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Could fish farming take off in Minnesota? And should it?

While some are concerned with environmental dangers of aquaculture, others see the industry as a promising one for Minnesota. 

Minnesota is generally a difficult place to grow golden shiners outside, because winters slow fish growth and can kill fish in ponds at times.
Minnesota is generally a difficult place to grow golden shiners outside, because winters slow fish growth and can kill fish in ponds at times.

Over the next three years, a team of Minnesota researchers will use state taxpayer money to find the best way to grow a type of minnow, known as golden shiners, in captivity.

If successful, raising the fish could help the state address a dire bait shortage that has crimped anglers of bigger prizes like walleye and northern pike. The project involves cultivating golden shiners indoors, in outdoor human-made ponds, and as part of a vegetable farm.

“There’s a real demand out there from anglers, bait dealers and legislators,” said Don Schreiner, a researcher on the project and a fisheries and “aquaculture” specialist with the University of Minnesota’s Sea Grant — a water science program in partnership with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the golden shiner is not the only farm-raised fish in Minnesota’s proverbial sea. While some are concerned with environmental dangers of aquaculture, a host of people in the field — including walleye, shrimp and tilapia farmers — see promise, and hope a new aquaculture plan proposed at the Legislature could help ensure one of Minnesota’s next popular ag products is raised in water, not soil.

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Minnows: the next big Minnesota crop? 

The aquaculture field in Minnesota is small. Schreiner told lawmakers during a hearing last week in the state House’s Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee that the industry “conservatively” was worth roughly $5 million a year.

Fishing, on the other hand, is a multi-billion dollar industry in Minnesota. That’s why bait farming has potential to grow.

It’s getting harder to harvest bait in the wild, which is where much of the state’s supply comes from, said Marc Tye, who is raising golden shiners in captivity for the research project. 

“If there’s an aquatic invasive species found in that waterway then there’s a lot of rules and hurdles you have to go through to harvest minnows out of there, if you even can, because they don’t want to spread those aquatic invasive species,” Tye said. “And as you know every year the number of lakes with aquatic invasive species keeps getting larger and larger. We’re not going to be able to stop that.”

Minnesota now has a shortage of bait — and a fierce debate over how to fix the problem. Some Republican legislators want to lift a state ban on importing minnows and hope to tap into a large industry in Arkansas. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has pushed back against the idea, saying importing golden shiners can lead to spread of invasive species and fish diseases.

In lieu of importing minnows, lawmakers this year passed legislation that eased some regulations on wild bait harvesting, and approved $188,000 from the lottery-funded Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund for the golden shiner research.

In an interview, Schreiner said the study is aimed at finding the best way to raise golden shiners, which grow to about 3-to-5 inches at market size. Minnesota is generally a difficult place to grow the fish outside, he said, because winters slow fish growth and can kill fish in ponds at times. “If you’re growing shiners outside it takes two years to reach market size,” Schreiner said.

The group is exploring raising golden shiners entirely indoors, including by growing them along with vegetables in an “aquaponics” facility. The researchers are also trying to raise or hatch golden shiners indoors and then move them outside to constructed ponds in an effort to shorten the time it takes for the minnows to reach market size.

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Tye raised minnows indoors for roughly two years around 2010, “basically just proving the concept that it can be done,” but now works for the University of Minnesota raising zebrafish and doing consulting work on aquaculture. “This (golden shiner) project is to figure out some of the finer details so that someone can bring it to production size as opposed to research scale or proof of concept scale,” Tye said.

Economic possibilities of aquaculture

Schreiner and others tied to the golden shiner project were at the House hearing last week to testify in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth, and Sen. Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing, to create a state aquaculture plan led by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).

State Rep. Ginny Klevorn
State Rep. Ginny Klevorn
Schreiner said the state is relying on an aquaculture plan first written in the late 1980s that has been updated some, but focuses largely on bait fish and stock fish. He, and many who farm fish or crustaceans for food, testified at the hearing to say food fish should be a part of the new plan.

Michael Ziebell, president and CEO of Balaton, Minnesota-based Tru Shrimp, said a lack of understanding in state agencies about aquaculture led to the company’s high-profile rift with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. After a fight about water discharge rules, the indoor shrimp farmers moved a new plant they wanted to build in Luverne to South Dakota. A new state plan could help avoid such issues, Ziebell said.

“Minnesota has the resources to be a significant aquaculture player,” Ziebell said. “We have the water, we have the feedstuffs, we certainly have people and the people with the intellect to develop this industry.”

Jessica Coburn, vice president of executive coordination for Blue Water Farms in Welch, said the company wants to build a pioneering indoor walleye farm in Minnesota to raise a ton of the fish each year and compete with the Canadian walleye trade. Coburn said they’ve “appreciated” state support in the form of grants and advice, but said in order for mid-size and large aquaculture projects to succeed, the state “needs to take an active role” in supporting the industry and understanding it better.

Sean Sisler, commercial aquatic programs and fish health consultant for the DNR, said the vast majority of aquaculture licenses issued in the state have been for bait and stock fish, meaning farmed food fish is still a small part of the industry.

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Environmental risks

At least two state agencies expressed support for a state aquaculture plan. Thom Petersen, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said aquaculture has been around for decades, but has never really taken off in the state, despite its promise. 

Commissioner Thom Petersen
He said the industry is eligible for grants from his agency and said aquaculture can create jobs in rural areas and also run on soybean-based feed grown in Minnesota. “Ours is more of a marketing and promotion role,” Petersen said.

Sisler, from the DNR, said aquaculture does carry some risks.

For instance, there can be pathogens in cultivated fish that DNR aims to prevent from escaping, and fish farms can discharge waste that can hurt water quality or spread disease. The agency also works to prevent farmed fish from mixing with wildlife in a way that hurts the native populations. “Our aquaculture statutes are designed to keep private and public aquatic life separate,” Sisler said.

Still, Sisler said the DNR generally supports aquaculture, especially in support of raising bait fish in Minnesota rather than importing them. It also makes some sense, he said, to update the state’s aquaculture plan to consider farmed food fish.

State Rep. Rick Hansen
State Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said with freshwater fish he is concerned about disease and “cross contamination with native fish and wildlife,” and said any discharge of saltwater from a seafood farm is concerning and should be addressed in any state report.

He also said the state should consider having a procedure or rule governing closure of fish farms. “Not that the businesses will fail but in case they do, how do we make sure there are clean up funds available for a site so the public is not responsible for cleaning up when a business fails and where there may be an environmental hazard,” Hansen said during the committee hearing last week.

John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said he hopes the Legislature ensures DNR is deeply involved in writing any new aquaculture plan so “concerns about all our wild populations and incredible fisheries in this state are front and center.”

Lenczewski said he supports alternatives to minnow importation and a strongly regulated aquaculture industry that involves “closed-loop” systems that don’t pose risks of water pollution or fish escaping. The “last thing we want to see” is “net pen” operations raising fish in Lake Superior or businesses that pull lots of water from aquifers and dump it downstream rather than cleaning it and reusing it, he said.

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“I think we could have a big aquaculture industry, but we very much have concerns because it’s always cheaper to do it the less safe way,” Lenczewski said.

Schreiner said revising and updating the aquaculture plan could help smooth out problems in the industry by getting ahead of them. “This work minimizes brush fires by dealing with the controversial issues up front, which I found legislators to be very appreciative of,” he said. “The plan would address aquaculture impacts on public waters, natural fish stocks and other environmental concerns and balance that with the needs of the industry.”