Breaking muddy night crawlers into thirds, Bruce Kania is so anxious to get two visitors to catch fish in his pond that he’s baiting their hooks.
“A little pressure here, we have to average one fish every two minutes or you screw up my average,” he said like a coach urging his team on in a critical playoff game.
During all the banter, he deftly baited hooks and unhooked perch and crappie as the anglers reeled them in, tossing the fish into a 5 gallon bucket.
“We’re like a machine here, we’re like a factory,” he cheered on. “Our job is to harvest nutrients. That kind of sounds grandiose, but that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to harvest nutrients before they get down to the Gulf of Mexico and create a dead zone.”
Kania is the owner of Floating Island International, based northeast of Shepherd. On his property, Kania has a 6-acre pond in which he demonstrated the capability of his products.
The large plastic squares that the islands are made of — resembling huge, hollow honeycombs – provide the structure for plants to grow in by sucking sustenance out of the nutrient-saturated water. The water is nutrient rich because of runoff from agricultural and domestic fertilizers as well as from cattle manure.
In a typical pond, such nutrient loading can produce huge blooms of algae that feed on the minerals. But at Kania’s pond that’s not the case. Instead, the nutrients are gobbled up by biofilms growing on his islands and the plants interweaved into the islands. The biofilms are eaten by aquatic bugs that are then eaten by fish.
But the biofilms must be nurtured to thrive.
“The two variables we control are circulation and surface area,” Kania said.
By providing constant circulation to his pond through aeration, the biofilms flourish, keeping away the algae mats that would otherwise typically form. In the process, the water quality is improved as the biofilms chow down on phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizer runoff. Water clarity has also gotten better, going from 14 inches to 19 feet in the pond, Kania said.
“I think this represents a new message for folks: that we can take water that’s dead and make it high quality,” Kania said. “And you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can do it wherever.”
Kania pointed to 64-acre Lake Elmo in Billings as an example of a place he’d like to show off the capabilities of the floating islands. He claims they would vastly improve the fishing at the shallow, canal-fed impoundment.
There are costs involved, though. In addition to the initial expense of the islands, there would also be the cost of powering the islands’ pumping systems for circulation. At his 6-acre pond, Kania said he spends about $110 a month to pump about 10,400 gallons of water a minute.
“One or two of them would fix Lake Elmo,” he said.
The idea to create the islands came to Kania while he was working as a muskie fishing guide in northern Wisconsin. The Chippewa Flowage, a 15,300-acre manmade impoundment, is dotted with about 200 islands and floating bogs.
The waterway has the distinction of producing the world record muskie, a 69-pound, 11-ounce fish caught in 1949.
“When you dive into the water you can see why it’s so productive,” Kania said. “There are roots everywhere.”
Those roots harbor the biofilms that feed the insects that the fish eat. Kania uses his islands to mimic what’s naturally occurring in places like the Chippewa Flowage.
Kania said he’s pushing to get some of his islands into New York City’s East River to help clean it up and further prove the viability of his system. Islands have already been installed elsewhere, including New Zealand.
He said he’s proven the islands work on a small scale at his pond. Last year he said anglers caught 2,600 fish from his impoundment. This year he hopes to top 5,000.
“I guess what’s exciting here is that water quality is essential to fish growth and fish harvest, which is fun,” he said. “So which would you rather harvest, 280 pounds of algae or 100 pounds of fish?”