Mike Meeker: Fish farmer, fish miner, and cage innovator
Mike Meeker has built a career on, in, and under water.
After studying marine biology at the University of Wisconsin, he had a brief career as a professional hockey player, including a stint in the National Hockey League with the Pittsburgh Penguins, which was curtailed by a back injury.
Then he became a fish farmer. For 34 years, he has farmed rainbow and steelhead trout at three sites in the north channel of Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, in the province of Ontario, Canada. Meeker Aquaculture and Blue Goose Fish Farm now produce around 2.5 million pounds of fish a year – approximately one-fifth of Ontario’s production. He said he thinks the province could do more, but is hindered by a slow regulatory process.
He’s also a farmer who has mined fish. While growing fingerlings in a hothouse, he connected with a local nickel mine to investigate the possibility of using mining sites as aquaculture facilities. The project lasted a year and a half, but is currently suspended while the mine shaft is re-enforced. Meeker called his initial foray into this unique method of aquaculture a success and said the technique in general is promising.
“In our cold climate, if you’re doing a re-circulation system, you have to reheat the water and, doing that, you’re not going to grow any kind of market-sized fish at a price that’s competitive,” Meeker said. “When you’re underground – we were 4,800 feet below ground – the ambient temperature is 22 degrees Celsius, 365 days a year. So you don’t have to heat the water.”
Another advantage of active mines is their redundant power supplies, which is critical for a fish farm, Meeker said. Mine farming also solves the security issue about stolen fish or storm loss. Basically, all the farmer needs to add is lighting and pens, Meeker said.
“It was a really cool project,” he said. “I see a lot of potential in that. I know it will take a while for it to happen in a big way, but I believe it will because there are a lot of advantages.”
While Meeker grew rainbow trout in the mine, he says the deeper down the fish pond is sited, the higher the temperature, which expands what can be farmed. At 8,000 feet, the temperature averages 28 to 30 degrees Celsius, which makes tilapia a viable crop.
“In Northern Ontario, there are lots of mines that have been shut down and those facilities are still there,” he said. “That is something we need to look at more.”
Back on the surface, the challenging waters Meeker farms – three- to five-knot currents, short- and long-frequency waves, seiches, and heavy ice – led him to devote 12 years developing a submersible cage design. His first-generation cages, of which he sold 60, were 15 meters square.
Three years ago, he began testing his second-generation model, the Storm Safe Submersible Cage. Initial tests showed the cages functioning as he expected, and he’s now sold five of the cages.
The six-sided cages – Meeker calls them “the Hex” – measure around 100 meters in diameter and provide 10,000 cubic meters of rearing space. The cage is able to be submerged in two minutes, either remotely with the push of a button, or manually with the opening of one two-inch valve, Meeker said.
But he hasn’t stopped trying to improve the product; Meeker recently signed an agreement with the University of New Hampshire to perform computer modeling of the Storm Safe cage in open-ocean conditions, and found a manufacturer who specializes in hot-dip galvanizing so the cage can be used in saltwater applications.
And in addition, he’s working on a new model.
“The octagonal cage is the next I’m going to build. At 17,000 cubic meters, it’s almost twice the size of the Hex and only one-third more expensive,” he said.
Manna Fish Farms, which plans to become the first aquaculture company to farm fish in federal waters on the East Coast of the United States, is a prospective client, and will consider purchasing cages as soon as the project gets approval, according to CEO Donna Lanzetta. She said the Storm Safe cage has “great potential for open ocean aquaculture.”
“I like the ease of operation and functional features, such as the potential to remotely sink, side parallel flaps in the event of an oil spill or algae bloom, along with an upwelling system to bring up nutrient-rich water from below the cage,” Lanzetta said. “I think that different cage types will work better in different marine environments. There are many factors to be considered, including durability, site suitability and of course price. It is important to have options, and exciting to watch technology development in the industry.”
Photo courtesy of Blue Goose Farms