Tag: Grayling

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.


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.

# # #

 

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