Fish fams in Wisconsin (copy)

An Assembly bill would change how fish farming, known as aquaculture, is regulated by the state, moving it into the same regulatory category as traditional farms.

PATRICK DURKIN — For the State Journal

A Republican proposal to change how the state’s fish farms are regulated is being heralded as a critical change by the industry, but environmental groups say it opens the door to pollution.

The Assembly bill would change how fish farming, known as aquaculture, is regulated by the state, moving it into the same regulatory category as traditional farms. The change would affect how fish farms can discharge waste water into a wetland or a natural body of water. It also exempts aquaculture activities from current requirements for discharging waste into certain kinds of wetlands. 

Environmental groups and the Army Corps of Engineers say the proposal could widen the gap between what the state and federal government requires, creating confusion and potentially allow widespread pollution of waterways.

The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma, and Sen. Thomas Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said that Wisconsin’s aquaculture industry is increasingly at a disadvantage from other states that have less burdensome regulations.

“Aquaculture is an industry that’s in decline here in Wisconsin. We’re losing fish farmers and it’s due to some of the uncertainty that we have in some of the permitting process,” said Tiffany, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

Some fish farmers are waiting up to 15 years for the DNR to process the permits they need, he said. The Senate passed its version of the bill out of committee last month.

Fish farmers say they need a change in how the state permits them, or they'll be forced to close. 

“Something has to change if we want this state to move forward for the future fish farmers,” said Tim Winkel, a fish farm owner, during testimony at the Assembly Committee on the Environment and Forestry on Tuesday.

Winkel runs Silver Moon Springs Trout Farm in Elton in Langlade County and says he has been trying to work with the state DNR since 2009 to get the right permits. He tries to get one and finds out he needs another, pays for permits he thinks he needs, and never hears back, he said.

“I’m permitted out,” he said. “All the time I’m writing money out for permits and I don’t know where it’s going to end.”

Winkel’s farm sits on a trout stream which comes from natural springs in Northern Wisconsin. He said he tests the water he puts back into the stream four times a year and to make sure it meets discharge standards.

As the kinds of food that fish are fed by the industry has become cleaner, so has their discharge, he said. His farm wouldn’t have survived for more than 60 years if he wasn’t a prudent steward of water resources, Winkel said.

“We are very responsible for our waters and we have to be, or our fish aren’t swimming,” he said. “Believe you me, if my fish are happy, the fish on the river are happy."

Despite efforts the fish farm industry is making, it does not make sense for the state to align aquaculture with agriculture, testified Erin O’Brien, wetlands policy director for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, which opposes the bill.

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Agriculture regulations in the state and discharge exemptions are tied to the federal government’s Clean Water Act law, she said.

George Meyer, executive director for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation also testified against the bill, but said he shares both business and environmental concerns.

“Our goal is to see a bill that can both balance the water quality and habitat protections along with removing barriers for the industry,” he said.

The discrepancy the bill would create between state and federal mandates is also a problem, he said.

“(If) this legislation will create conflicts between federal and state regulations and require more permits rather than less, I don’t think in any situation that’s a good situation.”

At the hearing, a Legislative Council representative affirmed that the bill would create more inconsistencies between state and federal rules, particularly regarding wetlands issues.

On Tuesday the committee also voted 10-3 to approve another bill changing how navigable waterways, artificial bodies of water and wetlands are regulated.

That Assembly bill would ban the DNR from requiring a person to collect sediment samples when they apply for a permit. It also removes maintenance provisions in certain shoreline areas from permit requirements and limits the types of areas that the DNR can designate as areas of significant scientific value.

Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.