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Opportunity knocking on Minnesota’s doors

Farming fish for human consumption accounts for only a quarter of the state’s aquaculture industry. That’s about to change


March 7, 2022
By Matt Jones

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A proposed rewrite of Minnesota’s aquaculture regulatory regime will give local fish farmers the opportunity to partake in the benefits of the world’s fastest growing food production system.

The state’s aquaculture industry is currently very small, valued at roughly $5 million (compared to neighboring Wisconsin, where aquaculture is valued at $21 million). About half of that is farming fish for bait, while fish for stocking and fish for human consumption each account for a quarter.

Industry insiders believe the state’s current “aquaculture plan,” which was developed in the late 1980s, is out of kilter. 

“A ‘plan’ is supposed to have goals and action steps and monitoring systems and timelines and so on. That was never there,” says Clarence Bischoff, president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association (MAA). 

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Donald Schreiner, a fisheries and aquaculture specialist with Minnesota Sea Grant, explains that “food fish aquaculture really wasn’t in vogue at the time the plan was developed, especially in Minnesota.”

“Given our northern climate we were at a real disadvantage compared to southern states as far as the growing season goes.” 

If Bill HF 2391 is approved, $100,000 from state funds will be allocated to the Department of Agriculture for it to come up with a “comprehensive and well-documented state aquaculture plan.”

Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen believes there is a real opportunity for aquaculture to expand significantly within the state.

“I think it’ll provide opportunities for farmers,” says Petersen. “There’s a need for new types of protein sources and I think there’s a chance to take the food market from just a niche to a bigger player.”

Bischoff says aquaculture will allow wild-caught fish populations to recover.

“Wild caught cannot meet the demand, especially with the way the population is growing,” he says. “I would like to leave the wild population alone and leave it for nature lovers and sports people. We can do the food production in the controlled environment systems that we’re developing.”

Key considerations
Advances in fish-farming technology in controlled environments, for instance, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), could play a role in the industry’s expansion, sources say.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen sees a chance to take the food market from just a niche to a bigger player

Petersen, Schreiner and Bischoff all noted how RAS would be more palatable to some Minnesotans who have concerns about open-net pen farming. State Representative Ginny Klevorn, one of the sponsors of Bill HF 2391, says she hopes the new aquaculture plan will address such concerns.

“We still have some pieces in this legislation that we really need to make sure that we work out, such as protecting our indigenous aquaculture and our $2.3-billion fishing industry,” says Klevorn. “I want to make sure that we don’t disturb that. I’m really excited to think that we could find a way to do this and protect our natural resources and our water.”

Due to those concerns, social licence becomes a key consideration, notes Schreiner.

“If aquaculture is going to move forward, it has to move forward in an environmentally acceptable and sustainable manner. The last thing we would want to see is aquaculture potentially impacting our wild fish stocks or our public waters. That’s something people really cherish in this state.”

Given the ideal scenario they long for, Minnesota would likely be better off producing species that are well-suited to closed-loop recirculating systems, such as walleye (Sander vitreus). (The first indoor walleye farm in the United States is being planned in Minnesota by Blue Water Farms, founded by Bischoff, the MAA president.)

“People in this state go crazy over walleye,” says Schreiner. “It brings in big dollars when you can purchase it.”

Shrimp and trout farming are also popular within Minnesota’s small food-fish farming sector.

A need for education and promotion
While there is room for the industry to expand, selling fresh seafood to people less accustomed to it, such as those outside of the coastal communities, is seen as a challenge.

Clarence Bischoff, president of the Minnesota Aquaculture Association, believes aquaculture will allow wild-caught fish populations to recover

“One of the problems is here in the Midwest, everybody eats hamburgers and pork sausages,” says Jesse Preiner, trout farmer and mayor of Columbus, MN.

“Fresh seafood isn’t a big thing, unless you’re ordering shrimp for Christmas or something like that. It’s fallen on a few of us producers to teach people the value of good fresh fish. We make progress, every year it increases a little bit. Once they become a customer, they are customers for years,” says Preiner.

“A more robust conversation” and a vote on Bill HF 2391 will take place when the House begins the next session in late January. Rep Klevorn says that after an out-of-session committee meeting on the topic, she expects the bill will be passed.