Assault on the Au Sable

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Photos by Bret Wayson

Photos by Bret Wayson

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.

3The 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.

4In 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.

9The 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 Tucker

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32 thoughts on “Assault on the Au Sable

  1. The larger issue is that this operation along with proposed net pen aquaculture facilities in the great lakes roll back Watershed and fishery management in Michigan by 50 years. When we managed our lakes and streams as commercial fisheries and allowed dumping raw waste in our waters they were a mess. Only after we began managing our waters as recreational fisheries and stopped using our lakes and streams as sewers did they become the world class resources we enjoy today. In my opinion.

    • Its sad when anyone personal economic gain can be allowed to destroy a resource. We need to nip this one in the bud…

      • There seems to be a constant string of really bad business schemes proposed that would harm the Au Sable. Now they are tossing in the Great Lakes. The really sad part is we are usually talking about projects that at best would provide few jobs and little money. Hang in there and watch your back cast.

  2. You said it right Greg, this would roll back environmental progression that has been critical in allowing our natural resources to become “Pure Michigan.” It’s a slap in the face and kick in the balls, with this paradigm of privatizing natural resources in the name of economic gains. It’s a lie. Corruption is widespread. Any moron who thinks this will provide economic benefits without infringing upon businesses already benefiting from the current state of the river is either a dumbass or a crook. (Thank you YC) And how about the huge majority of people who utilize the watershed for recreation because of the state it is in now. This aquaculture facility could and would likely change that substantially, maybe even destroy it. The negative effects of nutrient loading have been the central focus for significant water quality legislation in the past 50 years. The Clean Water Act. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. These were pivotal legislations that have allowed Michigan to become what we know it as today. A place with virtually never ending, nearly pristine shoreline and water resources. Yes there is industrial pollution near the bigger cities. The industrial pollution that was the cause of increased water quality regulation. Somehow though, the upper management of the State of Michigan seems to forget what industrial pollution is, where it occurred, and the negative effects of it, or they would have never tried to make people drink it. That or they don’t care because they operate for profit. It make no sense whatsoever for our public officials to look at a proposal for environmental degradation, which is against the laws of the very society they manage, and are unable to recognize that these types of pollution have been outlawed for a reason, or to recognize the illegality and immorality and still deicide it is okay. Shame, shame, shame…

  3. I was a water pollution engineer for over 3 decades in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, from the beginning of NPDES Permits in the mid 70’s. The Bay was so polluted due to agricultural runoff, sewage spills, etc. from hundreds of miles of river feeders, Baltimore City and other municipalities along the watershed it created miles of dead zones in the Bay where there was no dissolved oxygen. Oysters, SAVs and other benthic biota died off to the point that the largest estuary was unrecoverable. Then I came to Florida to work an advanced onsite systems and I found similar runoff issues that were ongoing in the Chesapeake. The point is that the politicians really don’t care, unless it gets in their pocket, like lower real estate values, ruined fisheries etc. It doesn’t matter what party you spin from, this is universal. Here’s the real clincher, once the watershed is dead, the amount of money it takes to make a recovery is beyond what the taxpayers are willing to spend. While the politicians worry about “global warming” we have a worse water pollution problem ongoing right under their noses, who cares? There’s not many of us for sure…

  4. The Anglers of the Au Sable are in court today in Lansing. The case will likely cost the group $100,000 or more before the appeal is resolved. Just think what those dollars could have done in stream improvement projects.

  5. Given the current state of affairs in Flint, wouldn’t an emergency injunction against any DEQ (and others) approval be in order? Clearly this is a Federal issue because the hatchery’s waste will indeed be a point source and adversely affect interstate waters — as the Great Lakes clearly are.

    • Gary. Here near Mio we have the Hoskins plant pollution. The plant is gone but the waste is still there. It has came up in Perry Creek, about a half mile away. Goes into the AuSable, the Quality Waters and then into Lake Huron. Any day we expect the PBB pit to leach our way and come up into the river. We live with it.

  6. Thanks Jason,

    Great article and getting the message out about a true jewel. It seems a shame that conservative minded folks need to rally to stop another project that threatens this famed water shed. Our efforts should be directed toward improving and not defending this river. The AuSable River is the Home of Trout Unlimited, it was where I caught my first trout on a fly. For those that have fished theses waters – please let your state representative know your position.

  7. The court case opened in Lansing today. The Anglers of the Au Sable believe they will spend $1000,000 to appeal the decision that allows the hatchery to operate in a manner that threatens the health and very life of the river. Just think how that much money could have been used in projects to maintain and improve the river.

  8. I’m from northern MI however I live in PA. I’m for economic growth but not at the cost of the environment. There is technology that can be applied. It’s out there. I’m having a hard time understanding how the permits where issued. When typically over regulation is the issue. I appreciate anyone that is fighting to do the right thing which is proper waste water treatment.

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  10. Note that the jobs created are a grand total of two people.

    Why would people pay to see a trout zoo when one of the best rivers in the world is at their doorstep.

    Sad indeed.

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  12. Let’s go back to the good old days. City of Grayling dumped raw sewage into the AuSable. The State Hatchery was raising thousands of Trout in the Creek running thru Grayling. Fishing for Trout in the Mio portion of the AuSable was a whole lot better than now. Two weeks or more of the Hex hatch in June- July and blanket hatches for a week or more are down by 75 per cent. Where did they go? Let’s have the Poop back! Does anyone hear of the pollution the Hoskins Plant is doing? Chemicals coming up and flowing in Perry Creek, AuSable River into Lake Huron. Will I get any comments on this? Probably not.

    • Re: the hoskins plant. I have heard of nothing lately, but did attend a DNR briefing a few years ago. There, the presenter seemed to indicate that so far, nothing can be/has been done, and yes, it is a serious issue.I’ve read some articles that indicated the state is out of money to clean up sites. Better tax those senior citizens more!

    • I have lived in Mio all my 81 years. Always fly fished the different hatches as they came along. Read my previous post. We need to know why the Hexigena hatch is only about 75 percent of what it was back in the fifties? Why something can’t be done about pollution from the now closed Hoskins Plant that is coming up in Perry Creek and ending up in Lake Huron? We had pretty good fishing around Mio when Grayling was dumping raw sewage into the AuSable, and the hatchery was pooping in our water. Maybe the fish need that nutrition.

  13. Rhetoric is rhetoric. Facts are facts. Why can’t the facts lead men to logical conclusions based on research and past precidents that will benefit both economy and ecology? How can we evolve as stewards of the land if we consistently ignore the value inherent in truth; the absence of which could be our undoing? Real knowledge is power, real action is crucial. Fish on from California…

  14. This is another sign of the times where the almighty dollar trumps all. Flint water supply is in crisis to save a few dollars and is going to end up costing tens of millions to remedy. Here in New York we have the Esopus Creek that was world renown for its trout fishery and has been turned into a tubing destination. Every year crews go along the creek and remove any fallen trees in the creek that may be dangerous to tubers resulting in a staggering loss of trout habitat.

    Local politics has allowed two tubing companies to destroy a once world class fishery and in the process caused the loss of dozens of mom & pop businesses from bait shops to bed and breakfast residences along the creek.

    Anywhere else in the state, if you even drive a vehicle through a designated trout stream, no matter how small, you are subject to huge fines. But here on the Esopus they destroy trout habitat every year and the state raves about how great it is for the area.

    The local towns have tried several times to combat the situation but were defeated each time by political pressure.

    Even New York City’s DEP is trashing this once great fishery. Around 2010 the NYCDEP started work on structural deficiencies to the Gilboa Dam at Schoharie Reservoir. Here is a quote from the website of ‘Dam Concerned Citizens, Inc.’

    “A temporary diversion dam was placed just north of the intake chamber of the Shandaken Tunnel and water was shunted into the Tunnel “killing two birds with one stone”; supplying water to the Ashokan Reservoir and allowing remaining work on the Reservoir and Dam to be done more easily by lowering water levels of the Schoharie Creek…”
    On the surface it sounds quite innocuous, but truth is that millions of tons of silt was sent through the tunnel into the Esopus Creek with that water for several years, completely decimating the mayfly population. For years the water looked like chocolate milk…we got our local Congressman Maurice Hinchey involved and even he couldnt affect ANY change. We had structured meetings with the DEP showing them the amount of outrage local residences felt about the damage they were doing and they promised to stop but it never did.
    Our local trout unlimited group monitored the situation and published their findings in the local paper saying that the Esopus was ‘dead’ of aquatic insect life’.

    Since then I have gone to the Esopus to ‘check it out’ and there is basically only put & take trout now.

    Ever hear the expression, “Orange is the new black”? Well a future one is going to be, “Carp is the new trout”!

    Our politicians are so fiscally inept and have plunged so many states and towns into such unmanageable debt that they are willing to sell their souls to get elected again. Unless people are willing to get together and form ‘voting blocks’ of significant size to get these inept bozos attention, absolutely nothing is going to change for the better.

    The hay day of the ‘grass roots movement’ is over. Voting blocks are the new movement now…if you want change; get on board.

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