“Fishing for our Future Act”, Still Smells Fishy

Apr 17, 2017 | Aquaculture, Water Policy

Last legislative session, amid a slew of bills designed to degrade Wisconsin’s land and water to the benefit of special interests, we saw the introduction of SB493/AB 460, a bill that would reduce many restrictions on the fish farming (or “aquaculture”) industry. In the first incarnation of that bill, we decried the handout it represented to the aquaculture industry, and said it “stunk to high hell.”

Well, that bill is back, in the form of SB 95/AB 160, or the “Fishing for Our Future Act.” This time around, the bill’s authors—to their credit—conferred with a handful conservation groups, which ultimately reduced the impact it will have on Wisconsin’s waterways. However, after carefully analyzing the bill, attending multiple hearings to understand varying viewpoints on it, and discussing the intent and implications of it with its authors (as well as offering our suggestions as to how to improve it), it’s clear the bill will still negatively affect our waterways. We are opposed to it, unless several provisions contained in it are substantially revised.

  • We’re fundamentally concerned with the special-interest handout the bill gives to a single fish farm in Langlade County, allowing that farm to cut off natural stream flow to a trout stream. While it’s bad public policy in the first place to create laws that benefit a single individual at the expense of the general public (a scenario we’re all too familiar with in recent years, sadly), this bill allows Silver Moon Springs Trout Farm to hold water back behind its dam, exempting a requirement in state law to pass a minimum 25% flow to Elton Creek, a Class 1 trout stream. Though proponents of the bill indicate that only during rare drought-like conditions will the 25% flow requirement not be met, and that such low-water events in the past haven’t harmed the downstream trout population, we (notably) haven’t heard such assurances from DNR fisheries scientists, and furthermore, it is exactly at those times when streams—and the aquatic life that they support—need water the most. This flies in the face of sensible natural resource management.
  • While the water quality impacts that will result from the bill are ultimately uncertain, the scope of the bill can, and should, be limited to prevent degradation. It’s clear that the intent behind the bill is—and stop us if you’ve heard this before—to remove pesky, “job-killing” regulations for the aquaculture industry. In doing so, the bill seeks to put aquaculture on equal footing with other forms of agriculture, with respect to many of the permitting exemptions the industry enjoys. There are approximately 2,800 registered fish farms in Wisconsin, and of those, somewhere around 200-300 are commercial operations. Limiting the exemptions in this bill to only commercial operations would reduce water quality degradation from the potential expansion (and associated earth-moving activities) of “mom and pop” fish farm operations into full-blown commercial operations.
  • The bill is also problematic because it contains a loophole whereby formerly-operational fish farms that still exist on the landscape could be registered with the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP; not an agency entrusted with environmental protection), and operations begun anew, without any oversight from DNR. This too could be limited, by inserting language in the bill specifying that exemptions only apply to “existing, in operation” farms. There may be formerly-operational fish farm and associated ponds that have filled in over time, for which “repair” and “maintenance” activities (for which exemptions are granted in the bill) may actually constitute new construction. In these cases, simply registering a fish farm with DATCP is not a substitute for common-sense provisions that will safeguard the sensitive waterways adjacent to these operations, particularly if it has been some time since they have been operational. While it’s hard to know exactly how many of these “fallow” fish farms exist on the landscape, limiting the scope of the bill to “existing” farms, or farms that are operational at the date of the bill’s signing, would eliminate this potential loophole.
  • An ominous provision in the bill suggests a coming attempt to deregulate certain aquatic invasive species classifications, which should be watched carefully. The bill directs DNR to assess the “continued classification of bait fish and forage fish as established nonnative fish species, and to promulgate new rules as necessary.” It would appear the intent of this language is to de-list eastern and western mosquitofish from NR 40, the state’s invasive species law. Mosquitofish are restricted species, which “cause or have the potential to cause significant environmental or economic harm, or harm to human health,” according to DNR.
  • Mosquitofish are present in some natural Wisconsin waters, and have the potential for incidental take by aquaculture operations that seine rivers and streams for baitfish or minnows used to feed fish stocks. Per their listing on NR 40, there are restrictions on how mosquitofish can be moved about the state. With considerable scientific evidence and periodic reviews and updates, the DNR has carefully developed NR 40 and a related set of best management practices (BMPs) to minimize the spread of invasive species like mosquitofish. According to the DNR, “bait and forage fish importers who follow the BMPs…may demonstrate to the DNR that they have taken reasonable precautions to avoid the possession, transport and transfer of mosquitofish and other prohibited invasive fish species, if such fish are unknowingly or incidentally present in a shipment.” In other words, those who follow the BMPs face no liability if incidental transport or possession occurs; therefore, it would appear that there is no need for this rule be re-assessed. And yet, here is the Legislature, requiring it.

Through River Alliance’s Project RED program, now entering its eighth year and serving as a statewide model for engaging citizen scientists in monitoring for aquatic invasive species, we have a vested interest in preventing the introduction and spread of invasive species in our state, which can harm economies, environmental habitats, and social traditions. We’re opposed to the rolling back of any invasive species laws, without a scientifically-supported demonstrated need.

Though there are elements of SB 95/AB 160 that are problematic, it will likely pass into law without consequence, and join the ever-expanding catalog of Wisconsin policies that roll back protections for our waters. To track developments around SB 95/AB 160, and voice your concerns to its authors, click here.

Photo: Hans-Petter Fjeld (CC-BY-SA)