GRAYLING, Mich. — An environmental group is challenging the issuance of an expanded discharge permit for a large aquaculture business in northern Michigan.
The farm’s hatchery, located in Grayling, is in Crawford County; Harrietta Hills Trout Farm was granted the expanded permit on July 1.
According to the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club, the permit allows the trout farm to discharge pollutants into the East Branch of the Au Sable River, just upstream from where it joins the world-renowned "Holy Waters" section of the main branch of the river.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the river is rated as one of the most productive trout streams in the United States. The Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) expanded permit allows the trout farm to boost production at its Grayling hatchery from about 20,000 pounds of rainbow trout a year to 300,000 pounds.
The Sierra Club filed a petition on Aug. 11 to contest the permit before a DEQ administrative law judge.
"The idea of placing an industrial fish farm within the Au Sable River is just mind-boggling," said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter.
"Fish waste, food, disease and parasites are inevitably associated with fish farms of this type. To allow the discharge of these substances into the Au Sable River goes against everything Michiganders expect from our state officials.
"There is evidence indicating that there have already been escapees from this facility, even before it has ramped up to industrial capacity," her statement alleged. She added the permit does not require monitoring or control of the release of disease, parasites, most pollutants or even live fish into the river.
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said the trout farm wants to expand from a hatchery into a full production facility. The permit has been "controversial for the past several months, but we’re pretty proud of the results," he said.
"The idea of allowing aquaculture on any part of the Au Sable River is controversial, but we also recognize that aquaculture is something that’s seeking to grow in the state of Michigan. It’s one of the toughest discharge permits we’ve issued in recent memory."
Phosphorus discharges into trout streams can build up along with other kinds of effluent and cause a syndrome in trout called Whirling disease. With Whirling disease certain species of juvenile fish literally whirl around in the water and develop other symptoms.
A severe infection can kill them. Wurfel described the disease as a "big threat" to trout. Still, he stated he’s pretty confident the DEQ’s decision regarding the permit will "withstand any public scrutiny."
Harrietta Hills Trout Farm owner Dan Vogler said Whirling disease is a non-issue. He explained the Grayling fish hatchery is a new venture for his business; however, the hatchery itself has been around since 1914. Over the years it’s been run by various entities. Over the past several decades the hatchery has been more of a tourist attraction than production facility.
"We were approached to see if we had an interest in running it," Vogler said. "The Sierra Club put it that we weren’t making enough money, but we said from the very beginning that we had to make a profit on the venture.
"We were a little surprised to see the Sierra Club jump into it at the last minute as part of a Johnny-come-lately. Whirling disease is really not an issue in this case. They don’t have credible science behind them."
Vogler said there is little aquaculture in the state of Michigan, and that "you cannot have local food if you don’t have local food production."