By Jason Tucker
Commercial fish farming threatens one of the world’s best dry fly streams. Is it too late to save it?
Michigan is a dream destination for any fly fisher, with a volume and variety of water, species and opportunities that draw anglers from around the world. The crown jewel of this freshwater mecca is the Au Sable River.
The Au Sable is a world class trout stream, and the dry fly fishing has to be seen to be believed, with hatches lasting from March through September, beyond that if you count blue winged olives and winter stones. The Hendrickson, Sulphur, Brown Drake, Isonychia, Hexagenia, and Ephoron hatches in their turn blanket the water with spinners, bringing out large trout to feed on the bounty, and legions of anglers in pursuit of the fish.
The Au Sable is a big system with several hundred miles of stream in the watershed. The North and South Branches are sizable trout streams in their own right. The whole system attracts anglers, campers, paddlers, tubers, birdwatchers and nature lovers of all stripes. It’s a prime example of “Pure Michigan”.
Which is why it’s puzzling that the State and Crawford County are green lighting what would be the State’s largest commercial fish farm near the headwaters, with virtually no water treatment requirements or oversight.
Let’s back up a bit for some context. In 1914, private interests built a hatchery on the East Branch of the Au Sable near its confluence with the main stream in Grayling, Michigan. It was taken over in the ‘20’s by the DNR to produce trout for stocking throughout the region, and was in production until the mid-1960s. It was transferred to Crawford County in 1983 and run as a tourist attraction until the present. This is an important point that we’ll come back to.
In 2011, the county decided it could no longer bear the expense of the facility, which was operating at a loss to the county, and they proposed closing it down. Dan Vogler, president of the nearby Harrietta Hills Trout Farm, heard about this, and in cooperation with the county, has been operating the hatchery since 2012 as a tourist attraction. It has been producing under 20,000 pounds of trout annually which avoids the need for a permit. All that is about to change.
Harrietta Hills Trout Farm has been issued a permit by the DEQ, and they plan to ramp up production to 300,000 pounds of trout annually, making it the largest aquaculture operation in the state.
In addition, they’ve been given a 20 year lease on the facility for the grand sum of $1. They intend to operate the hatchery with little modification, which will flush all of their raw waste untreated into the river until they reach 100,000 pounds production, at which point they plan to establish “quiescent zones” in which solids will settle to the bottom and be scooped out and disposed of. And that’s it. No wastewater treatment. No filtration. No real cost to HHTF, and no real oversight by the county or state– they will be self-monitoring their discharge. If that weren’t enough, the DEQ acknowledges that water quality will suffer but “that lowering of water quality is necessary to support the identified important social and economic development in the area.” All of this just upstream from the famed Holy Waters stretch of the river. Angler’s and conservation groups asked that a performance bond be required of Harrietta Hills Trout Farm in case of damage to the river, but this request was denied by the county.
The danger to the Au Sable is real. The 100 year old hatchery has not been in production since the 1960’s. In the hatchery’s subsequent incarnation as a tourist attraction, trout were trucked in for the tourist season, roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day, and removed at the end of the season. If production were ramped up without stringent wastewater treatment and monitoring, the effects could be devastating– up to 4,000 pounds of phosphorous released annually in addition to tons of solid, untreated sewage and food waste from the fish themselves. Remember it is an open system with no real water treatment system. This stretch of the Au Sable is managed as a wild trout stream, and hasn’t been stocked in decades, so escaping fish, which have already been observed in the system, are a real concern. Also of concern is the real possibility of disease spreading from farmed fish to the wild population.
For Crawford County and the City of Grayling, the rationale is understandable on the surface. Rural Northern Michigan relies on tourism for its livelihood, and the hatchery draws about 4,000 visitors a year. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s something in a county of less than 14,000 residents. Every tourist dollar brought in counts.
The temptation by the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm is obvious. They’re being offered a facility virtually for free in exchange for the irritation of allowing in some tourists a few months out of the year, they’re not being required to make any expensive upgrades in the form of water treatment, they’re allowed to flush their waste untreated into the river, and all this without being required to post a performance bond in case things go awry. As a business proposition it’s a no-brainer.
But here is what is really frightening. Harrietta Hills Trout Farm, the Michigan Aquaculture Association, the DEQ, MDARD, and the Department of Agriculture see this as a gateway operation to opening up Michigan waters to large-scale aquaculture including open net pens in the Great Lakes.
If this is their opening act, what will the rest look like? What prevents other entities from opening similar operations on the North and South branches, further downstream, or in other river systems? What other industry in the world believes that 1914 technology is still good enough?
In the not too distant past, residents sued the state of Michigan over phosphorous pollution from its Platte River fish hatchery that was fouling Platte Lake downstream with algae blooms. The state was forced to upgrade its wastewater treatment, and today it emits almost nothing. Since then they have spent 11 million dollars upgrading the state hatchery in Oden, including state-of-the-art wastewater treatment. The question arises “Why the double standard?” Why is nothing required of private industry even as the state is spending large sums to clean up its wastewater? In what other circumstance would anyone, business or private residence, be allowed to flush thousands of pounds of their raw, untreated sewage into a pristine trout stream?
In its own filing, Harrietta Hills says that “We have reviewed a number of alternatives to discharge under NPDES, but none of them are feasible for practical, efficiency and cost effectiveness reasons.”
If that’s true, the answer shouldn’t be to require nothing. The answer should be that they can’t farm fish there. Because either way the price will be paid and the costs will be real– either Harrietta Hills Trout Farm pays to operate a clean and safe operation, or the river and the community will pay in pollution, disease, dead fish, lost angler and tourist dollars, and a defiled river that has to be cleaned up.
And that is not Pure Michigan.
Conservation groups including Anglers of the Au Sable, Michigan Trout Unlimited, and The Sierra Club have filed suit to contest the permit. Please support the legal battle to oppose fish farming in our trout streams you can support Anglers of the Au Sable or Michigan Trout Unlimited legal fund at:
There is a concerted effort to introduce large-scale fish farming into trout streams and open waters of the Great Lakes. Let your local state representatives know you oppose this destructive industry.
Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising
Jason TuckerGink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!