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Michigan anglers battle fish farmer in trout heaven

Hatchery challenged on plan for huge expansion

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    In their lawsuit, the anglers allege that the Grayling Fish Hatchery is violating deed restrictions, calling for the land’s use to be limited to ‘recreational or museum purposes.’

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    The Au Sable River was the first river in the state of Michigan to hold rainbow trout, transplanted there from California’s McCloud River in 1876.

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    Dan Vogler is planning to increase production at the Grayling Fish Hatchery, facility the Au Sable River’s East Branch that raises rainbow trout.

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    Tom Baird, Anglers of the Au Sable president Lansing, Michigan attorney.

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    Dan Vogler is planning to increase production at the Grayling Fish Hatchery, facility on the Au Sable River’s East Branch that raises rainbow trout.

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GRAYLING, Mich. — The Au Sable River spreads out across a wide swath of the eastern Lower Peninsula above Michigan’s thumb, looking like a frayed fiber-optic cable in search of a conduit. With its spindly branches, the river collects water from a nearly 2,000-square-mile quadrant on its trajectory to Lake Huron.

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Dan Vogler is planning to increase production at the Grayling Fish Hatchery, facility the Au Sable River’s East Branch that raises rainbow trout.

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The Au Sable is a vein that runs cold and clear, and rich with life. It is Michigan’s most iconic trout stream, home to brook trout, browns, and rainbows. It is generally regarded as some of the best brown trout water in the Great Lakes region, and it was the first waterway in the state to hold rainbow trout, transplanted here from northern California’s McCloud River in 1876.

For many trout fishermen in Michigan and Ohio, the Au Sable is the east-of-the-Rockies version of the sacred waters Norman McLean wrote about in his book A River Runs Through It when he proclaimed that “all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace.”

This is also the place where environmental interests and those of enterprise have stalemated in a bitter, bare-knuckles legal scrum. And there are plenty of trout on both sides of the battle.

Out on the edge of town, the state’s largest commercial fish farmer is seeking to dramatically increase production at the Grayling Fish Hatchery, a rainbow trout rearing facility he now operates on the Au Sable’s East Branch, just 1,200 feet away from the river’s main stream. His proposed discharge permit from the state would allow him to jump from sending 20,000 pounds of fish a year to market to significantly more — 300,000 pounds by some estimates — as long as his operation stays within the permit’s set limits on how much waste the hatchery can send into the waterway, which is an officially designated Blue Ribbon Trout Stream.

A group of fly fishermen is leading the fight to stop that expansion of the aquaculture operation, citing the threat such an undertaking would present in terms of polluting the waterway and potentially ruining this treasured fishery.

The litigious sparring is taking place in two arenas. Ten days ago, the Anglers of the Au Sable organization filed suit in Crawford County Circuit Court against Dan Vogler, who paid one dollar in 2014 to receive a 20-year lease to operate the century-old fish hatchery, and then successfully sought the permit to expand the production there. Mr. Vogler also operates the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm about 20 miles west of Cadillac, and is the president of the Michigan Aquaculture Association.

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Since the stream flows through the hatchery’s concrete raceways, the anglers’ group contends a huge spike in the production there will introduce destructive quantities of phosphorus into the river, along with excessive amounts of fish feces and other nutrients, as well as uneaten fish food and escaped hatchery stock. They have asked the court to issue a permanent injunction barring the operation of a commercial fish farm on the Au Sable.

In their recent suit, the anglers allege that such a spike in the hatchery production will be in violation of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act by harming the resource that is the river, and they also allege that the hatchery is violating deed restrictions that were put in place years ago when the property was transferred to the county, calling for its use to be limited to “recreational or museum purposes.”

The Anglers of the Au Sable, along with the Sierra Club, are also challenging the permit Mr. Vogler received from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which requires him to capture most of the fish waste before it enters the stream. The limits of the permit would still allow for about 1,600 pounds of phosphorus and about 160,000 pounds of fish feces to enter the river each year, the anglers contend.

The two sides argued the matter in front of administrative law judge Dan Pulter in 2016, and his recommendation made in February was that the permit stand, with a caveat that Mr. Vogler add features to test the amount of pollutants flowing into the stream from the hatchery, and that settlement basins be put in place to remove fish feces from the water. The warring parties are awaiting a final decision on that permit challenge from Michigan DEQ director Heidi Grether, but no timetable for her ruling has been announced.

Grayling effort failed 

The Grayling Fish Hatchery was opened just after the start of the 20th century, with the intention of helping sustain the native grayling population in the river. That effort failed as the river’s ecosystem was forever altered by the extensive timbering operations along its course. The hatchery then raised native brook and German brown trout to stock in the waterway.

The state bought the facility in 1926 for $10,000 and it was operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as a place where tourists could feed the trout until it closed in the late 1960s. The hatchery was idle until 1983 when ownership was transferred to Crawford County, and under its auspices the site was used as a summer tourist attraction until 2011, but that effort struggled financially.

Seeking an alternate approach to operating the site, the county retained ownership of the property while entering into the long-term lease arrangement with Mr. Vogler, with the stipulation that he maintain the tourism aspect of the historic facility. Mr. Vogler said it was also agreed that his Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC would utilize the site for commercial trout production to make the operation financially viable.

“The bottom line is the anglers group wants this to go back to being a small-volume seasonal tourist attraction like the county was running, but that’s not economically viable, and that’s why the county got out of it,” said Mr. Vogler, who keeps the facility open five days a week in the summers for the tourist trade. “There’s a zillion and a half arguments outside of that, but that is essentially their position. They’ve made it very clear they don’t want me here.”

A small portion of the trout he raises in the Grayling facility’s eight raceways are caught by tourists, paying by the inch, but most are destined for the table. Some are also sold for pond stocking.

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“We’re trying to produce fresh, healthy, local food,” Mr. Vogler said. “The environmental community is big on that, so the simple question is, how do you have local food if you can’t grow it.”

Mr. Vogler says the issue has been debated long enough, during the arduous permit review. He said the phosphorus aspect, the fish waste capture and other environmental issues are adequately addressed.

“I sat through 18 days of testimony related to the permit, and heard a lot of pseudo-science and ‘the sky is falling’ ideas, but there is precious little foundation in their argument,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the Anglers of the Au Sable disagree. Attorney Tom Baird, president of the group, said that since more than eight million gallons of river water flow through the facility each day, a vast increase in production at the Grayling hatchery will dump into the waterway untold amounts of phosphorus, nitrogen, ammonia, suspended solids, feces, and uneaten food that are a recipe for disaster, including a “perfect medium” for the often fatal whirling disease, caused by a microscopic parasite.

“We have a situation where this operator gets free water and a virtually free facility and he takes all of the profits, while the taxpayers and the public take all of the risk,” Mr. Baird said.

The Michigan Sierra Club is part of the consortium of conservation groups opposed to the production expansion at the facility. In an interview with the Circle of Blue resources crisis group, Sierra Club forest ecologist Marvin Roberson was succinct about his objections.

“If you convened a panel of experts and asked them the dumbest place to put a commercial fish hatchery, they would say this section of the Au Sable River,” Mr. Roberson said.

Backlash swirls

There is plenty of muscle on both sides of this river spat. The Anglers of the Au Sable are close to 900 strong and have been joined in this legal battle by the Sierra Club.

Last month, Michigan congressman Dan Kildee, a Flint Democrat, introduced a bill that in effect would ban commercial fish farming flow-through systems in the Great Lakes region on federally designated “Wild and Scenic Rivers” such as the Au Sable.

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Tom Baird, Anglers of the Au Sable president Lansing, Michigan attorney.

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Mr. Vogler has the backing of the aquaculture association he heads, plus the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“He claims he’s the little guy, but that’s really disingenuous,” Mr. Baird said. “There is a lot of political oomph behind this, or he would never have gotten this far.”

Josh Greenberg is the 37-year-old owner of the Gates Au Sable Lodge, which sits on the nine-mile stretch of the Au Sable east of Grayling known as the “Holy Waters” since this is a fly-fishing only, catch-and-release fishery year-round. It is flush with wild trout, and its ideal habitat hosts some of the most prolific hatches of Caddis, Hendricksons, Olives, and Tricos.

“Everyone agrees that this permit will lower the quality of the water, in so much as it will increase the phosphorus, so the river will be impacted,” said the Ohio native, who first fished the Au Sable as a youth, with his father. “When we saw this river, we knew there wasn’t another like it, so why risk destroying that? Thousands of people have a huge emotional attachment to this trout stream — that is why so many people from places like Toledo drive past other rivers just to get here.”

Brad White of Perrysburg is the retired owner of a software company and an Au Sable disciple. He fished around northern Michigan, but once he found the Au Sable, his map only leads one place.

“It is just an absolutely beautiful trout stream, and I eventually became smitten with it,” he said. “There’s a ton of fish in there, and we just don’t have many wild trout streams left with those kinds of bug hatches. And they want to have a huge capacity, flow-through fish hatchery, with all of that waste rushing back into this river? It is a mystery how we ever got to this point.”

Greg Noviski, 45, is a Toledo native and serves on the board of directors for the Anglers of the Au Sable. The design sculptor for General Motors has been fishing the waterway for more than 15 years, and bought a cabin near the Au Sable so he and his wife could spend most weekends on the stream.

“It is just pristine, beautiful and also humbling. There are plenty of fish, but the river doesn’t give them up easily,” he said. “There is a lot of wild trout reproduction on that river, but all of that phosphorus and waste from the hatchery could destroy the bug life and damage the spawning sites. Plus, that river is a larger part of the community than the community even realizes.”

The Crawford County Board of Commissioners entered into an agreement with Mr. Vogler and his Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC in 2012, giving him the OK to raise trout at the Grayling facility. Paul Compo, the Crawford County administrator/​controller, said the county is comfortable that the permit Mr. Vogler has received will protect the river.

“The county board has no interest in seeing any damage done to the Au Sable, and Harrietta Hills doesn’t either, so we believe it will be fine,” Mr. Compo said. “I’m not a scientist, but I certainly understand both sides, and I don’t see this as a good and evil thing. I think the anglers have the best interests of the stream at heart, and Mr. Vogler is conscientious about running a safe operation.”

Ed Eisch, the fish production program manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said his office has worked closely with the DEQ and that he is confident that the limits the permit has set forth will protect the Au Sable.

“Now whether or not the owner will be able to meet those requirements, we’ll have to see,” he said. “We want citizens from all corners to be interested in protecting our aquatic resources. It is a bonus for us to have them be passionate about that, but it’s up to the director of the DEQ to make a determination on the permit.”

Mr. Vogler said the science is on his side and he expects to ultimately prevail.

“We are very proud of our environmental record at our farm in Harrietta. We are not destroyers of the environment, and we’re not the devil we have been made out to be,” he said. “They are using every excuse they find to take me to court and force us to spend attorney fees. It is legalized extortion — that’s what it is.”

Mr. Greenberg disagrees, saying any production expansion at the Grayling hatchery has the clear potential to produce a sacrilegious fouling of the “Holy Waters” of the Au Sable. “All of this work has been done for decades to clean up this river, and this would be a giant move going backwards,” he said.

Mr. Baird said if the anglers were to lose this case and see the Au Sable subjected to the damage he expects a full-scale fish production facility could inflict, the future would be ominous for other Michigan trout streams, as well.

“Imagine the precedent this would set,” he said. “If they can do this on the Au Sable, they can do it anywhere.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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