Tag: Angler

With Michigan’s Trout Opener on Tap, An Angler Reflects on Coalition-Building to Protect Coldwater

The Crown Jewel

Saturday is the opening day of the trout fishing season, a high holy holiday to those of us who love to cast a fly in Michigan’s coldwater rivers and streams. I’ll be knee deep in the Holy Waters section of the Au Sable River by 10 a.m. There’s nothing else like it.

These thoughts cause me to look back and ask, “What did it take to reclaim this river, the Crown jewel of Michigan’s trout streams, and what does it take to protect what we have achieved?” The answer is a coalition of conservation and environmental interests, setting aside their competing concerns, and working over the years to achieve what we have now: the number one wild trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi.

And that’s my point: by working closely together, the “hook-and-bullet crowd” and the “tree huggers” can’t be beat on issues that affect our natural resources and environment, especially when it comes to water. If we are divided, we are weaker because of it.

Trout depend on good habitat, a healthy population of aquatic insects, and cold, clear water. The Au Sable depends on abundant wetlands and groundwater to feed the stream with the most stable, cold, and clean water flows in the world. It is unique.

The Grayling Fish Farm

But the river seems to have had a bullseye on it for years. We have dealt with fishing regulations, multiple and conflicting recreational uses, oil and gas drilling (including fracking), water withdrawals, mineral leases, water pollution (including PFAS), land use issues, and a recent invasion of agricultural interests in the form of a flow-through aquaculture facility in Grayling, just upstream from the Holy Waters.

The Grayling Fish Farm fight is a case in point. Crawford County, which owns the old Grayling fish hatchery, leased it to a commercial fish farming operation in return for a promise that the operator would keep the hatchery open during the summer as a tourist attraction. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources illegally signed off on the deal. The Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE) granted a pollution discharge permit. The state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was a big booster, and facilitated the project.

The result: a commercial fish farm which would pollute the river with phosphorus from fish feces and uneaten feed, spread disease to the wild fish, and possibly dilute their gene stock. Supporters included the Farm Bureau, MSU Extension Service, Michigan Sea Grant, former Gov. Snyder’s office, and several powerful legislators.

The Threat Is Now Gone. How?

The Anglers of the Au Sable, along with the Sierra Club, contested the permit and went to court. Experts in the areas of water quality, environmental engineering, fisheries, stream ecology, and recreational economics reviewed the permit. In the legislature, conservation and environmental groups united in their opposition to the expansion of aquaculture into the Great Lakes. These included FLOW, Anglers of the Au Sable, Michigan League of Conversation Voters, Trout Unlimited, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen’s Association, and others.

We won. The fish farm is gone. We derailed attempts to expand and deregulate aquaculture in Michigan. By operating in this fashion, we had the data and information we needed, and access to both Democrats and Republicans who could make a difference. When conservation and environmental groups are on the same page, we can’t be beat.


Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at tbairdo@aol.com.

Read here about FLOW’s efforts to challenge aquaculture proposals in the public waters of the Great Lakes and its tributaries.


DEQ Decision Endangers Au Sable River, Violates Public Trust

Great Lakes advocates say that commercial net-pen fish farming, pictured above, does not belong in Michigan’s public waters.

By Tom Baird, FLOW Board Member


Once again, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has sacrificed our precious water resources for the profits of a privately owned business and the promise of a couple of low wage jobs. As a result, the waters of the Au Sable River will be seriously polluted, and the risk of harm will be borne by the taxpayers of the state.

On May 1, DEQ Director Heidi Grether issued a final decision upholding a pollution discharge permit for the Grayling Fish Farm on the East Branch of the Au Sable River. In doing so, she has endangered one of the premier fresh water resources in Michigan and violated the state’s duty to hold that resource in the public trust. The Anglers of the Au Sable, which had contested the permit, filed an appeal of Grether’s decision on May 9 in Crawford County Circuit Court.

The Au Sable River is Michigan’s finest blue ribbon trout stream. It is the number one fly fishing destination east of the Mississippi. As such, it is a huge contributor to the region’s tourist economy and to property values in the river valley.

The fish farm, owned by Harrietta Hills of Harrietta, Michigan, is operated in an old fish hatchery built at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and abandoned by the state decades ago. Its last use was as a tourist attraction. It was not designed to be a fish farm, and has no wastewater treatment facility. It is a “flow through” system, meaning that water is diverted from the river, flows through the fish (picking up phosphorus, fish waste and uneaten fish food), and then flows back into the river just upstream from the famed Holy Waters of Au Sable. Essentially, the river is used as a sewer for the fish farm. Portions of the river are fenced off, preventing floating or fishing on that stretch.

The effluent allowed by the permit will cause excessive algae growth, reductions in aquatic invertebrates (the “fish flies” on which the trout depend), reductions in dissolved oxygen, and an increased risk of dreaded Whirling Disease, which is lethal to young trout. The minor modifications of the permit required by Grether will do almost nothing to ameliorate the damages. She did not provide additional limits on discharges; the DEQ will not provide ongoing monitoring; and Harrietta Hills will not be required to post a performance bond.

The pollution will accumulate over time to the serious detriment of the river and the fishery. The fishing will decline. Anglers have choices. Poor fishing means less fishing trips to the area. A resource economist from Michigan State estimates that economic losses to the regional economy due to reduced fishing will be $1.77 to $4.6 million per year. Additional losses will flow from other reductions in recreational uses, and due to reduced property values. In the event of a catastrophe, the taxpayer will likely foot the bill.

The DEQ was created to be “business friendly,” and it has not disappointed: water withdrawals for fracking which dried up the North Branch of the Manistee River, algae blooms in Lake Erie, the Nestles bottled water fiasco, Flint – the list goes on and on.

There will always be those who see ways to make a buck off resources owned by the people. And reasonable use of our resources is fine. But the DEQ has totally abdicated its role as the protector of the public trust in our waters. So it is left to small nonprofit organizations and citizens groups to do what is needed. Consider that at election time, and when you think about which groups to support. It really is up to us.