Anglers group, fish farm reach deal on disputed north Michigan hatchery

John Flesher
Associated Press
This June 9, 2018 photo shows the Grayling Fish Hatchery on the Au Sable River in Grayling, Mich. Under an agreement announced Sept. 27, 2018, Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC will shut down its commercial aquaculture operation at the hatchery and a sport fishing group called Anglers of the Au Sable will run it as a tourist attraction.

Traverse City – A fish farming company conceded defeat Thursday in its quest to raise rainbow trout in a hatchery on a revered northern Michigan stream, signing a deal with the sport fishing group that waged a four-year battle against the operation.

Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC began leasing the Grayling Fish Hatchery on the Au Sable River from Crawford County in 2012 with plans to produce 300,000 pounds of rainbow trout a year, up from about 70,000 pounds at present. The company obtained a state permit but was tied up in court by Anglers of the Au Sable, which contended the aquaculture project would pollute the river and harm native trout.

Under a mediated settlement, the Anglers group will buy out the lease for $160,000 and operate the hatchery as a tourism and educational attraction. Visitors will be able to see and feed trout but no commercial fish farming will take place there. Harrietta Hills will shut down its operation by the end of the year.

“It’s a really exciting new chapter in the history and life of the Grayling hatchery,” said Joe Hemming, president of the Anglers group, who described the proposed fish farm as “one of the most serious threats that the river has ever seen.”

Dan Vogler, owner of Harrietta Hills, said he was disappointed but had concluded that continuing the hatchery operation wasn’t worth the cost of fighting two opposition lawsuits.

“It’s unfortunate that it came down to this but in the end we had to make a business decision,” said Vogler, who runs a separate aquaculture facility in Wexford County.

The hatchery is located on the east branch of the Au Sable, about 1,200 feet upstream from the river’s main branch. Water flows directly into the hatchery and through eight north-to-south raceways before exiting.

The state originally operated the hatchery but shut it down in the 1960s. The county bought it in 1995 and eventually leased it for 20 years to Harrietta Hills for $1 – a rate that Vogler said was justified by the property taxes he would pay and the tourist traffic the hatchery would generate.

His company releases fingerling rainbow trout into the raceways and harvests them when they reach a weight of 1.25 pounds, selling them to restaurants and a grocery distributor.

Opponents contended that expanding the operation would send huge volumes of feces and uneaten fish food into the river, potentially exposing wild trout to illness and boosting phosphorus levels.

A permit issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality – and challenged by the Anglers – required steps to prevent river contamination, including water testing and installation of areas in the raceways where fish waste would be settled and vacuumed out.

Vogler said he was confident his project had not harmed the environment and wouldn’t have if expanded. Its demise sends a discouraging signal to the aquaculture industry, which is needed to feed a hungry world, he said.

“If every time someone tries to operate a facility they get taken to court and beaten into submission, how do we ever move forward?” he said.

Hemming said his organization doesn’t oppose all fish farming but believes it should be done only where filtration systems and other technology can protect water quality. The Au Sable River is the wrong place, he said.

“We are river warriors and we will do what’s needed to protect this river when it is threatened,” he said.