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Lack of policy stalls aquaculture growth

ONTARIO - When Mike Meeker began fish farming rainbow trout on Manitoulin Island in 1984, his plans were simple: keep a low profile and concentrate on growing the business. But after 20 years, Meeker feels like hes engaged in a constant battle for survival.

Muskrats destroy his nets. Cormorants dive in and spear his 50-gram fingerlings. The bottom-dwelling crayfish, the so-called ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of aquaculture (an indicator of good water quality), have been carpeted over by billions of zebra mussels. Meeker says there’s a few man-made predators circling too.

His home sits on a tree-lined ridge overlooking his floating 18-cage operation on the east shore of Lake Wolsey, a sheltered and secluded bay off Lake Huron’s North Channel. He raises about 350 tonnes annually of rainbow trout. Most of the dark-backed, silver-bellies darting around in his pens end up on Ontario grocery store shelves or diners’ plates in New York and Chicago.

The Evansville native wasn’t aware his aquaculture business was considered ‘corporate’ or ‘big business’ until a few years ago when environmental groups began branding cage operations like his as polluters and managers of underwater fish factories.

“I don’t know when it went from being a few guys raising fish, to an industry,” says Meeker.

Campaigns by environmental groups like the Suzuki Foundation listing the abuses of aquaculture have washed up on him and other cage operators clustered in the bays of Manitoulin and Georgian Bay. Cage operators soon realized they had to be as well organized as the people who opposed them.

In 2000, operators and fish processors banded together to form the Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association (NOAA). With more than 30 members, they’re determined to win the battle of public opinion and prove critics wrong.

The association has launched a marketing campaign to educate and promote the healthy benefits of Ontario farm-raised trout as a source of Omega-3 fatty acids. They’re also building an economic case that cage aquaculture is a $51 million business, employs 229 full-time workers and provides work for fish feed suppliers, fabricators who build offshore cages, contractors and fish processors.

This past spring, for the first time in 20 years, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) - the lead agency for aquaculture in Ontario - is taking steps towards creating a regulatory framework. A provincially-led aquaculture task group has produced a 252-page discussion paper as the first draft toward developing cage policy.

It’s hoped the document will eventually establish clear guidelines and licencing requirements in selecting proper cage sites, establishing water quality standards and protecting wild fish habitat. The public commenting period ends 11 July.

Meeker, whose group made an industry submission, admits to being slightly jaded by the whole process. “There’s optimism, but just as much fear. Depending on how this (process) goes, it may mean more problems for us.”

Fish farms on Manitoulin and nearby MacGregor Bay have been a flashpoint for friction between operators and lakeside residents, mostly notably from the powerful cottagers’ group, the Georgian Bay Association(GBA). GBA wants all “open cage” aquaculture eliminated and those operations moved ashore to “bio-secure systems” where sewage can be treated.

In a discussion paper, the group says three aquaculture operations on Georgian Bay discharge almost “six times” more phosphorous than three municipal sewage plants.

GBA president Mary Muter, whose aquaculture committee was preparing a submission for the EBR, declined to comment until after the July 11 public comment period.

NOAA coordinator Karen Tracey says aquaculture needs “clear and concise” steps to ensure the same rules are followed down to the MNR district offices. “We are under a very confusing and muddled framework,” says Tracey. It involved 22 acts and pieces of legislation.

The MNR issues aquaculture licences under the Fish and Wildlife Act. Other provincial and federal consulting agencies have their say as well, including the Ministry of Environment (MOE) which monitors water quality.

As a licensing condition, fish farms are required not to exceed 10 micrograms per litre of total phosphorous.

Lisa Miller-Dodd, the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Aquaculture Policy and Planning Coordinator, says existing fish farmers have a good environmental track record. “The operators do meet the conditions of their licence with respect to water quality,” she says. “The evidence shows there aren’t issues.”

The neglect in creating policy has been blamed by those within aquaculture for stifling its growth. There hasn’t been a new aquaculture site in Ontario for years, says Miller-Dodd. A big challenge has been finding suitable sites that meet MOE water quality standards.

While fish farmers welcome regulation, they don’t expect to be held to a higher standard than other industries.

Source: Northern Ontario Business