Could Michigan be the next hot spot for fish farming?
It’s not impossible.
A Florida company is still working to secure financing for the construction of a $30 million eel farm on land in the city’s industrial park.
If Aqua Vida Aquaculture’s plans for the facility come to fruition, it could entice more fish-farming operations to the region and state, said Keith Lambert, vice president of business attraction at Lansing Economic Development Partnership.
Michigan is potentially a “world-class place” to grow the aquaculture industry using recirculating system technology, according to Aqua Vida’s Founder and Managing Partner Kit Munday.
Recirculating systems allow for more complete control of the environment in which fish are raised. LEAP officials believe fish farms that operate on land in controlled environments offer better control of environmental and pollution conditions than traditional pond or net-pen farming methods.
“We found that very compelling,” Lambert said. “I think the potential for Michigan is massive, and that’s why we really prioritized this and have done a lot of leg work to work with this company.”
But within the industry itself there are varying opinions about how big a role those systems will play in future aquaculture operations within the U.S.
Not the first to look at our region
Aqua Vida Aquaculture first reached out to LEAP officials in 2015. They helped the company look for viable locations for the business, identifying the 2 acres in St. Johns.
The farm would utilize a “recirculating aquaculture system” to produce farm-raised, African longfin eel and American eel for customers in the U.S., Europe and Asia, Munday said.
Water at the facility would be recirculated and reused, and the eels raised there would have no contact with lakes or rivers.
Aqua Vida isn’t the first company to approach the organization about bringing more aquaculture to the region using a recirculating system, Lambert said.
At least three different companies have approached LEAP with similar proposals, he said, and at least one other is looking at sites in the region and in other states for a potential salmon operation.
Aqua Vida has gone further though, working with state officials as they conducted a “risk analysis” of the proposal and established requirements for establishing and operating the business safely, Lambert said.
“I think this would be the first large-scale commercial operation of this type in the state,” he said.
Attracting aquaculture businesses to the region is important, Lambert said, because global demand for seafood is expected to increase.
“There’s a lot of investment up front but we believe strongly that this is where the future of seafood production is headed,” he said.
Opinions vary on technology
Recirculating aquaculture systems are already a part of the fish-farming industry in Michigan and elsewhere.
At Harietta Hills Trout Farm in Wexford County, the technology is used to recirculate water in the farm’s hatchery, said co-owner Dan Vogler, but the farm doesn’t rely on it. Traditional aquaculture farming techniques still make up the bulk of the operation, he said.
Recirculating aquaculture systems have a place in the state’s aquaculture business, said Vogler, who also serves as president of the Michigan Aquaculture Association.
Still, Vogler believes the up-front costs associated with establishing a facility dependent on recirculating technology is cost prohibitive for most fish farm operations. The energy costs associated with them are high too, he said.
“Are we going to build a whole industry on it? No,” Vogler said. “I cannot take trout production indoors and make a living. At the end of the day, the system has to produce a product at a price that is going to get a consumer to purchase it.”
Paul Zajicek, executive director of the National Aquaculture Association said the up-front costs for farms that run solely on recirculating aquaculture systems are high, but the technology is being used successfully in Japan and European aquaculture and, to a lesser degree, in the U.S.
“It is an expensive way to grow fish,” Zajicek said. “Everyone will agree with that, but there are successful operations.”
Blue Ridge Aquaculture, Inc. in Virginia has been growing tilapia indoors using a recirculating aquaculture system since 1993.
Last year, the company produced 4.4 million pounds of fish, said Jim Franklin, the company’s chief financial officer. The farm’s mortality rate is less than 2 percent, largely because Blue Ridge Aquaculture uses a recirculating system to control its water temperature and oxygenation, Franklin said.
He said how companies implement recirculating aquaculture systems can make or break them.
“These systems have been successful, but they depend on the design of the system itself,” he said. “The fish depend on you 24 hours a day, and you have to be able to handle that.”
There is no timeline in place for Aqua Vida Aquaculture’s proposed facility.
“These things take time,” Munday said, but the world needs high-quality protein and Michigan should be the place where it’s produced.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for the State of Michigan,” he said.
Lambert agreed. If the company is successful it will help attract more businesses that use the same approach, he said.
“We need to figure out ways to encourage this type of seafood raising in a lot of different species,” Lambert said. “They might start with eels, but what Aqua Vida’s doing can be applied to a lot of different species too.”