Officials hope new aquaculture law boosts industry in Wisconsin

Published on
August 22, 2017

A new law in Wisconsin aims to put the state's aquaculture industry on more equal footing with other states, in hopes of allowing commercial fish farmers to grow their businesses and attract new investment in the state that produced a quarter of the nation’s cheese last year.

Gov. Scott Walker signed Assembly Bill 160 into law in late June. The legislation adds aquaculture to the state’s definition of agriculture and streamlines some of the regulations previously in place for fish farmers.

The legislation was the work of state Rep. Mary Felzkowski, who noted that the state consumes more fish than it produces. She and other state officials looked into reasons for that, including comparing Wisconsin’s regulatory processes with those in place in other states. What they discovered was that the state’s water quality regulations exceeded federal guidelines and put local businesses at a disadvantage.

Many of the fish farms are man-made bodies of water constructed solely for aquaculture, Felzkowski said. However, any time a farmer needed to make routine repairs or perform maintenance on their ponds, they needed to acquire permits from the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The Republican lawmaker, who tried passing a similar bill in the state’s Assembly in the 2016 session but ran out of time, likened the process to making a manufacturing facility get a permit for a simple repair.

“We kind of, more or less, gave them the freedom to manage their ponds, prepare them and maintain them without tons of burdensome permits and regulations,” she said.

One University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point official believes the law will help the local industry grow.

“The changes help clarify that aquaculture is agriculture and provide similar protections to aquaculture that agriculture enjoys under various statutes,” Greg Fischer, facility operations manager for the university’s Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility, said. The facility conducts research and offers technical assistance to fish farms – both emerging and existing – in the Midwest and beyond, according to its website.

According to Paul McGraw, a state veterinarian for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, there are about 3,000 registered fish farms in the state. However, less than 300 of those are considered commercial ventures, he said.

However, Felzkowski said the law could open the door for new products that are currently being developed in the state. For example, researchers are developing a walleye-sauger hybrid since walleye typically doesn’t fare well in containment, she said. The hybrid produces a heartier, table-ready fish in nine months.

“I think you’re going to see more and more and more of that coming out,” she said.

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