Tag: Fish Farm

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.


Small Group Wins Big Victory on the AuSable River, Urges Nov. 6 Vote for Water

The Anglers of the Au Sable in late September reached a successful legal settlement with the Harrietta Hills Fish Farm in Grayling that by January 1 will permanently close the commercial fish farm. Harrietta Hills will vacate the premises, and the Anglers will assume the lease with Crawford County and take over the facility. Plans are to return the hatchery to its former status as a tourist attraction, and to upgrade its educational and recreational offerings.

This victory was a long time in coming, but it was worth it. Six years ago, we learned that an industrial scale aquaculture facility was planned for the old, obsolete state fish hatchery in Grayling. It was located on the East Branch of the Au Sable River, just upstream from the fabled “Holy Waters,” the premier trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. Production was slated to increase from under 20,000 pounds of fish per year to over 300,000 pounds per year. This would increase pollution in the form of phosphorous and suspended solids (feces and uneaten fish food), according to our expert studies. As a result, algae growth would increase, dissolved oxygen would decrease, and the aquatic insects on which trout feed would be diminished. There would be an increased risk of fish diseases, including whirling disease, which is deadly to trout. The fishery and related tourism would decline.

The Snyder Administration bent over backwards to facilitate this absurd project. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources waived statutory and deed restrictions limiting use of the facility to historical and recreational purposes. (A court later ruled this action was illegal, but that the Anglers did not have standing to raise the claim.) The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issued a pollution discharge permit based on faulty data (or by ignoring data altogether), which was woefully insufficient to protect the river. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pushed hard to permit this project, notwithstanding the illegalities and environmental threats involved. The Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Aquaculture Association, the MSU Extension Service, and the Sea Grant Institute at the University of Michigan all supported the project in spite of the facts.

This was the biggest threat to water quality and the fishery of the Au Sable River in the 30-plus years of the Anglers’ existence. So the group mobilized its membership, formed a team, and got to work. Environmental attorneys were retained. Expert witnesses were hired in environmental engineering, aquaculture, fish biology, and resource economics. A volunteer team was formed involving specialists in communications, finance, fundraising, and coalition building. The word got out, the membership got involved, and large donors began to emerge.

The Anglers used a two-pronged legal attack. First, the group appealed the pollution discharge permit was internally within the MDEQ. An 18-day administrative hearing was held. As expected, the initial ruling by the MDEQ Director was in favor of the fish farm, so the Anglers filed an appeal. In addition, the Anglers filed an independent lawsuit in Crawford County Circuit Court, alleging breach of the statutory and deed restrictions, and also claiming violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. After some initial skirmishes, the case was submitted to facilitative mediation where it was settled.

Two lessons can be taken from this near-debacle. First, it is possible for the conservation and environmental communities to take on industry and big government and win. But it takes time, determination, and money. Good will, strongly held convictions, and perseverance are necessary but not sufficient. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but that leads to the second lesson.

Politics matters. So, elections matter. As long as voters fail to make concerns about our environment a priority, we are doomed to continue making the same mistakes. The governmental officials charged with protecting our environment and natural resources should have blocked this entire project, but they did not. Corporate interests and the almighty dollar prevailed until organized citizens rose up to enforce the law when the state would not.

In the end, that is why efforts to educate the public about our resources, especially water, are so important. It is not immediately apparent to the public that a fish farm will pollute a river, or that an oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac threatens the Great Lakes, or that our groundwater is in danger of overuse, exploitation, and pollution. A broad, deep, and sustained process is needed to raise the consciousness of people to the point that water becomes an issue of such importance that they will consider it in casting their vote.

This work is being done by groups like the Anglers, FLOW, and others to educate and empower the public to uphold their public trust rights and the law. On November 6, it’s time for Michigan’s educated electorate to choose leadership that will protect our water, and with it, our heritage and future prosperity. 


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 about FLOW’s aquaculture efforts here.


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.


Fish Farms or Holy Waters?


Almost everyone agrees: the old state fish hatchery on the Au Sable River in Grayling is the worst place you could pick for a commercial fish farming operation. It is on the East Branch, just upstream from the famed Holy Waters, the heart of Michigan’s blue ribbon trout fishing industry, and the premier wild trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. But due to a combination of factors, including politics, greed and governmental lawlessness at the state and local level, that’s exactly what is happening.

The state deeded the hatchery to Crawford County subject to a statute passed by the legislature and a deed which limited use of the property to public recreation and museum purposes, and which required the county to preserve the public’s right of ingress and egress for fishing. But in 2012, the Director of the Department of Natural Resources signed away the state’s right to enforce those restrictions. Crawford County leased the hatchery to the fish farm for 20 years for $1. The river is fenced off. In October of this year, a judge ruled that operation of the fish farm “clearly violates the statute and deed,” but the DNR has been sluggish at best in rectifying the situation.

The fish farm will pollute the river, so it needs a Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit, which was willingly granted by the Department of Environmental Quality with the urging of the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bureau. It was justified on the basis that the operator would profit, 2-3 jobs would be created, and the hatchery would stay open as a tourist attraction in the summer (which could have been accomplished without degrading the river with a fish farm). Damage to the multi-million dollar sport fishing industry in the area, and the jobs it supports, was not even considered.

Photo credit: John Russell

At permit limits, the fish farm will discharge about 160,000 pounds of solids (fish feces and uneaten feed) and over 1,600 pounds of phosphorous into the river every year. It currently has no water treatment system, and none is planned, other than a low-tech “system” of  “quiescent zones” which might be implemented at an unknown time in the future. The pollution will cause algae to grow, and the solids will create sludge beds. These will harm aquatic insects which the fish eat, reduce dissolved oxygen which they need to breathe, and increase the risk of Whirling Disease, which can decimate a fishery if it reaches epidemic levels. Escaping fish could breed and dilute the wild trout gene pool. Technology exists to remedy the problem, but the operator says it is too expensive.

All of this violated the property transfer statute, the deed, state and federal clean water laws, the non-degradation rule, and regulatory standards for phosphorous and dissolved oxygen in cold-water streams. And it violates the public trust right of the people to have access to the river for fishing and other recreational pursuits. It appropriates public trust waters for private gain.

The case is in litigation. Attorney, experts and other costs have exceeded $400,000 so far, with a long way to go.

The state’s approval of this operation shows either a lack of understanding of its public trust responsibilities – or a willful disregard of them. It will once again be up to citizens to do what their state government is supposed to do – assure there is no impairment of public waters for private benefit.

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Tom Baird is a board member of FLOW and the past President of the Anglers of the Au Sable.