By Tom Baird
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read here about FLOW’s efforts to challenge aquaculture proposals in the public waters of the Great Lakes and its tributaries.