Meeker’s Aquaculture, Georgian Bay Assoc. lock horns over Lake Wolsey water quality

EVANSVILLE – The Georgian Bay Association (GBA) is placing the blame for blue-green algae outbreaks in Lake Wolsey firmly upon the open-cage Meeker’s Aquaculture operation located on the lake’s shore, an assertion that owner Mike Meeker dismisses as “absolute nonsense.”

In a press release, the GBA implores the Ontario government “to close the open cage fish farm in Lake Wolsey, part of the North Channel of Lake Huron, because it poses a public health hazard and pollutes the waters in this significant natural environment.”

“Enough is enough is our point. There’s no reason to keep it open. It’s not a lot of jobs, really. They don’t employ lots of people,” says Rupert Kindersley, executive director of the GBA.

Counter to the assertion that his farm “has caused” blue-green algal blooms, Mr. Meeker says blooms on the lake are significantly less common than when he began operations at the site in the mid-1980s.

“It used to be we’d have multiple blooms in a month. I have those in my daily records sheets from (the 1980s),” says Mr. Meeker. “Water clarity as measured with a Secchi disk (a white disc that is an international standard for measuring water clarity) has tripled and quadrupled; it’s gotten significantly clearer than it was 15 years ago.”

He adds that the blooms do not start where the farm is located and often blow into that part of the lake, as was the case in an oft-circulated photo that the GBA has used which shows algae around his cages. Mr. Meeker says he has been subjected to years of deeply critical comments from the association and is feeling increasingly frustrated, as are some of his fellow aquaculturists, at their repeated statements.

“In no way can they back it up. Saying that the farm causes these blooms? What a bunch of shit. They’re not held accountable for saying this stuff and they should be,” he says.

Blue-green algae naturally exist in waterbodies around the region but when conditions are right, they can multiply rapidly and form large blooms. These blooms are sources of cyanobacteria, a toxic substance that can impact the digestive system, nervous system and liver in humans and can kill pets.

Phosphorus is a key element required for algae to grow and if present in abundant levels can contribute to major algal blooms. However, government reports on the lake have shown that its phosphorus content is moderately low, especially in the spring.

The press release cites blue-green algal outbreaks in Lake Wolsey in 1999, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016 as direct evidence that the fish farm has been causing the blooms as its production has increased. A document from Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) confirms the outbreaks from 2010 to 2016, adding an outbreak in 2017 and omitting any outbreaks from 2006.

Unique lake dynamics 

Lake Wolsey may seem an unlikely spot to host a fish farm. It is separated from the waters of the North Channel by a causeway that allows Highway 540 to cut across the waterway with a small bridge in the middle that opens above water that’s four metres deep. The depth sinks as low as 24 metres (or 79 feet) but the mean depth for the whole body is only 11.8 metres.

That small opening between the two bodies of water greatly limits the amount of exchange the lake has with Lake Huron. In the warmer months, a process called stratification occurs in which the different water temperatures in the lake settle to various levels. 

Historically, the lake has always been subject to oxygen-deprived or anoxic conditions in the lowest parts of the water. This is a pattern that has existed since the 1800s and was amplified with the construction of the causeway in the early 1900s.

The problem with having anoxic conditions in a lakebed is that it can cause phosphorus trapped in the sediment to release and disperse throughout the water column. Mr. Meeker agrees that the lake experiences low oxygen conditions in the summer when the lake stratifies, but stresses that per the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks’ own guidelines, that is a normal part of lake behaviour.

“For 11 months of the year or more, the lake is fully mixed. That’s if you measure the temperatures and oxygen levels. During the summer it stratifies,” he says, adding that sediment core samples show similar oxygen content since the 1700s. “I’ve measured the levels on inland lakes for eight years on my own time. I measured the stratification pattern in lakes Kagawong, Mindemoya and Manitou. They’re all roughly the same as Wolsey, some worse.”

Some of Manitoulin’s inland lakes have also been susceptible to blue-green algal blooms in recent years. PHSD data shows Tobacco Lake, Mindemoya Lake, Lake Kagawong, Big Lake and Bass Lake also experiencing blooms since 2010, none of which have aquaculture operations within their waters. Mr. Kindersley attributes this to the many septic systems located near the lakes of which, statistically speaking, as many as 70 percent may not be functioning properly.

Recent study questions harm

Even if conducted within smaller enclosed systems such as Manitoulin’s inland lakes, the impacts of fish farming might not be quite as pronounced as some detractors will argue. 

A decade-long study at the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario placed a fish farm in an enclosed water body with fish density as much as 100 times higher than in the North Channel of Lake Huron. Although each waterbody is part of its own unique ecosystem and the results cannot be fully compared with other systems, the test lake did not experience algal blooms and resident fish species remained healthy, with some experiencing increases in populations as a result of the activity compared to control lakes.

Mr. Kindersley says the real threat is the phosphorus that builds up over time, meaning the impacts of the nutrient in the water may only be fully realized in the future.

“Ten years ago they said if the operation continues at the scale it is, phosphorus will be a serious problem. They were absolutely dead wrong about that because the phosphorus levels in Lake Wolsey last year—that’s from my monitoring and their monitoring—are lower than they’ve ever been; in fact, they’re dangerously low,” Mr. Meeker says.

Climate change’s role

One thing is certain: aquatic ecosystems are changing. This newspaper reported in 2016 that Lake Huron’s temperature is set to rise 0.85°C per decade, much higher than double the world average for lake temperatures. Higher temperatures contribute to algal blooms by creating more favourable growing conditions, while also putting numerous fish species at risk.

The causes of algae in this region’s lakes are numerous and highly varied. Further complicating the overall issue is a federal government report on phosphorus levels in the Great Lakes that show Lake Huron is below targeted phosphorus amounts and decreasing as of 2013, meaning aquaculture operations may be integral to keeping the values in a healthy range within the Great Lakes.

“Lake Wolsey is following that same pattern; its phosphorus levels are dangerously low which is exactly the opposite of what they said they were concerned about. GBA doesn’t have a leg to stand on. They’ve got to have proof that (aquaculture) is having a negative impact,” Mr. Meeker says.

Deepening knowledge

The aquaculture industry often gets a bad rap, a position Mr. Meeker says is unwarranted.

“I can’t describe how pissed off I am that I’m dealing with this stuff. I’ve dealt with the scientific perspective and taken the high road, doing monitoring I have to do as part of my licence and doing a significant amount of extra monitoring with other agencies—universities, the DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)—yet these people still don’t go away,” he says. 

“I will challenge (GBA) to have an open debate anywhere, I don’t care where,” says Mr. Meeker. “I’ll fight ‘til my last breath because it’s the right thing to do.”

For his part, Mr. Meeker has undertaken a number of studies at his farm with government scientists and says he has always been in compliance with all regulations in his 30 years of operation.

Mr. Meeker says he uses high-quality feed that’s designed to minimize wasted nutrients, and fish feeding is calculated to minimize food waste. Feed costs are among the highest costs of operating a fish farm so he says it makes both ecological and financial sense to use feed sparingly. 

He uses cameras to ensure food waste is kept to a minimum and he dives underwater nearly every week to inspect the condition of the farm below the surface.

“My guys check temperature and dissolved oxygen around the cages every day during open season and we’ve never seen a problem,” he says. “We follow best management practices that we as an industry came up with for net pen aquaculture.”

Canary in the coal mine

Above all, Mr. Meeker points to the species of wild fish present around the cage site as an indicator of his management practices.

“If there was a problem around my cages, wild fish wouldn’t be there. They can go anywhere in the lake they want,” he says. “Everything that’s supposed to be there is there.”

GBA is currently supporting a study on a deep-water aquaculture site to determine its impacts on the surrounding waters. Mr. Kindersley says the organization will not be looking at the impacts in Lake Wolsey because it’s “obviously a problem.”

Mr. Meeker says he will continue to operate his fish farm exceeding industry best practices and maintain his data collection to better enhance the body of knowledge concerning aquaculture in the Great Lakes.