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Proposed trout farm near “holy waters” of Au Sable River would be Michigan’s biggest

If you’re a fly fisherman, there are few rivers this side of the Rocky Mountains that compare with Michigan’s Au Sable River. There’s a particular nine-mile stretch east of Grayling known as the Holy Waters.

The water is clean, cold, easy to wade through, and packed with more than 100 pounds of wild trout per acre.

Tom Baird is with the Anglers of the Au Sable. It’s a fishing club with 800 members from all over the world. He says the clean water provides the perfect habitat for the bugs that trout love to eat from March through October.

“That’s why people come here to fly fish. It’s this diverse aquatic group of insects that are the flies that fly fishermen imitate. This river is famous for it and it’s because of the water,” Baird said. 

Baird’s group is concerned about a new commercial fish farm that’s proposed just a few miles upstream from the famed Holy Waters.

Built in 1914, the Grayling Fish Hatchery has been around for a century. For the last 30 years, it’s been a tourist attraction where you can take your kids in the summer to learn about Grayling’s trout history, see lots of fish in concrete runways, and even, as a sign out front says, “catch your dinner.”

Roughly 4,000 visitors come each summer. But that’s not enough to cover the cost of operating the hatchery. 

So Crawford County decided to lease the historic hatchery to a commercial trout farm for free, if the farm agreed to keep the tourist attraction open. The current lease ends this year but a long-term one is being negotiated.

“It gets the community what they want, which is the opportunity to maintain this as a tourist attraction. And it gets us what we need, which is additional production space,” Dan Vogler said. Vogler is co-owner and general manager of Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC, the small business that’s leasing the hatchery.

Vogler already operates a trout farm near Cadillac that produces around 100,000 pounds of fish a year.

He wants to expand the Grayling hatchery to produce 300,000 pounds of trout a year. That’s more than 15 times the amount produced now. If it comes to fruition, it would be, by far, the largest commercial fish farm in the state.

“We import 91% of the seafood that we eat in the United States. It’s over a $12 billion trade deficit today and so we need domestic production of seafood products,” Vogler said.

With all the fresh water Michigan has, Vogler believes Michigan could produce much more fresh, locally produced fish, adding value to the state’s economy and residents’ diets.

But many in the community worry about the farm’s potential impact on such a pristine fishery.

Josh Greenburg owns Gates Lodge, a fly-fishing camp, guide service, restaurant, and fly shop on Au Sable’s Holy Waters. He says groups of people book trips to the lodge to fly fish for weeks at a time, year after year.

“It’s not okay when you have something this popular and delicate to say ‘Oh, it's safe, trust us,'” Greenburg said.

Greenburg and others worry about all the fish poop (and phosphorus) the farm would funnel into the Au Sable River, the potential for the farmed fish to spread disease (like whirling disease) into the wild trout population, and particularly how and how often the state proposes monitoring the water quality.

“Every bit of it is going to be of concern to anyone that loves fishing the wild trout on the river,” Greenburg said, “That’s many more people than will likely profit from a fish hatchery.”

We’re not opposed to the hatchery in principal because it’s really a landmark in Grayling,” Tom Baird of the Anglers of the Au Sable said. “We just want to make sure it’s done right so as not to create a threat to the Au Sable river.”

Baird’s group wants to see stricter sampling than the proposed weekly self-monitoring schedule.

Vogler says he understands the concerns, but doesn’t think adding more sampling will do anything to improve the state's ability to monitor the proposed fish farm’s effluent.

"We're not duffers. We've been in the trout business for 17 years. We manage our facilities well. It is not in our best interest to be known as the people that destroyed the Au Sable River. So we will take care of the river," Vogler said.

“Monitoring is very expensive. It’s a lot of lab work and I pay the bill. So as you add more monitoring to my operation, you’re impeding my ability to make a living here,” Vogler said, “The reality is that I’m not a non-profit organization. So if I’m going to be here and run this thing and give the community the benefit of the summer tourist aspect, I have to be profitable. So adding more monitoring burdens without being able to demonstrate how that helps – I’ve got a little problem with that.”

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has drafted a permit that’ll allow Vogler’s operation. If approved, the farm could discharge up to 8.64 million gallons of water into the Au Sable River each day.

The DEQ admits the water quality would decrease, but the draft permit says the decrease is necessary to support “important social and economic development in the area.”

The department will take public comments on the draft permit through Monday.

The DEQ has provided the following documents on the draft permit:

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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