Final decision and order for Grayling Fish Hatchery expansion approved by DEQ Director
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
After nearly four years of contested case hearings and appeals, C. Heidi Grether, the director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), announced her decision last week to grant a permit to Harrietta Hills Grayling Trout Farm to expand its hatchery on the East Branch of the AuSable River.
Nevertheless, those who oppose having a commercial fish farm on an internationally known trout fishing stream vow to continue to appeal the permit and mount other legal action.
The MDEQ Water Resources Division issued a permit for the Grayling Fish Hatchery in 2014. The Sierra Club and Anglers of the AuSable filed petitions for a contested case hearing on the permit approval. The contested case was heard in early 2016, with subsequent procedural actions and remands addressed during the intervening time.
“After a careful, thorough and comprehensive review of the case, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality adopted, with modification, the previous ruling by the state administrative law judge to allow Harrietta Hills Grayling Trout Farm to expand its hatchery,” said Grether, who signed the final decision and order on the permit on Tuesday, May 1. “These modifications provide additional environmental protections for the Au Sable River.”
MDEQ permit modifications to further protect the AuSable River include requiring:
• Testing for the presence of whirling disease within the hatchery;
• Removal of all fish within the hatchery if whirling disease is detected;
• Modification of the hatchery’s Best Management Practices Plan to include testing of the sediment for the presence of whirling disease downstream from the hatchery;
• Installation of quiescent zones in each of the hatchery’s raceways within six months;
• Additional testing for ammonia, dissolved oxygen and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand.
“This was an extremely complex and important case, so it was very important to conduct a detailed review of the evidence,” Grether said.
In May 2012, Dan Vogler, the co-owner of the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC, and the Crawford County Board of Commissioners entered into a contract for the operation of the Grayling Fish Hatchery to keep the 104-year-old community attraction open to local residents and tourists. Before entering into the contract, the Grayling Recreation Authority informed county officials that it no longer wanted to oversee fish hatchery operations because it was a financial loss.
Daniel L. Pulter released his proposed recommendations on Feb. 1, 2017 for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the Grayling Fish Hatchery that was issued to the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC.
The NPDES permit is required since Harrietta Hills plans to increase trout production from 20,000 pounds per year up to 100,000 pounds per year.
Harrietta Hills hopes to gradually increase production to levels where 300,000 pounds of trout are produced per year, but all of the trout will not be in the hatchery’s raceways at one time since they will be removed and harvested once they reach 1.25 pounds.
Grether added provisions to the permit for water testing, testing for whirling disease, and sediment testing downstream from the hatchery.
Whirling disease is a parasitic condition affecting fish, primarily rainbow trout.
“The water-borne parasite (Myxobolus cerebralis) may not directly kill trout, but fish heavily infested can become deformed or exhibit the erratic tail-chasing behavior from which the disease gets its name,” according to www.thefishingwire.com.
Vogler rears rainbow trout at the hatchery. Brown trout and brook trout are native to the AuSable River, although rainbow trout have been placed in the river by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from state-operated fish hatcheries.
Vogler said he is pleased regarding the decision on the permit.
“The reality is the decision by the DEQ director is a long time coming and we see it as a major vindication for what we have proposed to do at the fish hatchery,” he said. “It said what we have said all along. That is we can and operate in a sustainable manner.”
Joe Hemming, president, Anglers of the AuSable Board of Directors, said the conservation group was disappointed with the approval of the permit, but agreed with the stricter measures added to test for fish diseases and impaired water quality.
“We are pleased that the DEQ recognizes that the fish farm poses a substantial threat given the increased risk of whirling disease in the river and as such is requiring the fish farm to monitor for that disease which has been disastrous to trout fisheries in other rivers,” Hemming said.
The Anglers plan to continue to appeal the permit.
“We are unhappy that the DEQ continues to ignore the fact that this fish farm will cause harm to the river, including the holy waters,” Hemming said. “The AuSable River is the economic backbone of Crawford County. To give a permit to allow this fish farm to operate and endanger the fishing economy, the tourism economy and the vacation home economy of the community is simply a bad decision.”
Still, the Anglers of the AuSable have filed a lawsuit in Crawford County Circuit Court to stop the facility on other grounds, including the state’s refusal to uphold deed restrictions on the facility and violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act.
The Grayling Fish Hatchery was built in 1914. The DNR operated the fish hatchery from 1925 to 1964. In 1995, the DNR sold the hatchery to Crawford County pursuant to 1994 Public Act 321. The statute said the property shall be used for public recreation and museum purposes.
The Anglers based their claim on public access and use, arguing that the property is only open for access between May and September. They also claim that fences placed upstream and downstream from the hatchery raceways limit anglers’ access to fish on the East Branch of the AuSable River.
If the hatchery property is not used for the intended purposes, the deed restrictions say the ownership of the property must revert to the state.
Vogler said the fencing on the property was erected before he entered into an agreement with the county.
The claims will be addressed by Chief 46th Trial Court Judge George J. Mertz later this year.
“We will continue to pursue those claims and expect to win,” Hemming said.
Further complicating matters, the permit that was just issued to expand fish hatchery operations is up for renewal this year.
Vogler said he submitted his application for renewal of the permit in April.
“We applied for renewal and I would think the permit would be renewed now that the initial one has been approved,” Vogler said.