The Anglers of the Au Sable in late September reached a successful legal settlement with the Harrietta Hills Fish Farm in Grayling that by January 1 will permanently close the commercial fish farm. Harrietta Hills will vacate the premises, and the Anglers will assume the lease with Crawford County and take over the facility. Plans are to return the hatchery to its former status as a tourist attraction, and to upgrade its educational and recreational offerings.
This victory was a long time in coming, but it was worth it. Six years ago, we learned that an industrial scale aquaculture facility was planned for the old, obsolete state fish hatchery in Grayling. It was located on the East Branch of the Au Sable River, just upstream from the fabled “Holy Waters,” the premier trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. Production was slated to increase from under 20,000 pounds of fish per year to over 300,000 pounds per year. This would increase pollution in the form of phosphorous and suspended solids (feces and uneaten fish food), according to our expert studies. As a result, algae growth would increase, dissolved oxygen would decrease, and the aquatic insects on which trout feed would be diminished. There would be an increased risk of fish diseases, including whirling disease, which is deadly to trout. The fishery and related tourism would decline.
The Snyder Administration bent over backwards to facilitate this absurd project. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources waived statutory and deed restrictions limiting use of the facility to historical and recreational purposes. (A court later ruled this action was illegal, but that the Anglers did not have standing to raise the claim.) The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) issued a pollution discharge permit based on faulty data (or by ignoring data altogether), which was woefully insufficient to protect the river. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pushed hard to permit this project, notwithstanding the illegalities and environmental threats involved. The Michigan Farm Bureau, the Michigan Aquaculture Association, the MSU Extension Service, and the Sea Grant Institute at the University of Michigan all supported the project in spite of the facts.
This was the biggest threat to water quality and the fishery of the Au Sable River in the 30-plus years of the Anglers’ existence. So the group mobilized its membership, formed a team, and got to work. Environmental attorneys were retained. Expert witnesses were hired in environmental engineering, aquaculture, fish biology, and resource economics. A volunteer team was formed involving specialists in communications, finance, fundraising, and coalition building. The word got out, the membership got involved, and large donors began to emerge.
The Anglers used a two-pronged legal attack. First, the group appealed the pollution discharge permit was internally within the MDEQ. An 18-day administrative hearing was held. As expected, the initial ruling by the MDEQ Director was in favor of the fish farm, so the Anglers filed an appeal. In addition, the Anglers filed an independent lawsuit in Crawford County Circuit Court, alleging breach of the statutory and deed restrictions, and also claiming violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. After some initial skirmishes, the case was submitted to facilitative mediation where it was settled.
Two lessons can be taken from this near-debacle. First, it is possible for the conservation and environmental communities to take on industry and big government and win. But it takes time, determination, and money. Good will, strongly held convictions, and perseverance are necessary but not sufficient. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but that leads to the second lesson.
Politics matters. So, elections matter. As long as voters fail to make concerns about our environment a priority, we are doomed to continue making the same mistakes. The governmental officials charged with protecting our environment and natural resources should have blocked this entire project, but they did not. Corporate interests and the almighty dollar prevailed until organized citizens rose up to enforce the law when the state would not.
In the end, that is why efforts to educate the public about our resources, especially water, are so important. It is not immediately apparent to the public that a fish farm will pollute a river, or that an oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac threatens the Great Lakes, or that our groundwater is in danger of overuse, exploitation, and pollution. A broad, deep, and sustained process is needed to raise the consciousness of people to the point that water becomes an issue of such importance that they will consider it in casting their vote.
This work is being done by groups like the Anglers, FLOW, and others to educate and empower the public to uphold their public trust rights and the law. On November 6, it’s time for Michigan’s educated electorate to choose leadership that will protect our water, and with it, our heritage and future prosperity.
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 email@example.com.
Read about FLOW’s aquaculture efforts here.