The broad term aquaculture refers to the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments, including tanks, ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Similar to agriculture, aquaculture can take place in the natural environment or in a manmade environment.

Most aquaculture operations in Michigan focus on stocking fish, aquatic plants or trout, but the potential to expand beyond – into growing fish for food – is strong.

Aquaculture has its detractors; the concerns in Michigan are focused on:

  • Nutrient build-up and pollution in waters where concentrated fish populations are raised
  • The escape of non-native species into local waterways
  • Increase in disease outbreaks and
  • The quality of the final product

However, supporters say we must weigh risks against rewards in order to get a more accurate picture of what aquaculture can be in Michigan. For example, how does raising fish via aquaculture compare with overfishing the Great Lakes?

Michigan Sea Grant Involvement with Aquaculture FAQ

Michigan Sea Grant is dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of the Great Lakes and coastal resources through research, outreach and education. We work with businesses and industries throughout the state to help foster economic growth. We fund a variety of research projects with the goal of bringing together scientists and stakeholders, including policy-makers and citizens, around issues and ideas. One type of research that Michigan Sea Grant funds is an Integrated Assessment.

What is an Integrated Assessment?

Michigan Sea Grant supports Integrated Assessments (IA) to enhance the sustainable use of Great Lakes coastal resources. The goal of an IA project is to guide decision-making around a particular environmental issue — often a complex or “wicked” problem. Based on needs identified by community leaders, technical assessment teams gather, summarize and assess data that can inform planning and policy development. The approach combines data analysis (e.g., GIS and modeling) with stakeholder engagement (e.g., meetings). See: Approach to Research

Why did Michigan Sea Grant fund an Aquaculture IA?

Every two years Michigan Sea Grant solicits research proposals submitted by university-based research teams through an open request for proposals (RFP). In 2012, with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and in consultation with our advisory board comprised of representatives from government, industry, nonprofits and citizen groups, we initiated an RFP that included an option for the creation of a roadmap for the development of aquaculture in the state.

We enlist a team of technical and policy experts to help select the top research proposals to fund. The IA, Exploring and Expanding Michigan’s Aquaculture Industry (Aquaculture IA), is the result of this peer-reviewed selection and evaluation process.

The Aquaculture IA brought together a variety of stakeholders to look at issues related to aquaculture industry growth and considered multiple aquaculture types — including net-pen aquaculture — based on ideas that arose from stakeholder meetings. The Michigan aquaculture industry is now using this report as a roadmap for future development scenarios.

How did Michigan Sea Grant become involved in assessing the potential for aquaculture in Michigan?

Michigan has a long agricultural and fisheries history and abundant natural resources. These coupled with the fact that aquaculture is already occurring in the state and region raises the question: “to what extent could the aquaculture industry develop?”

Additionally NOAA, the federal agency of which Sea Grant is a part, fosters sustainable aquaculture that “provides safe, sustainable seafood; creates employment and business opportunities in coastal communities; and complements NOAA’s comprehensive strategy for maintaining healthy and productive marine populations, ecosystems, and vibrant coastal communities.”

Does Michigan Sea Grant promote the development of sustainable aquaculture in Michigan?

Michigan Sea Grant and NOAA support expansion of safe and sustainable aquaculture as a means to feed the world’s growing population and help create a more diverse economy for coastal communities.

Does Michigan Sea Grant consider Great Lakes net-pen aquaculture a sustainable and environmentally responsible industry?

Michigan Sea Grant has no official position regarding the sustainability of net-pen aquaculture. We funded the research and planning process to guide decision-making, but are not involved in advocating for or against aquaculture policies, such as net-pen aquaculture, in the state.

Recirculating and flow-through systems are already in operation in Michigan. Net-pen culture is a new and controversial proposal. As a result, the state established an advisory panel to provide scientific information to state agencies about the pros and cons of net-pen culture and held a widely publicized public hearing to help inform panel deliberations. See: Great Lakes Net-Pen Commercial Aquaculture: A Short Summary of the Science (PDF)

Why did the strategic plan include Great Lakes net-pen aquaculture when more environmentally friendly options such as recirculating systems are also available?

The logic behind inclusion of all three culture systems in the strategic plan for Michigan is described in the project’s final report:

“The three major types [of aquaculture] that have potential for development in Michigan are: 1) Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), 2) flow-through raceways and 3) cage systems.

The preferred future is expected to include all three systems and research will likely identify variants as well as new designs.

Economy of scale is expected to drive RAS and cage culture as preferred primary production systems; however flow-through raceway and pond systems are also necessary aspects of this plan.

It is also important to note that extensive production systems – pond, flow-through and cage culture farms, currently require much less capital investment than intensive indoor systems and comprise most of the global production and nearly all international exports today.”

— From A Strategic Plan for a Thriving and Sustainable Aquaculture Industry in Michigan: Final Project Report (p. 24)

An additional resource for understanding the environmental effects of each type of aquaculture is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Their objective evaluations of culture systems — including those used for the production of rainbow trout — and descriptions of many aquacultured species are available at

What specific question was the Aquaculture IA created to address?

The question this project was designed to answer is: “What critical elements are restricting Michigan’s current commercial aquaculture activities from developing into a major sustainable seafood production industry, what actions must be implemented to rectify the situation, and what are the associated benefits to the state of Michigan?”

To answer that, the project focuses on management and business aspects of aquaculture while addressing issues of policy and science.

Environmental impacts were not the primary focus of this project. The report of the state-convened science panel on aquaculture provides an in-depth look at the potential environmental impacts associated with each type of aquaculture proposed for use in Michigan. See: Great Lakes Net-Pen Commercial Aquaculture: A Short Summary of the Science (PDF)

Aquaculture in Michigan diagram

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