TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A state judge has sided with a northern Michigan fish growing company that wants to dramatically increase production of rainbow trout on the Au Sable River, turning aside objections that the expansion would pollute the prized waterway.
Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter endorsed with slight modifications a 2014 permit issued by the Department of Environmental Quality that would allow Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC eventually to raise its output to 300,000 pounds of trout annually at its Grayling facility — up from 20,000 pounds a few years ago.
Company owner Dan Vogler says the expansion is needed to keep the business profitable and would draw more tourists, boosting the local economy. A group called Anglers of the Au Sable and the Sierra Club challenged the permit, saying the operation would discharge feces and uneaten fish food to the river, degrading water quality and potentially exposing wild trout to a deadly parasitic disease.
Both sides will have a chance to respond to Pulter’s opinion before the state agency Director Heidi Grether issues a final order. If she upholds the permit, the Anglers group may sue in the Michigan Court of Appeals, said Tom Baird, its president.
“We are still shocked that state officials would willingly allow one of the nation’s top trout streams to be subject to pollution from any source,” Baird said.
Vogler said the judge’s opinion, released nearly a year after Pulter convened a hearing on the matter, showed the company’s plan had been closely scrutinized and found to be safe for the river and its native fish.
“We are meeting all the current requirements of the permit, we have no violations and there are no problems,” he said.
Harrietta Hills, which operates a separate trout operation in Wexford County, began leasing a former state hatchery in Grayling in 2012. Water flows directly into the facility from the east branch of the Au Sable and moves through eight north-to-south fish raceways before flowing out. The company releases fingerling rainbow trout into the raceways and harvests them when they reach a weight of 1.25 pounds.
A permit under the federal Clean Water Act is needed to raise more than 20,000 pounds of fish in the former hatchery. Vogler said his company has been ramping up production since the permit was issued and last year it reached 68,000 pounds.
In his ruling, Pulter said there was insufficient evidence to deny the permit because dead fish, fish parts or fish parasites would be discharged into the river, as opponents contend. But he ordered the company to conduct additional water quality monitoring and install settlement basins at the downstream end of each raceway where fish waste would be collected and removed.