Creating Sustainable Jobs Through Aquaculture

Many cities and states have experienced economic difficulties at one point or another. Some overcame adversity, while others continue to struggle. Those who were successful when faced with the realities of a declining tax base and bleak economic picture turned to open-minded leaders who understood that “business as usual” wasn’t going to right the ship. These leaders all accepted the concept that if you expect to grow and thrive then you need to continually reinvent yourself .

Think of Boston in the late 1970’s through early 1980’s which relied heavily on manufacturing jobs, the city lost close to half of its population from all-time highs. Now, thirty years later, Boston is a leader in technology, education and medicine. Or take Pittsburgh back in the early 1980’s where the steel industry was collapsing and unemployment exceeded 17 percent. Many area leaders responded with denial and people held out hope the steel mills would reopen. But that didn’t happen, instead mill owners began demolishing plants and selling the steel for scrap. In the middle of the crisis, leaders emerged from the surrounding communities and joined forces to guide greater Pittsburgh into the technology center it is today.

So what does all of this have to do with aquaculture? Well, as the country increasing searches for locally sourced food, supplies for fresh seafood are in high demand. But not every state has the natural resources available to fulfill this growing need and consumers are left to the mercy of large distributors. Michigan, however, is in position not only to meet this demand, but to become a leader in this industry. The state has the longest freshwater coastline in the U.S. and the second longest coast line in the U.S. next to Alaska. But not everyone is open to new ideas and innovation.

Recently, a bill was introduced that would prohibit any commercial fishing operations on the Great Lakes surrounding Michigan. The reasoning behind the bill is to protect the natural resources of the state (i.e., fish waste causes pollution). Well, yeah, that’s why it’s called “waste”! But with a strong regulatory structure and academic community in Michigan, surely aquaculture can be studied and carried out in a responsible and environmentally friendly way. Just as farmers are stewards of the land, owners of aquaculture operations care deeply about the water. I’m sure nobody wants to see the Great Lakes return to the conditions that plagued them during the twentieth century, nobody more than aquaculture farmers that rely on these waters for their livelihood.

Michigan’s jump into aquaculture isn’t about “growing fish for the expensive restaurants in Chicago”, as Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge has put it. It’s about bringing Michigan into the future and using it’s resources responsibly to reinvent itself and create jobs. Michigan is already a dominant force in agriculture and is home to one of the nation’s premier agricultural schools in Michigan State University. There is no reason why Michigan can’t follow the same path with aquaculture, but it takes leaders with vision and openness to new ideas. Not only will aquaculture farms result in direct jobs, but indirect jobs such as manufacturing of fish products and transportation of the products to market.

If we are to take something away from the experiences of cities mentioned above, it is important to point out that Pittsburgh, referred to as the “Steel City”, now relies on less than 20% of its economic output from steel. I’m not comparing Pittsburgh with the entire State of Michigan (or even Detroit for that matter), because the economics of a city are quite different from that of an entire state. However, in a state that historically has relied heavily on the automotive industry as a driver of economic growth, Michigan’s leaders should take note. While Michigan, outside of a few distressed metropolitan areas (i.e., Detroit, Pontiac, Flint), is not experiencing an economic crisis, people aren’t exactly tripping over each other to relocate to the state either, with an estimated population growth rate near zero. This is why, more than ever, all options should be on the table. While it’s easier to say “no” to new ideas, especially ones that may upset some constituents, successful leaders make decisions regardless if the decisions are unpopular. After all it’s not about making the popular decision, it’s about doing what is right for the economic success of Michigan.