around the state — including current and potential producers, students, teachers, and more — can attend workshops led by Kinnunen and Nelson.

At the K-12 level, Nelson has partnered with Lake Superior State University to educate students and teachers on various aquaculture approaches, particularly aquaponics.

In these systems, fish are housed in a tank. The water from the tank is fed into a hydroponic setup, where plants absorb fish waste as nutrients. This purifies the water, which is then circulated back into the tank.

“Aquaponics is a great teaching tool to talk about topics such as the nitrogen cycle,” Nelson said. “Our school groups participate in an aquaculture competition, the Aquaculture Challenge. We had 10 groups this year. It gets kids interested in the science behind aquaculture, and although aquaponics operations can be complex, some of these kids might help us build useable models for implementing this technology on a large scale.”

Nelson is also collaborating with community colleges to develop curriculum for students who want to learn more about the technology and biology behind aquaculture.

An internship program has been established that provides students with opportunities to work in aquaculture facilities and learn entrepreneurial skills to start their own operations.

Kinnunen created a Seafood Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point training program for the Great Lakes region. During these sessions, he instructs policy makers, industry professionals and other stakeholders on food safety hazards and how to mitigate them.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires processors to keep tabs on aspects of food safety including sanitation, handling, storing and packaging.

Those looking to enter aquaculture need a strong understanding of these mandates.

“Aquaculture is an industry with a tremendous amount of potential in Michigan,” Nelson said. “I usually talk to skeptical people about the amount of seafood being imported, and that wild fisheries are maxed out.

“We are being sensitive to environmental impact and continue to look at ways to improve our methodology. The bottom line is that if we want a safe supply of seafood that we know is sustainable and regulated, we need to learn more about the best ways to expand the industry here.”

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